Editorial: Notable Speaker but plum role stinks

We must have missed the advertisement. The nomination of Parliament's Speaker Lockwood Smith as New Zealand's next high commissioner to Britain confirms the worst-kept secret in the capital.

It also confirms the rank hypocrisy of Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Murray McCully and other senior members of the Government. For almost two years Mr McCully has been lecturing officials in his ministry on the need to appoint the best person for the job.

If Mr McCully was true to his principles, a robust selection process would have been conducted for the London position, one of the most sought after diplomatic posts in his gift.

Instead, the minister has handed the position to his National Party colleague to honour undertakings made when Dr Smith was appointed Speaker and to free up a position in Cabinet for new blood when his expected successor, Primary Industries Minister David Carter, is escorted to the Speaker's chair. The process stinks.

Having said that, it must also be acknowledged that Dr Smith has been an outstanding Speaker – the best in living memory.

Expectations were low when he took the post. As a minister and MP he showed little appetite for the procedural manoeuvring and political pointscoring beloved by parliamentary junkies.

However, as Speaker he revolutionised the way Parliament operates, making it more relevant and more vital. It could be argued that Jonathan Hunt, a Labour Speaker, who also trod the path from Parliament to the High Commission in London, began the process by giving MPs greater flexibility at Question Time.

Instead of sticking with the convention that supplementary questions be divided equally between the 12 questions on the order paper, he allowed parties to hoard their allotment for use on issues of particular interest to them.

However, Mr Hunt balked at the next step – requiring ministers to actually answer questions. Instead, he ruled that his responsibility was only to ensure that ministers "address the question", a distinction that allowed nimble ministers to dissemble and obfuscate.

Dr Smith ended that practice. Instead of only requiring ministers to abide by the form of the exercise, he insisted on substance. If questions could be answered, they had to be answered. Ministers who flouted his instructions were chastised and invited to try again. No-one was spared, not even the prime minister.

The new approach required Dr Smith to undertake the heroic task of actually listening to ministerial answers. Occasionally, it led him into deeper waters than he would have wished, particularly when attempting to interpret cryptic responses from Finance Minister Bill English. However, by putting substance ahead of form he raised the standard of debate and reinforced Parliament's standing as New Zealand's supreme decision-making institution.

For that he deserves congratulations and thanks.

The Dominion Post