Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard holds Labour MP Willow Jean Prime's daughter during a debate on extending paid parental leave. Screengrab: TVNZ

What does the parliamentary speaker do, and why is he under fire?

The role of the speaker and the schoolyard scrap of Question Time are in the news as Paula Bennett and Gerry Brownlee square up against Trevor Mallard. What’s it all about? Chris Bramwell of RNZ explains 

From the outside, Parliamentary Question Time probably looks like a scrappy playground at times.

Sometimes dubbed the “snakepit”, parliament’s debating chamber is presided over by the Speaker of the House.

That job essentially involves acting as the referee as the government and opposition go head-to-head on the matters of the day during Question Time and later during debates on legislation that Parliament is considering.

There are 12 primary questions put during Question Time every day – those questions are either from the opposition to ministers or from backbench government MPs to their own minister – the latter being known as ‘patsy questions’ as they really just provide an opportunity for the minister to crow about their achievements.

The 12 questions are provided in advance to the ministers’ offices so they can prepare, but the supplementary questions (which come after each primary is asked) are not.

This means ministers’ staff often have to guess what the supplementary questions might be and prepare their minister for all eventualities.

Various parliamentary speakers over the years have tried different approaches to make sure Question Time runs smoothly – with varying levels of success.

Current Speaker Trevor Mallard has made some changes which have helped speed up proceedings – including not requiring MPs to wait for him to say their name every time they rise to speak.

But another approach he has taken has ruffled the opposition’s feathers.

Not long after he settled into the Speaker’s chair –Mallard started taking supplementary questions off a party if one of its MPs interjected while another MP was speaking.

He would also award questions to other parties as well.

He did this, he said, to try to cut down on disorder in the house.

Sitting above the Speaker’s chair in the press gallery, it sometimes became difficult to keep track of who had lost questions, and who had gained them, but Mallard kept a running tally.

National’s Gerry Brownlee suggested building services put an LED scoreboard above the Speaker’s chair so MPs could keep track of how many questions they had.

“It would mean you could just click instead of fingering.”

Mallard said he would consider the matter, but the scoreboard never appeared.

The number of supplementary questions being awarded or taken away was generally one or two at a time, but on Wednesday when the Speaker took five questions from National, its deputy leader, Paula Bennett, took umbrage and stormed out of the house.

Mallard told her that overall National had actually gained 22 supplementary questions since he’d brought in the regime, but that was not enough to keep her in the debating chamber.

Bennett said it was hard for the opposition to know how many questions it would have when it walked into Question Time.

“The unpredictability – it’s kind of frustrating, it is our job to hold the government to account and Question Time is a really important part of that.

“The rules seem to change every day as to how many [questions] we will have, what kind of rulings will be made.”

National has written to the Speaker saying its confidence in him has been shaken, both because of the way he is running Question Time, but also because of a spat over whether a National MP called the prime minister a “stupid little girl.”

It has asked Mallard to respond when the House sits at 2pm today.

First published by RNZ

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