Wednesday, 26 June 2019

In a recent column I was very critical of the performance to date of the current Speaker of the House of Representatives whom I suggested was acting in a far more partisan manner than many recent Speakers, and behaving more like the bully boy that he was in earlier years than Parliament’s independent arbiter which the role of Speaker requires. Since that time, the Speaker has further tarnished his reputation with his reaction to the report into sexual abuse and staff bullying within the Parliamentary complex.

However, in the last couple of weeks he has taken a stand on a couple of more minor issues that do have some impact on the standing of Parliament, and he deserves some credit for this. First, was his decision to ban MPs from bringing file boxes in party colours into the Parliamentary Chamber. There was nothing worse than looking out at the sea of red, blue, green or black boxes across the top of desks, looking more like team scarves at the football club, than a Parliamentary Debating Chamber. And then there was his decision to ban party logos from lecterns for press conferences and the like held within the Parliamentary complex. Small moves indeed, but positive steps nonetheless to restore a small measure of dignity to Parliament, for which the Speaker deserves credit.

There is one much more significant issue the Speaker needs to address in this regard. In the days before MMP, the convention was that Members were never referred to by name in the Debating Chamber, but by the name of the electorate they represented, or, in the case of Ministers, the portfolio they held (ie., the Member for So-and-so or the Minister of Such-and-such). With the advent of MMP and list MPs not holding an electorate seat  that convention became impractical, for obvious reasons, and Members started  to be referred to by name. There is no problem with any of that, and no need for change.

But, a whole new language has developed about how list MPs are permitted to style themselves. Rarely does one see the description “X” Party list MP – far more common is the appellation “X Party list MP based in the “Y” electorate, or representing the “Z” region, implying somehow that these MPs who have no direct electorate responsibilities as such have at the same time a de facto role as alternate electorate MPs. Many of them have stood in and been defeated in the electorates they like to claim association with, but this not justify the way they have been allowed to describe themselves over the years. Both the major parties are at fault here - they cling to the practice for two main reasons: first, it enables them to claim an ongoing presence in the area between elections, and perhaps set up a taxpayer-funded electorate office there; and, second, it sends a message to the parties’ local supporters that even though they do not hold the electorate seat, the party still cares for them nevertheless.

Now, however cute and cosy all this might be, it is actually a perversion of the MMP system. MMP draws a distinction between electorate MPs elected to represent a particular geographic locality, and list MPs elected to represent a party’s interests more broadly. If it had been MMP’s intention to have electorate MPs directly elected, and list MPs acting as electorate surrogates, we would have been better placed to have simply gone for multi-member constituencies and MPs being elected on a preferential basis, with no need for party lists. In other words, the Single Transferable Vote or STV system. But we did not. In two referenda New Zealanders opted clearly for the MMP system, and until or unless the public preference changes, it is Parliament’s responsibility to respect and uphold that choice, and not try and make it something else.

And, as Parliament’s person, the Speaker is primarily placed to uphold that responsibility. He is the one best placed to stop the game playing of the parties about how list MPs are described, and to insist that everyone plays the game properly and straightforwardly. To that end, he has the authority to require List MPs to describe themselves exactly as what they are – “X” Party List MP – without the additional embellishment.

When it came to issues like changing the Parliamentary Prayer, or banning the coloured boxes and party logos, the Speaker acted on his own authority, without any obvious consultation with the political parties, which might hsve been the case in earlier times. He obviously calculated that in the end the issues were not that important to MPs to cause more than a day or two’s passing irritation.
The challenge now is for him to show similar courage and independence in respect of the way List MPs are styled, especially as this is an issue MPs are likely to feel somewhat more strongly about. On taking office at the start of this Parliament, the Speaker, consistent with all his predecessors, promised to carry out his duties “without fear or favour”. So here is an opportunity for the Speaker – a List MP himself – to demonstrate that in practice.