Mallard’s worst slip his wardrobe malfunction
Question Time rules set scene for Speaker’s maiden voyage
When MPs returned to Parliament this week, they discovered Jesus and the Queen had left the building and the babies had arrived.
The new Speaker, Trevor Mallard, had stripped out references to Jesus and the Queen in the te reo Maori version of the prayer that begins each session of Parliament.
Only Almighty God remained. Mallard also abandoned the pretence of being “dragged” up to do the job and implemented a decision to allow babies (other than MPs) into the debating chamber.
The first of those was Labour MP Willow Jean Prime’s 3-month-old, Heeni, who has now spent more time in the new Parliament than NZ First leader Winston Peters.
Allowing babies into the chamber was actually a decision made last year by a committee of all parties, but Mallard is not one to miss out on claiming credit where he can.
He did that by holding Heeni in the Speaker’s chair during a debate on the Paid Parental Leave Bill — something that may come back to bite him when he tries to castigate another MP for using a prop in the House.
Each Speaker brings his or her own touch to Parliament, cosmetically and in more significant ways. Mallard settled on wearing his academic gown.
That is an ill-fitting piece of costume that falls off every time he stands up causing great mirth among the MPs.
That has resulted in the words “[gown slips from shoulders]” appearing repeatedly in Hansard.
Beyond the wardrobe malfunctions and babies, the first Question Time also delivered the type of discipline Mallard intended to apply to ministers answering questions — something both National and Labour would be concerned about.
The National Party on show at Question Time was not the bruised, sulking mess Labour might have hoped for.
There are some sour grapes at the plight it has found itself in — it is now arguing while the Labour-led Government is numerically legitimate, its policies do not have a wide mandate because Labour secured 38 per cent of the vote to National’s 44.
But when it comes to getting on with its new job, the key people in National have adapted surprisingly quickly to Opposition.
Only one — Judith Collins — appears to be actually enjoying it but so far this Opposition is not the same as that dispatched to Opposition by Labour in 1999 or when Labour was then sent packing in 2008.
Shane Jones rather brutally predicted it could not last, diagnosing National as being in shock. “It will grow as they learn about the loneliness, the irrelevance and, bit by bit, the public indifference which will reveal to them how actually lonely they are.”
The last National Opposition mastered the art of forensic questioning in Parliament and English was one of its finest practitioners.
His first attempt showed that skill could easily be revived. Collins too managed to cause some blushes.
Those without prior experience in Opposition such as Steven Joyce and Simon Bridges struggled more.
National is considering getting in some of the veterans of questioning — such as Sir Lockwood Smith or Tony Ryall — to provide some training.
The time for that type of attack questioning will come.
It used the first Question Time not so much for attack as an initial probe of which ministers might lack the ability to withstand the white heat in the future.
It was also a bid to get Labour ministers to make commitments that National could use to slap them about the chops with later if they failed to meet them.
It got little of the latter, although it probably learned Grant Robertson will be no pushover while Kelvin Davis could be vulnerable once he can no longer get away with saying simply that answers will be given “in due course”.
At the moment, things are evenly balanced.
Labour, NZ First and Green ministers have just got access to their predecessors’ paperwork and the dirty little secrets in them — such as Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s discovery of the 45,000 housing shortfall in Auckland.
But National’s former ministers also know those portfolios inside out.
Done right, Question Time can be used with devastating effect by an Opposition.
But that also requires something of an accomplice in the Speaker.
Over the ages, Speakers have imposed different demands on the standard of answers they expect ministers to furnish.
National was always sore when it was last in Opposition that ministers got away with giving the feeblest of answers to questions.
They were almost more aggrieved when they got into Government to discover Sir Lockwood Smith now expected them to give more robust answers and occasionally forced them to do so. In that respect, National at least was satisfied with the maiden voyage of Mallard although Labour may be concerned Mallard will ride them particularly hard to ensure he is not accused of bias.
Mallard set out new rules in advance. The most encouraging was his new system of rewards and punishment by way of stripping a party of questions or awarding them extra ones.
He made it clear he expected ministers not to dodge questions: “Where no attempt is made to provide an informative reply, I’m likely to award the questioner additional supplementary questions.”
Mallard also made sure that Labour was the first he punished, awarding National two extra questions and Act one after Labour MPs interjected while they were asking questions.
While there was an outpouring of appreciation for Mallard after his first refereeing stint, it was also made clear that not all was forgotten.
National’s Nick Smith launched into a tirade over Mallard’s old sins, saying he had been one of the most partisan MPs in Parliament, pushed the boundaries hard, was involved in fisticuffs and was one of the worstbehaving MPs in Parliament’s history.
“His challenge is to change his leopard spots, to turn from being the poacher to being the gamekeeper.”
When Shane Jones later objected to Smith saying some “gratuitous and unwise things” about Mallard, Deputy Speaker Anne Tolley said Jones was possibly right but none of what Smith had said was necessarily untrue.
Every long journey starts with a single step and for the time being, Mallard is having enough trouble mastering his gown without worrying about his spots.
Labour, NZ First and Green ministers have just got access to their predecessors’ paperwork and the dirty little secrets in them.