Speaker Trevor Mallard said he was standing up for a victim of sexual violence. The opposition said he’s a bully who wasted over $300,000. The prime minister just shook her head at the whole circus. Justin Giovannetti on an emotional night in parliament, and what happens next.
The furore that erupted in parliament this week over speaker Trevor Mallard is the latest entry in a two year saga that has been fought in court, the national media and the debating chamber.
At its core, this story is about how to deal with allegations of sexual violence. This has not been an easy situation to follow outside the bubble of parliament and with the exception of the victim, it has tarnished nearly everyone who has touched it.
So what’s the story?
The Francis review, released in May 2019, detailed a toxic culture at the heart of New Zealand’s democracy. It revealed the presence of a potential sexual predator at parliament and 14 victims of sexual assault over the previous five years.
As speaker, Mallard is in charge of parliament and its grounds. The Labour MP has sweeping powers over the precinct and what happens within it.
The morning after the report was dropped, Mallard was fuming. He told RNZ that a man was still at parliament who had committed “serious sexual assault. Well that, for me, that’s rape.”
That last word would come back to haunt him. Mallard would admit much later, in late 2020, that he knew within 24 hours that he’d messed up at this point.
An investigation into the man’s alleged historical assault was opened after a complainant came forward. The man had already been investigated for three serious incidents detailed in the Francis review, but not for rape. The employee was “stood down”.
Then things went sideways
The man came forward weeks later and demanded an apology from Mallard for what he deemed slander. He also described the speaker as a bully, a word that would reappear often over the next two years.
The man denied that he’d sexually assaulted anyone and described the behaviour he’d been investigated for – which was inappropriate staring and what could be described as hugs and groin thrusts.
No apology was forthcoming. Mallard and senior civil servants felt the man’s behaviour was inappropriate and he didn’t deserve one. So the man sued for $450,000.
A formal apology
About 18 months later he got his apology. On December 8, 2020, after a long day in which the royal commission report into the Christchurch attack was released, an emailed statement from Mallard appeared in the press gallery’s inboxes.
The speaker apologised for using the word rape. He cited the “distress and humiliation” he’d caused the man. Part of the settlement stipulated that he couldn’t talk about what had happened in courts and negotiations over the previous year and a half.
Left out was the revelation that before the apology, taxpayers were on the hook for about $160,000 to the man and $175,000 in legal bills. Judith Collins called on Mallard to resign, citing the bill. Five months later, the opposition hasn’t backed down from the position that he should go.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has reiterated her confidence in Mallard. As long as he keeps her support, he keeps his job.
It can become difficult to separate the Mallard saga from partisanship. There’s no secret that the speaker and the National Party are not on good terms. Collins in particular does not like him. As parliament’s referee, the one-time Labour brawler is often seen as unfair by the opposition front bench.
National’s Chris Bishop has put a motion to remove Mallard from his position on parliament’s daily order paper for months. Labour has kept the motion from coming forward, but it just hangs there, day after day.
The speaker is supposed to be an impartial advocate for all MPs. Even suggesting unfairness during session can be grounds to be thrown out of the house. The current situation is unusual.
What happened on Tuesday night?
Mallard promised that the truth would come out at the only place and time a speaker can really do it: Protected by parliamentary privilege within the debating chamber during the annual review of the parliamentary service he heads. That started sometime after 8pm on Tuesday.
It’s fair to say the late-night debate left both sides of the house shaken.
National demanded to know what had happened between Mallard’s rape comment and the settlement. The speaker tried to paint himself as a defender of women rising above a toxic culture to report sexual assault.
Bishop told MPs that Mallard was a bully who had destroyed a man’s life. “When we look back on this sordid, tawdry period, we will look back with shame,” he said.
Mallard, not appearing from the speaker’s chair but on the floor of the house, responded strongly. “That man’s life was destroyed when he sexually assaulted a woman. That’s what did it, I will support the woman and what she said, I will support the investigation that found that he seriously assaulted her,” he shot back.
The night concluded with Mallard stating that victims need to be believed and defended, while National said he’d done so inappropriately and created a victim of the perpetrator.
Collins walked out and said that Mallard had been emotional and his temperament was not that of a speaker.
And the aftermath?
In a statement today, the prime minister said that parliament last night been a circus. Labour, National, Mallard, everyone failed. An issue like sexual assault needs to be better managed and not politicised, she said.
“I have spoken with the speaker this morning. He retains my overall confidence, however I have expressed serious concerns to him about the manner in which he conducted himself in the house last night. It did not meet the standards I expect. Nor do I consider it to have met the needs of the victim in this situation,” said Ardern.
Collins disputed the prime minister’s view that everyone had failed. The National leader said her MPs were “courageous and brave” against the speaker and Mallard needs to step down.
Ardern has called for a cross-party group to work on standards of behaviour and to figure out how to deal with issues of sexual assault at parliament.