Speaker Trevor Mallard on lazy ministers, being biased and becoming Father of the House

Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, talks about how “lazy ministers” get found out, how select committees have become as bad as they were under Muldoon, and which MP he will treat as the de facto Father of the House now that Mallard himself holds the title.

There will be many who think that Trevor Mallard is not fit to be Speaker of the House let alone “Father of the House” after the controversies that have dogged his tenure.

But that is the esteemed title he has inherited after the departure of Nick Smith, the veteran National MP who held the title from 2018 to 2021.

The title is attached to the MP who has held the longest continuous service and Mallard is only the 19th person in the past 100 years to hold it.

He is in the same company as former Prime Ministers Bill Massey, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash, Keith Holyoake, Rob Muldoon, Helen Clark and Bill English – and former non-Prime Ministers include Apirana Ngata, Michael Cullen, and Peter Dunne.

And when Parliament resumes today after a one-week recess, MPs will be able to judge if anything has changed in the controversial Speaker.

“I think as Speaker I am required to have a higher standard of behaviour anyway so I am not sure it will make much difference there.

The next in line are National’s Gerry Brownlee and Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta who were both elected in 1996 but because Brownlee’s name begins with “b” he was sworn in ahead of Mahuta, he has seniority.

There is no extra pay for the title but it is a position that attaches some respect to it, especially if the person has taken an interest in the workings of the House, through being Leader of the House and involved in standing orders.

“I expect that Gerry Brownlee will be de facto that person,” says Mallard.”You see me deferring to him a bit anyway.”

Mallard admits they had a poor relationship with Nick Smith which he said went back to the 1990s when Smith was Education Minister and Mallard was Labour education spokesman.

But things had improved this past term and their clashes in the House dropped off.

“Something I liked about Nick Smith, something I like about David Seymour, is that they are not reluctant to come and talk about issues, to work things through, help me understand what they were trying to do and it helps me adjust my practice going forward.

“People discuss things in my room afterwards rather than ranting on the tiles is something which is generally helpful.”

Nick Smith’s valedictory speech on June 10 was highly critical of select committees, saying they had become lame.

“They have become perfunctory rubber stamps,” Smith lamented.

And he has an ally in Mallard, who says select committees are subject to ministerial interference and MPs on them are not working to their potential.

“They are parliamentarians and legislators and they need to take that responsibility seriously.”

The best committees he has seen are in the UK where they have senior Opposition MPs as chairs.

Mallard remembers the reforms of select committees that Sir Geoffrey Palmer put through in the 1980s to address their failings under Sir Robert Muldoon, when ministers sat on committees and bills were often not examined by committees.

“I can’t put my finger on exactly when changes occurred but certainly, they are different now to how they were when I was a minister.

“These select committees are almost more like first-past-the-post than they were under first-past-the-post. They are more like Muldoon-type select committees than they were Palmer-type select committees.

“It means they are Government-directed and less independent and I think that is a pity because it means people are not encouraged into putting time into making careful submissions.

“When I was a minister, there was much less ministerial interference in the running select committees than there is now.”

Select committees were a big part of Parliament’s accountability mechanism.

“They are a brake on the Government. They should be a method of getting transparency.”

Mallard said he could not dictate to committees what they did, but he would be meeting again with select committee chairs to make it clear what their responsibility was.

There have been many reforms under Mallard’s watch as Speaker including making Parliament a welcoming place for parents of young children and for dogs. He introduced a code of conduct designed to make it a better place to work although, ironically, it has been the treatment of a former staffer that has blighted his speakership.

Much of the controversy stems from Mallard’s incorrect claim that a former staffer was a rapist, the legal action that ensued, and Mallard’s explanation to a select committee and Parliament about his actions.

The Opposition have attempted to move several motions of no-confidence in him and Mallard declined to speak on the matter.

But Mallard has also overseen changes in House procedures which are designed to make it flow better, especially at Question Time when ministers are quizzed about their responsibilities.

His ideal Question Time is one where “the only time you notice me is where I call a question and ministers are well prepared and questions are direct, and information is elicited”.

So what makes a good minister?

“They have got to know what they are talking about,” he says. “If ministers are lazy or not across their subject area it becomes pretty obvious under questioning.”

Essentially they needed to be across their subject matter and be a good communicator.

“People who are really good communicators but don’t have substance get found out in the end and people who have the knowledge but can’t get across don’t make good ministers either.”

Mallard clashed regularly with the National Opposition last term but rejects a suggestion that he had an unconscious bias towards them.

“I have a conscious bias towards the Opposition,” he claims.

“In fact, I know that it’s like a kids’ sport. When you are reffing your own kid, you tend to be harder on them …

“And clearly I’ve had some discussions pretty publicly or criticism from people but the most intense arguments I have had are people who are Labour Party ministers who think I haven’t treated them fairly.”

Mallard was first elected as an MP in 1984, for Hamilton West, and was a backbencher during the two terms of the Fourth Labour Government. He lost his seat in 1990 but was elected to Pencarrow in 1993 and then to Hutt South when the boundaries changed for the first MMP election in 1996. He held that until 2017 and is now in his second term as a list MP.

Since he has been an MP, there hasn’t been a Speaker who has completed two full terms. Whether Mallard will or not is the subject of some speculation.

He is sports mad and some sort of sports post might suit him or a diplomatic posting.

“I’m not generally regarded as being that diplomatic,” he said “but I’m certainly not looking beyond that time that I’m a Member of Parliament now.

“You can’t say never to anything but it is not part of my current plan.”

100 years of Father of the House

• William Ferguson Massey 1856-1925, MP 1894-1925, Father 1920-1925

• Thomas Mason Wilford 1870-1939, MP 1896-1897, 1899-1929, Father 1925-1929

• Apirana Turupa Ngata 1874-1950, MP 1905-1943, Father 1929-1943

• Peter Fraser 1884-1950, MP 1918-1950, Father 1943-1950

• William Edward Parry 1878-1952, MP 1919-1951, Father 1950-1951

• Robert McKeen 1884-1974, MP 1922-1954, Father 1951-1954

• Henry Greathead Rex Mason 1885-1975, MP 1926-1966, Father 1954-1966

• Walter Nash 1882-1968, MP 1929-1968, Father 1966-1968

• Keith Jacka Holyoake 1904-1983, MP 1932-1938, 1943-1977, Father 1968-1977

• Warren Wilfred Freer 1920-2013,MP 1947-1981, Father 1977-1981

• Robert David Muldoon 1921-1992, MP 1960-1991, Father 1981-1991

• Jonathan Lucas Hunt 1938- MP 1966-2005, Father 1991-2005

• Helen Elizabeth Clark 1950- MP 1981-2009, Mother 2005-2009

• Michael John Cullen 1945- MP 1981-2009, Father 2009-2009 (April 18-29)

• James Patrick Anderton 1938-2018, MP 1984-2011, Father 2009-2011

• Peter Francis Patrick Dunne 1954- MP 1984-2017, Father 2011-2017

• Simon William English 1961- MP 1990-2018, Father 2017-2018

• Nicolas Rex Smith 1964- MP 1990-2021, Father 2018-2021

• Trevor Colin Mallard 1954- MP 1984-1990, 1993- Father 2021-

• Source: Parliamentary Library

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