Tensions flare over MP speech ban

Last updated 05:00 26/07/2012

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When Attorney-General Chris Finlayson rose to make one of his waspish speeches in Parliament's general debate yesterday, he would have been tickled pink had he known that the Greens - whom he didn't even mention - would end up being collateral damage.

Mr Finlayson began by puzzling over Labour's claims of Government cronyism, saying: “I seem to be a one-person employment agency for former Labour MPs.” He name-checked Sir Michael Cullen, for one.

Then he scorned the media, by way of mentioning that he had sat through a performance of Ride of the Valkyries. “Nothing more exposes the inaccuracy of headlines that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra would be axed than that I sat through 5 hours of Wagner on a Sunday afternoon.”

Next he turned his attention to the dearth of anti-Government protesters at the National Party conference. “Nothing makes Left-wing protesters abandon their protest faster than light drizzle.”

By the time he had called Labour leader David Shearer and deputy Grant Robertson “the Noel and Liam Gallagher of the Labour Party”, Speaker Lockwood Smith had noticed something about the speech: Mr Finlayson was reading it from a typed sheet of paper.

Nothing incenses the normally even-tempered Dr Smith more than MPs reading speeches from notes, instead of giving them from the heart. At a recent meeting of all parties' representatives, he persuaded them to outlaw the practice except for highly technical subjects, or in respect of very new MPs.

Mr Finlayson met neither criteria. So to redress the balance, Dr Smith allowed the next Opposition speaker, Greens leader Russel Norman, to read his speech from typed notes as well. Dr Smith said he had been “sucked in” by Mr Finlayson, but there would be “no more read speeches”.

However, Green MP Kennedy Graham complained, saying he thought MPs had agreed only to curtail their reading, but had been left with individual discretion to read from notes if they wanted to. Dr Smith told him he remembered wrongly.

Dr Graham said that, with respect, he did not believe he remembered wrongly. If Dr Smith was going to insist on such a strict limit on speech-reading, the Greens would pull out of the agreement.

Dr Smith, already uncomfortably in the limelight for insisting on giving evidence to a committee considering MPs' remuneration without the media being allowed to report on it, was not in the mood for any more controversy.

“The Speaker doesn't need a lecture on the Standing Orders committee. He remembers it very well. He chaired it,” he told Dr Graham tersely.

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Dr Graham persisted, and got a further earful. “The House does not need to suffer read speeches . . . This is a place for debate, not for party position statements prepared outside this House.”

Dr Graham, now doing the procedural equivalent of putting his head in the lion's mouth, said the manner of a speech should be up to MPs, not the Speaker, even if they wanted to make “the most boring speech in the annals of this Parliament”. This sounded distinctly like a threat.

Dr Smith said that, if Dr Graham wanted to express a lack of confidence in the Speaker, he had that option. But in a nice irony, in order to put the matter beyond doubt, he then did exactly what he was telling MPs not to: he read out from notes the full text of the decision of the Standing Orders meeting.

At least he acknowledged a slight double standard, admitting with a grin: “I could not do it from memory.”

- The Dominion Post

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