OPINION: Speaker Lockwood Smith has been increasingly tetchy with rowdy MPs lately, but for a scary moment yesterday it looked as though he was going to bring down a radical new ruling: mandatory sincerity for MPs.
Dr Smith had already thrown Winston Peters out of the House for arguing with him, and even threatened to “name” the NZ First leader.
This should have put all MPs on notice that Dr Smith was on the rampage, as “naming” is a rare and serious parliamentary punishment - a trial-by-earbashing in which the entire House takes part.
After Mr Peters had stormed out in his usual dudgeon, Dr Smith turned his sights on Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce. Mr Joyce gives out sarcastic comments in the same emollient way a kindly aunt gives out sweeties, so doesn't always get pinged for unparliamentary conduct.
But yesterday Dr Smith was on to him. After he repeated a dig about Labour's David Cunliffe's shaved-off beard being a sure sign a leadership rumble was on, Dr Smith made him withdraw and apologise to the whole House for making “that facetious remark”. Mr Joyce did so, but with the customary smirk.
Dr Smith was dissatisfied. “I hope the minister was actually genuine in withdrawing and apologising,” he said warningly, “because the alternative will be that if this carries on like this the minister will be leaving the House just like the other member did.”
Mr Joyce's smirk did not noticeably abate. He did not look noticeably more genuinely sorry, or indeed genuinely sorry at all. On the contrary, he looked rather pleased with himself. It was a tense instant.
Having given his ultimatum, what were Dr Smith's options to enforce genuineness upon Mr Joyce? To institute an “appropriate demeanour” rule? To make Mr Joyce repeat his apology till it looked and sounded earnest enough? To outlaw smirking?
There's the old joke about MPs learning to fake sincerity - but short of intensive acting lessons, how could they be trained to apologise to their rivals in Parliament with anything other than an ill grace?
Fortunately, Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee raised a timely technical point of order that distracted Dr Smith from his compulsory sincerity drive.
It did not, however, distract Dr Smith from a further long lecture about sarcasm. “There's been too much needling going on,” he chided.
If a question contained provocative inferences, it was OK for ministers to lob back a slightly salty reply. If they were asked a straight question, they had to give an answer without any digs.
It wasn't, Dr Smith said, as though it was rare for questions to contain provocative material so, if ministers felt like getting in a few digs, they had only to “hold their breath a moment” and they'd get a chance.
Labour's Trevor Mallard couldn't hold his for long. “He has no [ministerial] responsibility for when my colleague shaves,” he complained.
Dr Smith reiterated that he wanted ministers “to resist the temptation” to be rude - predicting they wouldn't have to resist it for long. Sure enough, Mr Cunliffe's next questions were handily loaded with political digs.
Mr Joyce turned delightedly to Dr Smith, saying: “Mr Speaker, this must be the time that you were referring to!” and proceeded to describe Mr Cunliffe and Labour leader David Shearer as “co-leaders of the Labour Party” - provocation, but this time without penalty.
So there's the new parliamentary rule: rudeness is OK, but only if the Opposition does it first.
- The Dominion Post