Editorial: Speaker should be Parliament's man

Last updated 23:31 08/12/2008

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In theory, question time is one of the cornerstones of a parliamentary democracy, The Dominion Post writes. It gives the Opposition an opportunity to hold Government ministers publicly accountable for their stewardship of their portfolios.

In practice it is a farce. Names are called, tempers fray and points of order are endlessly relitigated.

Occasionally the shambles is amusing; occasionally politicians reveal more about themselves than they realise, but, most often, it leaves schoolchildren watching in the public galleries shaking their heads in disbelief. How can the country's leaders get away with behaviour in the debating chamber that would see them expelled from the classroom?

The root cause of many of the shenanigans is the standing order that requires ministers to "address" questions, but does not require them to answer them.

Instances happen every day.

Take just one example. In September, ACT leader Rodney Hide attempted to quiz then broadcasting minister Trevor Mallard about a 2004 TVNZ interview in which serious allegations were made about fishing company Simunovich Fisheries. The broadcast could be viewed on a blogger's website, he informed Parliament. Had Mr Mallard seen the site or received any reports about it?

Mr Mallard responded by referring him to a different site that had nothing to do with the matters raised by Mr Hide, but ridiculed National leader John Key.

Mr Hide complained. Speaker Margaret Wilson ruled in Mr Mallard's favour. "The member may not be satisfied with the answer and others will judge the quality of it, but it was addressing the question of blogs."

Unfortunately, Mr Mallard's answer was the rule rather than the exception. Ministers in both Labour and National governments have historically used Parliament's byzantine rules to avoid releasing embarrassing information, to muddy the waters of public opinion and to frustrate their political opponents.

It would be naive to think that National ministers, who have spent the past nine years suffering at Labour's hands, were now going to turn the other cheek and answer questions in a straightforward manner. But new Speaker Lockwood Smith will do himself and his National Party a favour if he insists on a greater degree of relevancy in ministerial answers.

A Speaker's reputation is inextricably linked with that of the Parliament over which he or she presides. A government's reputation is influenced by the way its members conduct themselves in the debating chamber - the theatre in which their actions receive the greatest scrutiny. That is something Labour forgot at its cost during its last term in office.

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At first glance, Dr Smith's job is simple. He is simply required to ensure MPs adhere to Parliament's rules. In practice, he will be helped immeasurably by a light touch, a measure of wit and the spine to require National Party colleagues to comply with the spirit as well as the letter of Parliament's rules.

The new Speaker has an opportunity to enhance his reputation and that of his party by defending an institution in sore need of defence - Parliament. It won't be easy, but he should take it.

- The Dominion Post

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