Comment: Senior members of the government tried to avoid the hysterical scenes that played out in Parliament on Tuesday night. Instead of heeding their advice, Speaker Trevor Mallard lost control of his emotions, writes political editor Jo Moir.
After a select committee appearance late last year where Trevor Mallard was interrogated at length by National MPs Chris Bishop and Michael Woodhouse, it became clear to senior ministers and the Prime Minister’s office that the Speaker couldn’t keep his temper in check.
Especially when it came to Bishop.
The two have had a strained relationship dating back to when Bishop first challenged Mallard in his Hutt South electorate in 2014.
The race was so tight it almost certainly prompted Mallard to step aside and make way for Ginny Andersen in 2017 (Mallard returned to Parliament via the list where he went on to become Speaker).
The rows between the two in public, on social media and in the House in the years since have been testy at the very least.
It came to a head on Tuesday night when Mallard fronted as the Minister Responsible for the Parliamentary Service at the annual review debate.
He’d previously indicated the ‘truth’ would be revealed during the debate after he had wrongly accused a Parliamentary staffer of being a rapist – a defamation case which cost the taxpayer $333,000.
Mallard’s behaviour at the select committee had already raised a red flag with senior members of the Government, prompting them to sit down with him ahead of Tuesday night’s debate.
It’s understood he was counselled to take a more moderate stance and only talk to points that had already been canvassed in public.
Lines of attack were rehearsed to ensure Mallard was on script.
But within minutes, Mallard had thrown that advice out the window, as he used the protection of parliamentary privilege to launch into a claim of an (alleged) sexual assault, and to purposely antagonise Bishop.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s declaration on Wednesday that “none of us are covered in glory in what has happened in Parliament in the last 24 hours’’ couldn’t be more accurate.
Given Mallard’s performance last night it’s clear it wasn’t Ardern who delivered the message to him ahead of the debate.
While it’s important to keep distance between the Government and the impartiality of the Speaker’s office, she’s also the only one who could have potentially stopped him derailing.
Mallard wouldn’t take well to receiving instruction from ministers with less experience in Parliament than him, or staff from their offices.
He does, however, respect Ardern and has a close relationship with her.
There was nothing surprising on Wednesday about Ardern declaring her continued support for Mallard as Speaker – she has a majority after all.
But she did spell out to him that his behaviour was “totally inappropriate” – although National leader Judith Collins described that as delivering him a “slap on the wrist”.
“(Ardern) should have delivered him the sack,’’ she told media on Wednesday.
Senior ministers including leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, and Ministers Megan Woods, Damien O’Connor and Kris Faafoi sat through much of Tuesday’s debate.
Speaking to Newsroom on Wednesday, Faafoi said it was “one of the most heated debates I’ve seen’’.
“We haven’t seen a scene like that before, but the Prime Minister has had a chat to him,’’ he said.
Hipkins was also less than impressed, telling media: “I don’t think it reflected well on Parliament as a whole, I don’t think it reflected well on pretty much everyone that was taking part in that debate.”
He planned to raise his concerns personally with Mallard.
The accusations flying across the Chamber on Tuesday night were at times ugly – even Labour Party whips Kieran McAnulty and Willow-Jean Prime didn’t escape the scrap.
While Labour is accusing National of re-traumatising the victims by continuously bringing the matter up, Prime would do well to look at her own behaviour after commenting the Opposition was running a victim-blaming narrative similar to “her skirt is too short’’.
But National certainly doesn’t win any awards either.
At times during the debate Opposition MPs lost sight of the victims in all of this – shouting across the House and at Mallard as if it was a schoolyard spat, not a matter as serious as alleged sexual assault.
The Government expected one thing from the debate on Tuesday night, but certainly got something else.
The public should rightly expect better too.