OPINION: The worst-kept secret in Parliament is that the present Speaker, Dr Lockwood Smith, is retiring at the end of the year and heading to London to become our high commissioner there.
The assumption is that the new Speaker will be a National Party MP, because for some odd reason it has been an accepted convention that the Speaker should come from the ranks of the party that is in government.
And so far all the names mentioned as possible candidates for the next Speaker are National Party MPs - Tau Henare, David Carter and Maurice Williamson.
I am not sure why this is the case, as the Speaker is supposed to be completely non-partisan, an impartial embodiment of Parliament - in fact, a servant of the House, not of any particular party.
It's crucial that Speakers are seen to act impartially, without fear or favour to any MP or political party, because so much of what happens in the House depends on their rulings. The Speaker must ensure that the rights of ordinary MPs, and of the minority, are heard, along with those of the government and its majority of MPs.
If Parliament elected a Speaker who didn't come from the governing coalition, it would enhance the perception that the Speaker was completely impartial and independent of the government of the day.
On the other hand, if Parliament elects another Speaker from the National Party, there is always the risk that some of their rulings will be perceived as being biased in favour of the Government.
If the Speaker turns down a request for an urgent debate, for example, some may assume they are doing so to protect the Government from political embarrassment. Similarly, if the Speaker allows ministers to avoid answering questions during Question Time, there could be a perception that the Speaker is protecting them or giving the Government an easy ride.
There is no constitutional or other reason why the Speaker should always come from the governing party.
Once, in 1993, the Speaker was a member of the Labour Opposition. The National Party had a wafer-thin, one-seat majority, so it agreed to let Dr Peter Tapsell become the Speaker, and the perception was he did a pretty good job.
I think it's time to ask why this isn't the norm in our MMP Parliament, rather than the exception?
Why shouldn't long-serving MPs with vast political experience who are not members of the Government, such as Annette King, Winston Peters and Phil Goff, be selected as the next Speaker?
In other parliaments, it is frequently the case that the Speaker does not come from the governing party.
In the British Parliament, for example, the Speaker is voted in by secret ballot, and is expected to sever all political connections, and be completely independent of the government of the day. There is a convention that the Speaker will remain in office, regardless of which party is in government, for as long as they are re-elected to Parliament.
There is also a convention that the Speaker will not vote on any motion (except to make a casting vote) and will be elected unopposed in their electorate.
Various ideas have been proposed over the years to strengthen the independence of the New Zealand Speaker, along the lines of the British model.
In 1992, former Clerk of the House, Sir David McGee, recommended that, once selected, New Zealand Speakers should remain in office, regardless of any change in government, until they retired from Parliament.
In 1999, three former Speakers recommended that Speakers should sever their connections with any political party, and remain in office, (usually unopposed in their electorate) as long as the House was satisfied with their performance. The Speakers also questioned the idea that the Speaker's appointment should be seen to be at the disposal of the prime minister, and as serving the purposes of the government.
Surely it's time, in 2012, to take up these ideas, and stipulate that a Speaker, once appointed, should sever links with their political party and become an independent MP. Perhaps future Speakers should also be selected by secret ballot, and be required to give up their right to vote, other than to exercise a casting or a conscience vote.
These changes would enhance the independence and authority of the Speaker, and be a step towards a more broadly representative MMP Parliament.
And, who knows, it might even improve behaviour in the House.
Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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