One Question Quiz
Former speakers of the House of Representatives Margaret Wilson and Sir David Carter. (Images: Getty Images; additional design: Archi Banal)
Former speakers of the House of Representatives Margaret Wilson and Sir David Carter. (Images: Getty Images; additional design: Archi Banal)

PoliticsFebruary 24, 2022

What two former speakers of the house think about parliament’s protest response

Former speakers of the House of Representatives Margaret Wilson and Sir David Carter. (Images: Getty Images; additional design: Archi Banal)
Former speakers of the House of Representatives Margaret Wilson and Sir David Carter. (Images: Getty Images; additional design: Archi Banal)

Protests occur regularly at parliament, with demonstrators airing their grievances respectfully and parliament going out of its way to facilitate democracy. But former speakers David Carter and Margaret Wilson tell Reweti Kohere that the current occupation is different.

There are protests nearly every day at parliament. Some consist of just one or two demonstrators; others are massive hīkoi covering the forecourt and surrounding grounds. Most people air their grievances peacefully, with members of parliament often fronting up, hearing their concerns and, if they are the opposition, conveniently being seen to support whatever claims are being levelled at the government.

But the anti-mandate protest in Wellington, now in its 17th day, is unlike the protests of old. Only Act leader David Seymour and party MP Nicole McKee – two out of 120 MPs – have met with protesters. Human faeces has been hurled at police officers, as has, reportedly, acid; death threats and images of nooses and guillotines on placards and banners have been brandished; and staff in nearby businesses, such as New World Thorndon, have faced a barrage of abuse from protesters and complaints from fed-up Wellingtonians. There’s also the fact that a single leadership committee of organisers appears to be lacking.

Technically, the speaker of the house of representatives is the legal owner of parliament – the landlord who controls access to the buildings and grounds. And the current speaker, Trevor Mallard, has responded so far by issuing a notice ordering those camping to pack up their tents or risk being trespassed. When protesters didn’t budge, he turned the parliamentary lawn sprinklers on them overnight and played annoying music and Covid-19 vaccine adverts – actions that the police have distanced themselves from. The National Party lodged a notice of a no-confidence motion in him. 

Sir David Carter, a former speaker of the house from 2013 to 2017 during the last National government, never dealt with any protests of a similar nature. The closest the former cabinet minister got was in 2015 when four Greenpeace activists breached parliamentary security, scaled the roof, abseiled down onto a ledge and unfurled a banner criticising the then National government for failing to act on climate change. Carter says he sought advice from the head of security at parliament and the police, who dealt with the demonstrators over the course of a day. The activists were later arrested and charged with trespass.

But, when it comes to citizens challenging policymakers, the precinct is the best place for them to exercise their right to protest, says Carter. Parliament’s website even states that the speaker’s office encourages organisers to get in touch to ensure their protest “is a success”. At the same time, about 1,500 people work in and around parliament, and they too deserve to work “unimpeded, unabused and in safety”, Carter says. 

during a ceremony at Government House on January 31, 2013 in Wellington, New Zealand. Carter was today confirmed by Governor General Lt Gen Rt Hon Sir Jerry Matepara as Speaker-elect replacing Rt Hon Lockwood Smith.
Sir David Carter. (Photo: Getty Images)

When faced with protesters who are overstaying their welcome, however, how should a speaker respond? “Certainly not in the way the current speaker has acted,” says Carter. In an interview with the Herald, Mallard insisted that “diluting a bit of the shit and urine” wasn’t a major issue for him and denied that the sprinklers and music were decisions made carelessly.

Parliamentary security and the police are experts when it comes to protests, says Carter. “Leave it to them, do not interfere and don’t antagonise [protesters] by putting sprinklers on and blasting music. That was just stupidity.” He adds that earlier, more forceful intervention was necessary. “This particular protest went wrong because…the police failed to act rapidly enough.”

In his mind, the speaker’s actions have dented the mana and dignity of the office. The role of the speaker is a high-ranking position in many Westminster democracies. At the beginning of a new parliamentary term, the speaker – an MP themself – is elected by their peers to “speak” for them in dealings with the Crown and with other parliaments around the world. Constitutionally, they sit third in the order of precedence, behind the sovereign (or governor general) and the prime minister. In day-to-day operations, the speaker presides over the affairs of the house, chairing certain select committees, maintaining order during legislative debates and refereeing procedural points. Speakers are no longer members of their caucus, says Carter. “You are there as the member to serve all parliamentarians. You are parliament’s person – and I don’t feel this current speaker has ever quite appreciated that.”

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 25: Media wait for Greenpeace activists to absail back down from the roof at Parliament House on June 25, 2015 in Wellington, New Zealand. Four Greenpeace activists breached security and scaled the walls of Parliament House to protest the government's record on climate change. (Photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images)
The 2015 Greenpeace protest under Sir David Carter’s watch as speaker. (Photo: Getty Images)

A week ago, and on behalf of all parties in parliament, Mallard issued a statement stipulating that MPs won’t engage with protesters until all illegally parked vehicles are cleared, tents are removed and the intimidation toward Wellingtonians ceases [or ends]. That MPs decided on a course of action, and the speaker was implementing it, reflects the fact that Mallard can only do what the members want him to do, says Margaret Wilson, speaker from 2005 to 2008 under the last Labour government. Moreover, it’s not fair to “second guess” the “judgement calls” that a speaker makes, she says. “They’re a bit like referees – no matter what you do there’s going to be criticism. It seems to me we’re really dealing with a group where nothing was going to dissuade them from the righteousness of their cause.”

Some of the protests that Wilson, now a law professor at Waikato University, faced during her time as speaker were not always “easy”. She attributes this to people not understanding the constitutional intricacies of New Zealand’s democracy – that the speaker is separate to the government, which is independent of the police, for instance. “I’ve listened to the prime minister try to explain that she’s not going to direct the police and I’m not sure if people fully understand why she’s saying that,” Wilson says. “It’s extraordinarily important – she’s holding the line constitutionally so there’s no abuse of power by governments using the police for their own political end.”

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 03: Margaret Wilson after accepting the warrant for Speaker of the House at a swearing in ceremony at Government House, Wellington, New Zealand, Thursday, March 03, 2005. (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)
Margaret Wilson. (Photo: Getty Images)

The speaker doesn’t cut all ties with their political party, and almost always comes from the governing party. Yet they must be prepared to assert their independence from the government of the day, to ensure the rights and privileges of all MPs are protected. Wilson says she didn’t have much contact with the political parties as speaker, including the then Labour-led government, except through official parliamentary channels. “They weren’t ringing me up telling me what to do and I didn’t really contact ministers unless there was a reason to do so [and] that was constitutionally appropriate.”

Her appointment followed the 2004 foreshore and seabed hīkoi, which emerged after the government decided to pass legislation that would vest ownership of the country’s foreshore and seabed in the Crown. She says the protest could have turned “nasty”, but it didn’t, largely because of its leaders keeping control. “They were very forthright and quite challenging – and that was their right – but they were not like what we’ve got at the moment.”

Carter adds that New Zealanders are living in an unusual time – tensions are higher than normal because of the global pandemic and the government’s response, and people are more likely to react suddenly. “This particular protest has been the nastiest we’ve seen in New Zealand in a long, long time. However, “I don’t think this is a sign of more antagonistic protests,” he says. Time will tell – after all, there are protests nearly every day at parliament.

Keep going!