The bitter exchanges between Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and Trevor Mallard in his capacity as Parliament’s Speaker has exposed a yawning gap in the fabric of New Zealand’s democracy.
Quite simply, the current procedure employed to select one of Parliament’s number to fill the role of Speaker is archaic, unfair and unacceptable in falling well short of meeting acceptable constitutional standards.
In short, there is a drastic need for reform.
The New Zealand Parliament needs to take a close look at how some of its overseas counterparts choose their Speaker and —perhaps of even more importance —the steps taken to bolster the independence of the holder of that office.
The findings of any such review might shock this country’s MPs. It would expose the constitutional complacency which pervades the appointment of the presiding officer in Parliament’s debating chamber.
The crux of the matter is the neutrality of the Speaker. More to the point, the level of confidence that Opposition MPs have in the neutrality of the Speaker is a major factor in determining their mood and behaviour in the House.
The role of the Speaker is often likened to that of referees in a sporting context. There is a vast difference, however, between referees on a sports-field and someone umpiring the proceedings of Parliament.
The former are assumed to be neutral until proven otherwise. As far as the Opposition is concerned, the latter are assumed to be biased and partisan until proven otherwise.
As Mallard so accurately remarked just moments after securing the job in November last year, the office of Speaker has tremendous authority. To make the role effective, however, respect is required — and that can only be earned.
Mallard expressed hope “that I can earn it”. Seven months on from that plea, it can be safely assumed that respect for him is less than zero in National’s neck of the woods.
The major Opposition party’s frustration with Mallard has been building all year.
National’s prime gripe is that Mallard’s definition of what counts as disorderly behaviour under Parliament’s debating rules is stretched far too wide.
This results in him constantly intervening to tell MPs off for minor misdemeanours, thereby making it more difficult for the Opposition to apply the kind of sustained pressure needed to put Cabinet ministers on the spot and hold them to account.
Mallard’s introduction of a penalty regime which sees him reduce the number of questions allocated to parties when their MPs breach the rules has only succeeded in angering National even more.
The final straw has been Mallard’s hunt for the National MP whom he claims he heard interject with the words “stupid little girl" in reference to the Prime Minister.
So far, Mallard has yet to come up with evidence that such an interjection was even uttered let alone who was responsible for making it.
Given the absence of evidence, any other Speaker would have given the Opposition the benefit of the doubt and left it at that.
Mallard, however, carried on his pursuit via the media, prompting a sternly-worded “please explain” letter from Gerry Brownlee, National’s Shadow Leader of the House.
He expressed National’s “serious concerns” regarding Mallard’s chairing of the House, adding that National’s confidence in the Speaker had been “significantly shaken”.
Brownlee’s letter set a deadline for a reply. Not surprisingly, Mallard ignored both the letter and the deadline. He was not of a mood to be seen to be responding to pressure from National.
In turn, National MPs have considered conducting mass walk-outs of Parliament along with lodging a motion of no confidence in the Speaker.
Such protests have only symbolic value, the governing parties would use their majority to block any such no-confidence motion.
Things are starting to get very serious, however. It will be interesting to see whether the protagonists in this unholy row will have taken advantage of the the current recess to talk to one another about how to reduce the acrimony.
A dysfunctional Parliament serves no-one’s best interests.
The whole sorry affair highlights the glaring faults in the system used to appoint the Speaker.
Note the word “appoint”. The notion that the Speaker is elected is a charade. The choice is the prime minister’s to make.
He or she is not obliged to consult with the leaders of the Opposition parties represented in Parliament.
Were there such discussions and were all the parties truly unanimous in their choice for the post, the Opposition would have buy-in to the process and would have no comeback if the new Speaker turned out to be a walking disaster in the job.
National might well argue that Mallard made the choice for Jacinda Ardern no choice at all.
He had already served time in the lesser role of Assistant Speaker. He had heavily telegraphed his desire to hold the prime title. Had Ardern picked someone else, it would have been regarded as a huge snub.
Mallard’s appointment was thus a fait accompli. The only apparent nod to all-party co-operation is the convention that the Opposition does not nominate an alternative candidate, thus ensuring the new Speaker is elected unopposed and has the backing of the whole House.
This apparent outbreak of cross-Parliament unity is illusory. It lasts about as long as it takes to complete the age-old ritual of dragging the Speaker-elect from his or her seat in the chamber to the hot-seat of the Speaker’s chair.
Other jurisdictions elsewhere have worked out that the Speaker’s capacity to be truly independent requires more than than the vain hope that he or she can overnight put years of enmity with political opponents to one side.
That is a big ask of human nature. The answer is to actually remove the Speaker from the milieu of day-to-day politics and decision-making.
That means going a lot further than the Speaker absenting himself or herself from their party’s weekly caucus meetings as has occurred in New Zealand.
For starters, the parliaments in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom all elect their Speakers by secret ballot, thus giving all MPs some say in the choice rather than simply rubber-stamping whomever the prime minister picks for the job.
The British House of Commons goes further. Any candidates for the office of Speaker must have their nominations endorsed by at least three MPs from a party other than their own.
Once ensconced as Speaker, the holder of the post is required to cut all formal ties and affiliations with the political party they have previously represented.
It is also standard practice that the Speaker gets a free run in his or her electorate at general elections and that other parties do not stand candidates in his or her seat.
There are other means of enhancing the independence of the Speaker, such as preventing him or her from casting his or her vote in Parliament on contentious pieces of legislation.
The logic driving such requirements is that the Speaker’s fortunes should be completely divorced from the fortunes of their former parties.
All this is far cry from the New Zealand Parliament.
Back here, radical reform of the procedure for selecting and endorsing the choice of Speaker first requires recognition that there is a problem that needs solving.
That relations between Mallard and National have hit rock bottom should serve as a much-needed wake-up call. But don’t bet on it.