THE DECISION by Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, to trespass Winston Peters from Parliament Grounds is outrageous. For New Zealand’s former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to be treated in this fashion raises so many questions that I cannot help thinking that, by the time you read these words, the decision will have been reversed.
After all, Mr Peters did nothing more than visit the protest encampment erected by anti-vaxxers on the parliamentary lawn. A great many New Zealanders applauded him for meeting with the protesters and wondered why the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition could not do the same.
It is probably helpful, at this point, to rehearse the actions that the Speaker took in relation to the occupation of Parliament Grounds.
Once again, we are confronted with the word “trespass”.
It has been argued that, by deeming the protesters to be trespassers and calling upon the Police to evict them from the parliamentary precincts, the Speaker heightened the tensions already developing between the protesters and the authorities; setting up an unhelpful “Us” versus “Them” binary that could only make matters worse.
Then, to the consternation of a very large number of New Zealanders, the Speaker authorised the persistent broadcast – at uncomfortable volume – of music considered likely to drive the protesters from their tents. More seriously, he caused the grounds’ sprinkler system to be turned on, soaking the protesters and transforming Parliament’s green lawns into a muddy morass.
To say that these actions did not improve the chances of a peaceful resolution to the protest would be a considerable understatement. Indeed, they raised serious concerns about the Speaker’s judgement.
And now, Speaker Mallard is advising former members of Parliament that they may not enter the parliamentary precincts for two years. That Matt King (the former National MP for Northland) and Winston Peters are both leaders of political parties preparing to contest the 2023 General Election only renders the Speaker’s actions all the more contentious. Neither of these gentlemen have been found guilty of any crime. They remain citizens of New Zealand in good standing, whose only offence appears to have been participating in a political event of which Speaker Mallard disapproved.
At the time of writing, political commentators of every political hue are either scratching their heads, or pulling out their hair, at Speaker Mallard’s actions. On one thing, however, they are in broad agreement: these trespass notices represent a stupid and dangerous escalation of the political conflict between “the elites” and “the people”.
Which makes me wonder why the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues have not already intervened to forestall the right-wing populist eruption which the Speaker’s actions seem calculated to transform, from a clear and present danger into a stone-cold certainty. Perhaps, as I write these words, they are doing exactly that – intervening.
The $64,000 question, of course, is: will it do any good? The Speaker, once elected by the House of Representatives, cannot be removed from his office by any other entity. If Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggested quietly that it might be time for Mr Mallard to step aside, and he refused, her only recourse (other than quietly stepping away) would be to enlist the support of the other parliamentary parties in the embarrassing process of forcing him from the Speaker’s Chair. On the basis of the behaviour we have seen so far, it cannot be confidently predicted that Mr Mallard would go quietly.
The other, even more disturbing, possibility is that neither the Prime Minister, nor her colleagues, want to replace the Speaker. They may well consider his exploits against the noose-waving mob outside ‘The People’s Place’ to be nothing short of heroic. Their collective judgement may be that Messers King and Peters are getting exactly what they deserve. By choosing to align themselves with the “Far-Right extremists” behind the occupation, the former parliamentarians have made their beds – and now they must lie in them.
If this is, indeed, their judgement, then the Speaker’s future is secure. The same cannot be said, however, of this government’s future. With every passing day, the impression grows that Ms Ardern’s party sees less and less to like and admire in the people whose votes elected it. We seem to have become a huge source of disappointment for them.
Turn on the sprinklers!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 May 2022.