One Question Quiz
Trevor Mallard looks on after being nominated as Speaker during the opening of parliament on November 25, 2020.. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Trevor Mallard looks on after being nominated as Speaker during the opening of parliament on November 25, 2020.. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsMay 9, 2022

Why secret-ballot elections for Speaker are better for everyone

Trevor Mallard looks on after being nominated as Speaker during the opening of parliament on November 25, 2020.. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Trevor Mallard looks on after being nominated as Speaker during the opening of parliament on November 25, 2020.. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It’s hard for a Speaker to be seen as truly independent when everyone knows which MPs voted for him, writes Graeme Edgeler.

Every three years, just after MPs are sworn in, their first (and only) piece of business on that first day the house sits is the election of a Speaker. They choose one of their number who can get majority support, and then the Speaker-elect, with a couple of other MPs, heads off to Government House to have that choice confirmed and to ceremonially claim the privileges of the house.

Often, there is only one MP nominated as Speaker, and MPs don’t even need to vote. The current Speaker Rt. Hon. Trevor Mallard, was elected twice without objection.

This all happens in the open. If there were multiple candidates, we would know exactly which MPs voted for which other to be Speaker, even if it went to multiple ballots. It seems the natural way, but in parliaments in most of the countries we compare ours to, that’s not how it works.

In the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, MPs vote by secret ballot for the Speaker. And they do this is most of the sub-national assemblies as well, including the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, most of the state parliaments in Australia, and the provincial legislatures in all of the Canadian provinces (but not its territories).

With parliament’s standing orders committee about to start its once-a-term look at whether its rules should change, this is something they may look at.

Retiring National party MP Simon Bridges raised the issue in his valedictory, and called for the Speaker to be elected by secret ballot, with Mallard tweeted his support for the change.

The idea was also adopted by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler in the second draft of their constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand.

The idea that MPs might vote without us knowing how is not all that unusual. Caucus leadership votes in National and Labour are conducted by secret ballot, and for good reasons. Our major parties have decided that there are some questions that it is better that MPs can answer in a way designed to reduce the possibility of political retribution. With caucus knowledge of exactly who voted for whom in a leadership tussle, MPs might not cast honest votes: on a show of hands, they might vote for the candidate they think is most likely win, not the candidate they think would be best for the party. And if enough of them got that wrong, the party might suffer.

The question then is whether the decision over who should be Speaker should be treated similarly.

The Speaker is supposed to represent parliament, and when necessary, to stand up for parliament against the government (or the courts). This occurs generally (thankfully!) in minor ways. In New Zealand this has sometimes involved the Speaker appointing an independent lawyer to argue a different position from the government in a court case, or to take an independent position on a planning decision about a building which might impact the parliamentary precinct.

In other countries, the independence – both real and perceived – of a Speaker has played an important role in the resolution of major political crises. Most famously, in the United Kingdom parliament, Speaker John Bercow acted to ensure MPs had a role in determining how Brexit would play out and was able to force votes on issues that embarrassed the government, including requiring the government to release legal advice on the “Northern Ireland backstop” and holding it in contempt when it refused.

In New Zealand, we have seen a small power play with Trevor Mallard arranging for hearings on the government’s proposal to create a parliamentary budget office, with Mallard concerned to protect the role of the officer of parliament from being diluted.

How would a secret ballot for Speaker change things? As Simon Bridges said, it wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would be a meaningful step at redressing the balance between parliament and the executive. It is important that the Speaker not only has the confidence of the house but are seen within parliament and outside it as having that confidence.

Under the New Zealand constitutional order, parliament is supposed to be supreme. Formally, it is, but it doesn’t always act like it. In many ways, government MPs act to ensure there is as little opportunity for government embarrassment as possible, by ensuring there are as few chances to hold the government accountable as they can get away with. The threat of not being promoted, is one reason for this.

Our parliament’s deference to the executive government manifests in a lot of ways. Unlike, for example, committees of the US Congress, committees considering security and intelligence matters may get confidential briefings, but never get secret or top-secret information, and opportunities to questions ministers and other government officials are largely limited to short set pieces around the budget and annual reviews.

How much of a difference would electing a Speaker through secret ballot really make? Possibly not a lot. Until it did. The experience of other countries – especially Britain and Brexit – is that a Speaker who is truly seen as a creature of the House, not a government appointment, has independent authority to protect the constitutional order.

In reality, it might be a while before we even had a vote, but knowing that a less supported pick might mean a failed vote would be something a prime minister would have to consider when deciding whom to suggest to other parties. It’s a small change. But one that with other small changes, over time, might push parliament to greater independence from the government, with even backbench government MPs seeing their role shift to one of publicly holding the government to account.

Keep going!