I’ve long had mixed feelings about Trevor Mallard, but watching his performance as Speaker in his first question time has made it feel very likely that he’s going to be our best Speaker yet. I had expressed cautious optimism at his early statements after the government was formed that indicated he was going to subscribe to a philosophy similar to Lockwood Smith, another member whose reputation was greatly enhanced on becoming speaker and transcending partisanship. This means that we get a speaker from the Labour Party, but not one that views himself as a shield for the Labour Party, and in turn his new deputy, Anne Tolley, has set a similar tone.
For those of you who are not familiar with what the Speaker does, they’re essentially something like the referee of the House of Representatives. They determine who gets to ask how many questions in question time, they are essentially in charge of everything that happens in Parliament, including the disposition of its support budget, and are technically the only person who can technically be directly addressed in the debating chamber, (this is why Parliament has weird rules about using the pronoun “you,” one of the many archaic things about Parliament) and they have something of a judge-like role in issuing Speaker’s Rulings (basically, precedent for Parliament) and interpretting Standing Orders. (rules that govern Parliament)
The Speaker is supposed to be “the House’s man,” (please excuse the gendered term, it’s probably stuck because to my knowledge we have only had three women in the speaker’s chair, and two of those are the new deputy and assistant Speaker from this term) acting for the interests of all of Parliament, but there is as much of a tradition of new speakers being partisan shields to stand between the government and criticism- most commenters at the Standard probably feel David Carter fell firmly into this camp, and National partisans felt equally opposed to Margaret Wilson under the Clark government. The appointment of a fair Speaker is one of the best means of ensuring the government is held to account, hepling to avoid the house getting too noisey or out of control to follow, (a real risk with high tempers on both sides) or becoming overly partisan and having to resort to suspending the usual rules or finding loopholes to get things done, something that New Zealand has really only managed to avoid so far by simply having so few procedural blocks to the Government’s agenda in the first place, at least after we sent the suicide squad to do away with our upper chamber.
This first question time has confirmed that optimism in Mallard’s potential, and delivered even better. Mallard’s initial changes to the rules are excellent, requiring members to be quiet during questions so everyone can hear them, and enforcing this by offering additional supplementaries (or in plain english, “follow-up questions”) to the other side of the house, and following through by awarding multiple questions to the opposition when Labour members were not sufficiently quiet. He still allowed some dodges of questions, but even the best of speakers have rules that allow them to dismiss further questions or points of order by claiming to have sufficiently understood the answer given. This is probably the only area Mallard could improve on thus far- in fact, there are numerous areas he could set useful precedent, such as requiring members to be clear which part of a question they are addressing, something they currently do not have to do. This means that ministers can sometimes pick an “A or B” style dichotomy out of a question, and simply answer “yes” or “no” to the whole thing, an idea that makes a mockery out of holding the government to account.
This offering of extra questions to the side of the house disadvantaged by disorder is a much better enforcement mechanism than trying to shame members or requiring them to leave the chamber, as it’s often seen by your own supporters as something of a Pyrrhic victory to be removed from the debating chamber, as it can enhance the perception that the Speaker is being unfair to your side. Every supplementary, however, is as dangerous as the wit of the member who asks it. (although equally, if the Minister questioned is smarter or simply more confident This will likely make the house much better behaved, and allow even objectionable questions to be heard by the speaker, and thus immediately be ruled out of order when appropriate.
Mallard has also greatly increased the flow of question time with his new rules, by making his acknowledgement of supplementary questions by the same Member of Parliament non-verbal, ie. a nod. This means that we hear the term “Mr. Speaker” interrupting the flow a lot less during debates, and so there’s no awkward pause as members wait for permission to continue with their line of questioning, (or inconvenient telling-off if they’re too enthusiastic and barge ahead!) but that we do get that formality when we really need it: to identify a new questioner to those who cannot see them in the Gallery, or who are listening to the audio feed.
And while it may be frustrating for those on the left of politics to watch Mallard give the opposition considerable license with his new rules while holding the government to every technicality, to the point of eating one of the Greens’ supplementary questions due to mentioning the former government, it’s very good constitutional practice that will increase the mana of Parliament, and ultimately it will make this a better government. Having higher standards of Government, even a new one, is an excellent way to get them up to speed.
In doing so well at incremental change, Mallard may have dulled some of the calls for more radical reform of Parliament, such as using more everyday language, appointing non-partisan speakers, entrenched laws against abusing urgency to skip select committee hearings, and other methods to slow down legislation to ensure better quality. These are all things that should be considered in Select Committees, or as part of the discussion that is hopefully coming soon when we consider constitutional change and potentially becoming a Republic, as the Prime Minister has indicated we might do soon.