One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 26, 2022

The two sides of Trevor Mallard

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

He was an effective politician and a tireless champion of women. He could also be like a bully who seemed incapable of moderation or restraint, writes Ben Thomas.

Beleaguered – and now independent – MP Gaurav Sharma, locked in a battle against what he sees as bullying in parliament, will find little encouraging about the retirement of his one-time predecessor in the Hamilton West seat, Trevor Mallard.

Mallard has been variously described at different stages of his long career as a thug, an attack dog, a bovver-boy and, yes, a bully. And it would be hard to say he has not prospered. He retires to a plum diplomatic posting, where his business cards will eventually read “Rt. Hon. Sir Trevor Mallard”, after the knighthood that inevitably comes to former parliamentary speakers. He was a front bench minister in major portfolios.

But Mallard saw himself as a scourge of bullies. Perhaps this is what may grate Sharma most: that someone who entered parliament with the stated intention of cleaning it up, in the intervening 30 years before doing something about it, spent his time as one of the most ruthless practitioners of the brutal realities of politics. And more to the point, that he still doesn’t recognise any contradiction.

In the final act of his parliamentary career, the poacher famously turned gamekeeper: Mallard spent five years as speaker, responsible for maintaining the administration and also the very integrity of parliament. But he also attempted an even more jarring transformation than that of slugger to statesman.

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

He could have merely moved from partisan enforcer to stern no-favours disciplinarian. But Mallard also wanted to go from bouncer to baby bouncer. Gone was the Mallard physically blocking off and humiliating politically-risky millionaire Owen Glenn from prime minister Helen Clark in an infamous 2008 photo. Here now was Uncle Trevor cradling newborns in the speaker’s chair. He wanted to make parliament a safer and more inclusive place, especially (as shown by the commissioning and implementation of the Francis report into parliamentary culture) for women.

An admission: I had always assumed that this pivot was his attempt to manifest a softening that occurred in his personal life and outlook over the years into a more caring and progressive political environment. But on the occasion of his retirement his 1984 maiden speech was dug up, and in it the new member for Hamilton West really does put an early stake in the ground on parliamentary sexism and conduct that wouldn’t sound out of place in the 2010s. He upbraids MPs for supposedly ranking their women colleagues’ looks. He says “by doing that, men dehumanise women and devalue the contribution they make. That attitude is a major reason for rape in New Zealand.”

So what then are we to make of his subsequent, astoundingly long and varied roll call of dishonour?

Apropos rape culture, as sports minister he angrily talked about inserting a Heineken bottle into the chairman of the International Rugby Board. As late as 2010 he hurled homophobic insults across the house at National’s only gay MP at the time (he was hauled into line by now-deputy prime minister Grant Robertson). In the 2000s he was subject to a private prosecution by a member of the public for assault for starting a brawl with National MP Tau Henare.

With his dog Elsa at parliament (Photo: Labour Party of New Zealand / Supplied)

Stepping into the statesman-like role of speaker, he expressed regret for his mistakes in the past, and then prosecuted his new progressive causes with the same steel-cap subtlety as before.

As speaker, and in an effort to not minimise alleged instances of sexual harassment uncovered by the Francis Report, he overshot by orders of magnitude and accused a staff member of rape on national radio, leading to general alarm about the prospect of a serial rapist in parliament and a hefty taxpayer settlement.

His refereeing of question time was well-intentioned: he believed that implementing a system of penalties for poor behaviour (rewarding the opposition by giving them extra supplementary questions to ask ministers, punishing them by taking them away) could improve the functioning of question time and so the accountability of ministers. Again, his failure was the inability to exercise moderation or restraint: all parties lost count of the wildly oscillating ledger of questions, as Mallard sought to correct in real time not only MPs’ bad behaviour but even his second-thoughts about events only minutes before. That created uncertainty, which plays into the hands of any government trying to avoid answering questions.

Prime minister Helen Clark and sports minister Trevor Mallard at a netball match, July 2000. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Had he been a less effective soldier for his party, any one of his many career lowlights could have turned him into an infamous one-miss wonder of the likes of Aaron Gilmore, whose sins were minor, basically non-existent, by comparison.

But Mallard got things done. He was entrusted as one of Helen Clark’s most effective ministers. He was given the big jobs; the hard jobs. The ones that required deft handling but also confrontation, and, as a treat, his beloved sports portfolio. He was the first in front to denigrate or smear Clark’s opponents, while she maintained prime ministerial decorum or made knowing offhand jokes about “having a taser” for her henchman.

He was not particularly ideological, and thought commercially for a social democrat. As minister of state-owned enterprises, he changed policy to make it easier for big (then) state-owned companies like Meridian and Mighty River Power to establish subsidiaries for eventual sale (that is, privatisation).

It’s irrelevant to the public – and his targets over the years – that he is also personable, funny, clever and good company. But as speaker, he implemented reforms to processes that fans of procedural minutiae have praised. He was praised by the Women MP Committee for improving parental facilities and making it easier to be a mother in parliament. He made sure there was a nice slide on parliament’s lawns, at least for a while.

Second acts in public life are common. Many senior politicians, after a period out of the public eye and as a result of reflection and introspection, will come back changed figures. Jim Bolger, the 1990s prime minister who slashed welfare and stripped employment protections, re-emerged a few years ago as a critic of “neoliberalism” and helped out developing the current government’s fair pay agreements.

Mallard has had no time for reflection. And as the sometimes disconnect between his nobler intentions and his behaviour shows, he in many ways has been a stranger to himself: the id of Labour’s parliamentary politics. The snarling, animalistic impulse unleashed to batter the opposition, to crush internal dissent, to put down political resistance from the public, the unions, the interest groups, whoever was in the way. The part that Uncle Trevor always seems surprised to be reminded exists at all.

Follow our politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Keep going!