Saturday, 26 May 2018

Testing The Speaker.

Parliament's Poacher-Turned-Gamekeeper: Mallard positively twinkles in the Speaker’s Chair. His many years in the Chamber have armed him against every trick in the Opposition play-book. Hardly surprising, since Mallard has, at one time or another, played every one of them. Knowing exactly what to expect, this parliamentary poacher-turned-gamekeeper lies in wait for the lumbering Nats and daily spoils their fun by dispensing a judicious measure of galling intellectual acuity and dead-eyed malice.

QUESTION TIME IN PARLIAMENT this afternoon was a useful reminder of what Jacinda and her government are up against. In theory, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are supposed to impress the Visitor’s Gallery as a government-in-waiting: sagacious, witty and (to use a favourite parliamentary term) honourable. In practice, Simon Bridges’ National Party Opposition comes across as ignorant, boorish and disturbingly truculent.

Bridges’ people put one in mind of a hitherto unbeatable rugby team which has unaccountably lost the season’s most important game to a rag-tag bunch of scrawny and inexperienced ring-ins. “It shouldn’t have happened!”, has slowly-but-surely morphed into “It didn’t happen!” National appears convinced that if everyone had played by the rules they could not have lost the game. In their minds, Labour, NZ First and the Greens were only able to claim victory by cheating outrageously.

And so, they sit there on the Opposition’s side of the House, forced to swallow the bitter bile of defeat every time they lift their eyes to the mocking gaze of Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and James Shaw.

The person who makes them retch most violently, however, is the Speaker, Labour’s Trevor Mallard. There’s an insouciance about Mallard’s management of the House; a barely suppressed glee; that is quite clearly driving National’s MPs crazy.

Mallard positively twinkles in the Speaker’s Chair. His many years in the Chamber have armed him against every trick in the Opposition play-book. Hardly surprising, since Mallard has, at one time or another, played every one of them. Knowing exactly what to expect, this parliamentary poacher-turned-gamekeeper lies in wait for the lumbering Nats and daily spoils their fun by dispensing a judicious measure of galling intellectual acuity and dead-eyed malice. He isn’t the least bit scared of Gerry Brownlee, Paula Bennett, Jamie-Lee Ross or David Bennett. They know it – and he knows they know it.

And still they come at him: proud Tory Samurai whose traditional swords and arrows are utterly unequal to Mallard’s pearl-handled Colt 45. He shoots them down for sport.

It will be interesting to observe how long Bridges is prepared to let this unequal contest go on. He must know that a battle with the Speaker, if it is not to end in the Opposition’s complete humiliation, must be escalated to the point where the normal operation of Parliament becomes impossible.

The problem is that the raising of spurious points-of-order and refusing to withdraw and apologise for unparliamentary conduct is an extremely risky strategy. Open defiance of the Chair, leading to the naming of members, interventions by the Sergeant-at-Arms, mass walkouts and point-blank refusals to re-join Government members in the Chamber will certainly bring the business of the House to a standstill. Unfortunately, it may also send the National Party’s public support into free-fall. New Zealanders don’t tend to have much time for players who argue with the ref.

But, even if National’s 44 percent support-base stays solid behind their wronged heroes; and even if Labour, NZ First and the Greens buckle in the face of such reckless political hatred; New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy would be irreparably damaged. New Zealand would have reached the point so terrifyingly described in William Golding’s dystopian novel, Lord of the Flies, when Jack and his fellow savages overthrow the schoolboys’ brave attempt at self-government – symbolised by the beautiful conch-shell which guarantees whoever holds it a fair hearing.

“By him stood Piggy still holding out the talisman, the fragile shining beauty of the shell. The storm of sound beat at them, an incantation of hatred. High overhead, Roger, with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever […..] The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time even for a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red.”

Democracy, too, is a fragile thing and the rocks used to destroy it take many forms.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 23 May 2018.

16 comments:

Wayne Mapp said...

The Opposition would probably be OK with Mallard as Speaker if he wasn't deducting questions in what looks to me to be an arbitrary and captious way. And it is not just one, it frequently is five. Supplementary questions really matter the Opposition, way more than they do for the government. After all Question Time is primarily the Opposition's opportunity.

I have been in enough Question times to know hat good and bad speakers look like. In my time Jonathan Hunt and Lockwood Smith stood out as being fair, which really means being fair the the Opposition. So your analogy of National coming with Samurai swords and the Speaker being armed with a pearl handed Colt 45 completely misses the point about the role of the Speaker. The Speaker is not there to deal to the Opposition, if anything he is to ensure they can hold the government to account. Deducting questions in the way that he does strikes at very heart of the opportunity of the Opposition to hold the government to account.

Jonathan Hunt's major innovation was the allow the Opposition to to concentrate their supplementary question on whichever Minister they wanted to. Lockwood Smith's was his insistence that Ministers actually answered the question as opposed to just addressing it. Mallard has reverted the latter innovation, though he is simply following David Cater in that respect. More significantly both Hunt and Smith were at pains to be conspicuously fair the Opposition, in practice that means slightly favouring them.

Trevor Mallard needs to learn from the examples of Hunt and Smith if he wants to be regarded as a great Speaker. He should use the two week recess to consider how he can do better.

As for National being worse than other Opposition in their unruly nature that is just nonsense. In my recollection the worst by far was the Labour Opposition in 1996 after Winston had chosen National, especially in the first year. And the worst behaviour was led by Mallard! I haven't seen anything from National at the moment that matches that. I guess that is because National does not have a Mallard!

Frit said...

Chris, I am so alarmed that you could accuse Mallard of competence that words almost fail.

Mallard has shown that he lacks the intellectual agility to keep up with the thrust and parry - so much so that he resorts to name calling and childish outbursts. Where was the dignity of the chair when Bennett stormed out (which lacked grace and dignity itself) and he could not contain himself: 'for how long?'. Classless, clueless and completely out of his depth.

He is the bullied underachiever that is using his newly (and ill deserved) station to seek retribution and lash out.

Kat said...

National are struggling and not just with The Speaker. For a party that represents the biggest opposition in parliament they just can't come to terms with being the opposition. National hasn't been able to land anything of any significance on the coalition govt let alone the PM who seemingly has no equal from across the floor.

National firmly believed this coalition govt would self destruct within six months. It hasn't and the coalition govt which is steadily coming to terms with being the govt is only getting stronger. Arrogant and petulant behaviour from the likes of Gerry Brownlee and Paula Bennett only make National look more the sore losers they appear to be. I suppose they still have the next stage in the grief process to look forward to.

It could be the longest nine years ahead for National at this rate.

David Stone said...

I have to agree with Wayne Mapp
Suppressing questions at question time in parliament must be an attack on our democracy . If there is no sanction available for a speaker so doing then there should be.
D J S

Polly, said...

Mallard is a prat and his history will tell you he has always been one.
Our Parliament, democracy and the people are not being served by a loyal servant.
He will continue to be a mean and non funny Speaker.
Jacind and Grant need to dump on him or the voter will dump on them.

Kat said...

So the National opposition can't get any traction against the Coalition govt so they attack The Speaker hoping to expose some threat to democracy. That tactic is on a hiding to nowhere as any cursory look at our parliamentary history shows. Begs the question who is next, The Serjeant at Arms?

Anonymous said...

Mallard is proving to be a dreadful Speaker. He is clearly out of his depth,
childish, churlish, and wholly partisan towards the govt. He plays silly games
and uses the position to mock the Opposition at every opportunity. Chris, your views are totally red-tinted!! Mallard makes the news for all the wrong reasons...a mere few months in. Says it all, same old!

Ron

Odysseus said...

Wayne & DS seems to neglect the rather important fact that Trevor adds questions as well as deducting them .

Jeff Saunders said...

Something has to be done to curb the ridiculous behaviour of MPs who screech idiocies at will in a manner that is stunningly embarrassing to any witnesses! Good on Trevor. Hopefully the result will be better behaviour!

Anonymous said...

Mallard is a boorish lout. An oafish half with.
I don't know what you see when you look at home, but it must be through very tainted glasses.
Mallard did pretty well for the first few weeks and then totally fell to pieces.

greywarbler said...

I thought that the Greens had given up their questions to National. If Mallard is trying to bring about a more effective question time from the delinquents of Parliament with sanctions, how can they complain? Haven't they had things going their way so far with their argument over the choice of Speaker at first, and then getting a gift of Green's questions. (Did they take that offer back?) It seems that all this stir is phony on their part to spur those who are Great Pretenders in democracy only when National is affected.

Victor said...

Chris

I must say that I too find myself in disagreement with you over this issue.

The opposition is behaving risibly. But it's the government's job to parry these ill-aimed saber strokes and not the Speaker's.

As it is, he's contributing to the perception that the whole caboodle's a circus.

Wayne Mapp said...

Odyssues,

Yes, he does add as well as he deducts. But as I understand it the deductions happen instantly and the additions occur near the end of question time. Mostly the Opposition has its important questions up front and the load their supplementaries on to them. So if they suddenly lose 5 supplementaries that kills the plan. Getting questions back again on say questions 10 to 12 does not help. Usually these questions are unimportant.

Trevor's practice of deducting and adding questions is highly risky (as we have seen). It imperils his position of being seen to be fair, which in reality means being fair to the Opposition, since Question Time is fundamentally their opportunity.

Both Lockwood and Jonathan seemed to be able get the balance right. Trevor, who actually started out well, has not yet got it right.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Hi anonymous 18:31. Please, if you are going to insult people's intelligence – learn how to spell. I wouldn't normally care, but how on earth can you call someone a half 'with'. And I suspect that should be tinted glasses, because there is no such thing as tainted glasses maybe. :)
And while I'm not the greatest fan of Trevor Mallard, I don't think he's necessarily stupid. I do think he's being a bit precious about this, given all the shenanigans he got up to when he was in opposition. And people are already cynical enough about parliamentarians, we really don't need to add to it.

Kat said...

So whats the answer Wayne, go back to throwing members at will out of the house for being disruptive and unparliamentary. The Coalition govt might lose a few from time to time but the National opposition on current performance would be decimated. Maybe National should use the recess to bone up on how to become a proper opposition.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some think they know too much on here...I don't think the average voter ...if people vote actually... care if it becomes a shambles...and it seems to be heading that way!

You honestly REALLY think Chris it will dent the 44%...the only dents I see are damaging ones in the governments chassy and not because of the issues outlined here.