Analysis: National’s attack on Speaker Trevor Mallard could turn into a test for how Labour will wield its majority over the next three years, Marc Daalder reports
After Labour won the first outright majority in Parliament in a quarter century, commentators asked how it would use that power. Would it advance transformational change? Would it enforce the status quo? Would it embark on politically risky endeavours without risking a collapse of Government or insulate itself, sticking only to what was popular?
The National Party says it has the answer to at least some of these questions, after Labour declined to entertain a debate on a motion of no confidence in Speaker Trevor Mallard on Tuesday, Parliament’s first sitting day in two months.
National has continued to push for Mallard’s resignation after revelations late last year that the Speaker’s wrongly accusing a Parliamentary staffer of committing rape had resulted in a $300,000 payout from the taxpayer. When Mallard was brought before a select committee investigating the charges, he admitted he knew within 24 hours of making the false comments in 2019 that they were wrong.
Judith Collins says that’s reason enough for his resignation – and that it all could have been avoided had he owned up and apologised when he realised he’d made a mistake.
“The falling short of the duties [of Speaker] is definitely something that we’re taking very seriously. Particularly around a man losing his career, hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money and Mr Mallard knowing within 24 hours exactly what he’d said was wrong and then continuing to defend a case of defamation when he knew he was wrong,” she told reporters.
“The fact that he didn’t correct the record and he knew 24 hours later that he was wrong and it went on for 18 months […] is simply not acceptable. He’s the person who sets the standard of behaviour in Parliament. How can we possibly continue to have confidence in him?”
Collins made the comments after the first of what National promises will be weeks of attempts to oust the speaker via a motion of no confidence. Although Leader of the House Chris Hipkins sparred with National’s shadow Leader of the House Chris Bishop over technicalities relating to the motion, both agreed that National can continue to attempt to make the motions over the coming weeks.
Such a motion requires just one MP to object for it to fail, meaning it is unlikely that the issue will come to the floor for debate.
When asked whether he thought it would succeed, Bishop said the effort was a matter of principle.
“We think it’s an important matter of principle. I mean, ultimately, Parliament has to decide what sort of standard it wants to accept from its speaker.”
Collins said it was a test for Labour’s outright majority – would they subject themselves to transparency and accountability or use the majority to shield themselves?
“She knows she has the numbers in Parliament to defeat a notice of motion each time, but that is an arrogant point of view if that is her point of view,” Collins said.
Mallard only needs one MP to stand up for him but he has at least 64, with the Labour Party standing resolutely behind him. MPs on their way to Labour’s first caucus of the Parliamentary term uniformly backed the Speaker.
“He made a mistake, he’s acknowledged that, but I continue, of course, to have confidence in him,” Jacinda Ardern said.
“The Speaker himself has gone through those events and he’s done that very publicly. He traversed all of this last year and it’s not for me to re-litigate that.”
Ardern said there were more important things for Parliament to focus on, but the attention of the House was quickly diverted to another distraction involving Mallard as Question Time ended.
Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi, who had earlier clashed with the Speaker over the issue of wearing ties in the House – the longstanding rule was reviewed by Mallard but he announced on Tuesday that he had decided to keep it in place, given the majority of MPs supported it – rose to question Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis.
Mallard said he would not call on Waititi unless he was wearing a tie. Waititi had earlier argued that wearing his hei tiki in lieu of a tie was Māori business attire – the Speaker in his review had explicitly allowed for cultural attire.
“I’ve noted the member’s comments. He hasn’t convinced me,” Mallard said.
When Waititi rose to make a point of order, Mallard said he couldn’t and then kicked him out of the House. Waititi, who had previously described ties as “a colonial noose”, said Mallard’s actions were “starting to look like racial [prejudice]”.
Others, observing the scenes, were unimpressed. ACT leader David Seymour told reporters the tie debate was a distraction.
“If this is really the priority for the Māori Party then I think Labour is going to do quite well in the Māori seats next time,” he said.
“I think it would be better if the Māori Party was busy trying to work out how to fix things like housing. Māori home ownership rate is 31 percent vs 64.5 for the average New Zealander. That’s a travesty what are they doing about that? You can’t live in a tie.”