As speaker, Trevor Mallard took the exception of ‘naming’ the National MP Nick Smith. It’s just the latest salvo exchanged by the veteran pair. The more important question, however, is whether the accusations of bias hold up
On Wednesday last week Judith Collins made good on her word and produced a delicious looking plate of blueberry slice at the Finance and Expenditure Committee. Believe it or not this wasn’t the most exciting event of the day. For the first time in over a decade, a member of parliament was “named” – a procedure reserved for the most serious parliamentary misconduct.
The significance of Trevor Mallard, the speaker of the House, naming Nick Smith goes beyond the historical rarity and personal impact of Smith’s 24-hour suspension from parliament. It goes to the heart of allegations of bias on the part of the speaker and accompanying frustration from the National Party.
Parliament’s rulebook, the Standing Orders, declares that, “The speaker may name any member whose conduct is grossly disorderly.” If the speaker chooses to do so, they must then call on parliament to decide whether that member be suspended. If named again in the same parliamentary term that member will be suspended for seven days. A third naming would result in a 28 day suspension (something New Zealand has never seen before).
The last time a member was named in parliament was 2006. The member involved? Nick Smith, who received his second naming from the assistant speaker, Ann Hartley. Smith now holds the record (he’s been named three times) breaking a decade-long tie with Winston Peters.
To say Mallard and Smith don’t get on is an understatement. It’s easy to see why. Over the past quarter century, both have developed a reputation for being disruptive. Between 2008 and 2015 Mallard was ejected from Parliament 10 times, nearly a third of all ejections during that time. Smith also has a reputation for trouble. In 2015 Smith was ejected from the chamber after disputing a ruling by then the assistant speaker – you guessed it – Trevor Mallard. Upon being ejected he told Mallard he was “unfit to ever be speaker”, and left. Mallard ordered him back to his seat to have him withdraw and apologise but Smith had already left. Parliament was suspended while the sergeant-at-arms tracked Smith down and brought him back.
With that backstory in mind, the events of last week take on a whole new meaning.
Smith had just finished questioning the police minister, Stuart Nash, about a government document discussing roadside drug testing, when he sought leave to introduce his members bill addressing the matter. Mallard, who had already cautioned Smith on his behaviour, denied leave. While it is almost certain the government would have objected to the introduction of the bill, it is highly unusual for the speaker to deny leave. Smith then interrupted the speaker while he was on his feet and was subsequently ejected from the chamber. As he left, Smith accused Mallard of being “soft on drugs like the government.” Smith was then ordered to resume his seat and was named. Whether or not Smith’s actions constituted naming is a matter some debate, but the answer is almost certainly, yes. Had Smith made such a comment to any MP in the debating chamber he would have been required to apologize for unparliamentary behaviour. Given that he directed it at the Speaker, subsequent to his ejection for disorderly behaviour, it was a near certainty that he would be named.
Of course there have been many instances in the past 10 years where a speaker could have named an MP for grossly disorderly behaviour but didn’t. The best example is in 2009 when Lockwood Smith ejected Trevor Mallard after judging he had called then prime minister John Key a liar. As he was leaving the house Mallard shouted at the Speaker calling his ruling “outrageous” and that it was “the worst decision” he had ever made. Smith subsequently said he could have named Mallard for such behaviour but resisted.
With that in mind, it’s worth addressing the increasingly serious accusations that Mallard is biased and unfit to hold office. These allegations go back to 2018 when the shadow leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, wrote a letter to the speaker claiming opposition confidence in him had been “severely shaken” as a result of his perceived bias. This came after a heated argument between National’s deputy leader, Paula Bennett, and Mallard, following which Bennett was ejected from the chamber. A few weeks later Simon Bridges and Gerry Brownlee were also ejected for suggesting Mallard was protecting the prime minister during Question Time leading to a National Party walk out. The events of Wednesday only served to further fuel allegations of bias with Audrey Young, political editor of New Zealand Herald tweeting that, “Mallard’s bias is a problem.” While these allegations are certainly serious, claims of bias by the speaker have been around as long as parliament has existed. Speakers David Carter and Margaret Wilson faced similar accusations from opposition during their tenure. In 2006 National Party leader Don Brash even tabled a motion of no confidence in Speaker Wilson.
It is hard to expect speakers be free of all subconscious bias, given their strong histories of party politics. But to suggest overt bias is something else.
The allegations faced by successive speakers are more indicative of an imperfect system than they are of any actual bias. While the speaker must recuse themselves from all party business, they remain a member of that party and often rejoin it in parliament following their tenure in the chair. David Carter is a good example. Following nearly five years as speaker, Carter remains in parliament as a National Party member and has taken on a partisan role again.
This can be contrast with the system in the United Kingdom, where, once elected, the speaker must renounce all party affiliation both during their tenure and afterwards. In the UK, the speaker still must be elected at the start of each parliamentary term. The current speaker, John Bercow (a former member of the Conservative Party), has been elected unopposed three times in a row, testament to his bipartisanship. Indeed he is so popular with the Labour opposition that they played a large role in saving him from an attempt by a number of Conservative MPs trying to oust him. This is an approach New Zealand might consider emulating more closely.
Nick Smith brought the decorum of the house into disrepute last Wednesday and was rightly reprimanded. While his history with Nick Smith has no doubt lead to some intolerance, it doesn’t amount to bias. In any event, such a parliamentary debacle is rare indeed. This is just the 10th time an MP has been named in 165 years. We more likely to see Smith and Mallard sharing late night drink at the Backbencher Pub than to see another naming soon.