From a ministerial sacking to a ‘bombshell’ allegation in the house, yesterday was a rollercoaster even by recent standards, writes Spinoff political editor Justin Giovannetti
It was deflection day at parliament.
Dawn broke over a country where questions were still swirling around the misconduct of former National MP Andrew Falloon. But in keeping with the recent pace of news, that was soon bumped out of the spotlight, when National leader Judith Collins revealed on breakfast TV that she’d been tipped off about allegations of misconduct by a Labour minister. Just a few hours later, Iain Lees-Galloway was gone.
The immigration and workplace relations minister and MP from Palmerston North was brought down by an affair that ended a few months ago. The relationship was consensual and the woman involved had not made a complaint, but Jacinda Ardern said she had lost confidence in Lees-Galloway, she told a hastily scheduled 11am press conference.
Asked about the lingering impact of the Falloon story after the news of Lees-Galloway’s dismal, Collins said her party’s disgraced former MP was already disappearing from the public eye. “Most New Zealanders don’t know who Andrew Falloon is and hopefully will soon forget,” she said grinning, her fingerprints on Falloon’s disappearance from headlines.
The Lees-Galloway story could not, however, completely overshadow a report from RNZ about deputy prime minister Winston Peters putting two friends on a government junket to an Antarctic base for a little sight-seeing. The opposition called it a misuse of government funds and wanted to understand how two of the coveted seats on the trip ended up occupied by the pair. Peters roundly condemned the media for a story he called a “racist attack” while offering no explanation of what was racist.
There was more to come. Peters then used parliamentary immunity to change the topic. Delivering a speech in the house and so protected by parliamentary privilege, he claimed former National press secretary Rachel Morton, in cahoots with her then partner, Act leader David Seymour, was responsible for the 2017 leak of his superannuation details. It was a jarring and unexpected accusation. He called it an “Act-inspired hit job”. There was no evidence provided and both categorically denied the claim.
Reporters were running down the hallways of parliament to catch Peters as he left the chamber.
It was an altogether more serious salvo from Peters than his promise to Seymour earlier in the week to knock his lights out. Seymour said Peters had lied in the house and was expelled by the speaker. Reporters ran down the hallways again. Before they could speak with Seymour, the sergeant at arms was dispatched to find the party leader and haul him back to the house to apologise. The sergeant at arms asked parliamentary security if they knew where Seymour was (probably the bathroom), and then walked the halls opening doors and peering in to see if Seymour was in hiding.
The sergeant at arms is a largely ceremonial role that involves carrying around a heavy golden mace. The role has many powers from its creation 605 years ago in the UK related to keeping order in the house that are very rarely invoked. New Zealand’s sergeant at arms has been called on twice in the last two months to deal with troublesome MPs. National MP Nick Smith was kicked out of the house in late June for calling it a “Nazi establishment”.
For those convinced New Zealand politics have always been this dysfunctional, the last MP before Smith that a sergeant at arms had last been called on to discipline was then prime minister Robert Muldoon.
Moments after the sergeant at arms was seen scouring parliament for Seymour, he popped into the house, issued the apology and promptly left again. On his way out he called Peters a “desperate man” and a “liar” while speaking with journalists.
Seymour derided Peters’ accusations as a “dead cat” strategy – the equivalent of dramatically hurling a dead animal in front of the cameras to distract attention from other, more serious matters. If that was his goal, it’s not clear it worked: the Antarctica story figured high in both last night’s TV news bulletins. But already the story of Andrew Falloon’s resignation from parliament seems like the distant past. It was less than 48 hours ago.