Behind the scenes moves to calm Parliament down
By Richard Harman (author)
Behind the scenes, there are now moves to try and calm Parliament down after a week bitter clashes between the National Opposition and Speaker, Trevor Mallard.
Things have got so bad that National's Shadow Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, has even threatened to move a vote of confidence in the Speaker; not that the vote would ever have a hope of being passed.
But the bigger issue is what Parliament has looked like while MPs have continually contested Speakers’ rulings, bellowed interjections and one, Paula Bennett has walked out on one day and been thrown out the next.
The danger for MPs is that the public will simply turn off Parliament.
A former ACT MP, Deborah Coddington appeared to sustain this argument when she tweeted: “When I was an MP I thought QT (Question Time) was more important than eating. 13 years on I can't believe anyone cares. That's not real parliamentary life, just melodrama. Like the difference between bucking broncs and shepherds' hacks.”
Yesterday was dominated by two separate calls from the Speaker for one National MP, David Bennett, to withdraw and apologise for insults he was apparently directing at the Speaker.
Bennett appeared to reluctant to do this.
Mallard then threatened to “name” him; a move that seemed draconian.
Usually, an MP who is disorderly, which was what Bennett is alleged to have been, is asked to leave the Chamber for the duration of Question Time.
David McGee’s “Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand” – regarded as the definitive authority on Parliament --- says that “whenever a member’s conduct is so grossly disorderly that the Speaker considers that simply ordering his or her withdrawal would not be adequate, the Speaker can “name” the member and thereby call on the House to pass judgement on the member’s conduct.”
The House then votes whether to suspend the MP.
“When a member is suspended, a day’s pay is deducted from his or her pay for each day of the suspension,” says McGee.
“If a member who is suspended refuses to withdraw voluntarily from the House at once, the Serjeant-at-Arms will be called on by the Speaker to enforce the House’s direction.
“A member who refuses to obey an order from the Speaker to leave the Chamber is automatically suspended from the service of the House for the remainder of the calendar year.”
In May 2003, ACT Leader, Richard Prebble, was named by deputy Speaker Anne Hartley after she ordered him from the House after he had insulted her and he refused to go.
The House voted in favour of the naming, and he was suspended.
Brownlee believes that threatening to name Bennett was extreme.
“A Speaker has to be on very strong grounds to name someone,” he told POLITIK.
Brownlee’s bigger concern is that Mallard’s practice of docking questions off parties that interject and giving them to the other side makes Question Time unworkable.
“There is always tension between the Speaker and the Opposition,” he said.
“That is just something that sits in the background.
“What I think has happened here is that the way in which Trevor has very arbitrarily decided to take supplementary questions off, and at a later point add them on.”
Brownlee said an example of how this caused things to break down came on Tuesday when the Opposition had lost all its supplementary questions by Question 10.
“So we didn’t ask it because there is no point in asking a question if you’ve got no supplementary questions.
You are just giving the Government a free hit.”
But yesterday Mallard deducted no questions off anybody.
“That was not a policy decision,” he told POLITIK.
“The main questions about the levy has been questions being heard.
“I think it is fair to say that the House during the asking of questions was subdued on both sides.”
Asked what the future of his docking of questions might be, Mallard said he would not be making any more comment about it.
But it is a big bone of contention with the Opposition who in their more political moments believe the Speaker is acting to protect Government Ministers as much as he is trying to bring order to the House.
It might be expected to be on the table in any negotiations between the Government and Opposition which seem to be being planned for sometime over the next two weeks while the House is in recess.
“I would expect that within the next two or three weeks there will be a discussion and we will get some resolution about how we move forward from here,” said Brownlee.
"In the end, it is not in Parliament's interests, and it is not in our interest, to be offside with the Speaker.
“We are almost half the Parliament; we take our role quite seriously, and when you get arbitrarily tipped up on what appears to be a pretty thin willingness to tolerate a bit of robust behaviour it’s quite worrying.”
Mallard said he didn’t have any specific plans to meet with Brownlee but he had similar views to his hope that the matter could be resolved over the recess.
Mallard was inclined to put some of this week’s noise down to the fact that it was the last week of what had been a four-week session.
Parliament does not meet again until June 12; time for everyone to calm down and presumably for Mallard and Brownlee to try and work out a way forward.