Trevor Mallard's blunders have cost him the mana required of the Speaker

OPINION: William Lenthall was a Speaker of the infamous Long Parliament that sat during the turbulent years preceding, during and after the English Civil War. At one dramatic moment, in two decades filled with dramatic moments, King Charles burst into the House of Commons. He wished to arrest five troublesome members.

The sovereign demanded of the Speaker to know the whereabouts of those parliamentarians who had disturbed his royal majesty.

Lenthall responded: "May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here."

Lenthall claimed for his office and for all those who succeeded him that the Speaker was the representative of the house and not of the sovereign.

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Today, the sovereign has been superseded by the executive and the role of Speaker, who is pulled from the ruling party's ranks, remains a constitutional curiosity, yet a vital one.

To allow the Speaker to retain at least the appearance of impartiality, in Westminster itself the Speaker is removed from party politics by convention. In the colonies, the role is held by someone who continues to retain their party affiliation and to caucus with those they are tasked with holding to account.

The Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard. Question time in the House of Representatives debating chamber.
The Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard. Question time in the House of Representatives debating chamber.

It is a role gifted to those whose status and temperament allow them to retain the confidence of all sides of the House, despite their partisan affiliations. On these shores, convention dictates that a successful reign is acknowledged by a knighthood and an ambassadorship to somewhere with excellent theatre.

One of the signs that the Speaker is doing an excellent job is that the public remains largely unaware of their existence. Using this as a metric, the current incumbent is going to remain forever just the Right Honourable and the closest he will get to the Court of Saint James will be on a guided tour.

Trevor Mallard’s failings over the rape claim have been well canvassed, and yet there are aspects of this case that trouble me. Did Mallard call the maligned man at the heart of this drama a rapist? What he said was: “We're talking about serious sexual assault, well that, for me, that's rape ...”

We can argue whether the actions amount to serious sexual assault. Legally, what is alleged to have occurred was indecent assault and affixing the adjective ‘serious’ is a subjective assessment.

Mallard got into trouble when he added his own expansive definition of the term ‘rape’ that, even given the changing nature of language, was legally without foundation.

He isn’t a lawyer. He made a mistake and has a history of losing his cool. This possibly wasn’t a considered statement but an intemperate remark from someone with a history of intemperance.

He eventually apologised, albeit as a part of an agreed legal settlement.

He is under pressure from National's Chris Bishop who, in an elegant bit of irony, has assumed Mallard’s mantle as the Richard Loe of the house.

National Party list MP Chris Bishop.
National Party list MP Chris Bishop.

He is also the focus of a determined campaign by the Taxpayers' Union to repay the costs of the legal case and its settlement. Despite being a member of the union, I disagree. It is the custom in this country that employees have an indemnity from their employers for actions they take in the course of their employment.

These are grounds for dismissal, to be fair, especially given the way Mallard continuously compounded the initial blunder. There was enough to suggest that he had acted in a manner not befitting his station and the honourable thing to do was to be left alone with a bottle of whisky and a pistol (metaphorically speaking).

In New Zealand, the Speaker is a political office, and he retains the confidence of the majority. Without some goodwill from the Opposition, Mallard was in a difficult position, but surely not one that was unrecoverable. Scandals come and go. He did clock Tau Henare in the jaw once and survived politically.

With some humility and evidence of impartiality, he could have navigated back to calmer waters. The man who had been defamed had got as much justice as he was going to get, which is unfair, but life is unfair. He will not be the first, nor the last, person to have had their livelihood damaged by the actions of those who sit in Parliament.This is where this should have ended.

Clearly, Bishop had found a rich seam to mine. He was engaging in the sort of political brutality that Mallard knows well. Bishop would have known that Mallard could not respond - or, at least, that someone in Mallard’s position would have had enough wisdom not to do so.

The sitting Hutt South MP accusing the former Hutt South MP of bullying was done without any self-awareness. But no matter. If you elect to enter the rats' nest of politics, you can expect to get bitten by rats.

Now we come to last week’s outburst. Some two years after he initially misspoke, and having had the time and opportunity to reflect on his actions, Mallard repeated the claim of sexual assault.

We believe, or we should believe, in innocence until proven guilty. Trevor Mallard sits at the apex of Parliament, the guardian of citizens’ rights against tyranny. He sits in the chair and the office bequeathed by the courage of William Lenthall and others.

The view can be taken that, from that office, and with the privileges accorded to him as a member of Parliament, Mallard engaged in a considered, calculated, and deliberate act of malevolence against a person with no ability to respond.

In order to perform his unique constitutional role, as a representative of Parliament and not merely the executive, the Speaker cannot be seen to hold their office solely at the indulgence of the sovereign, or her representative as in our current arrangements.

Trevor Mallard has lost, and critically cannot regain, the mana that his office requires.

* Damien Grant is a regular columnist for Stuff, and a business owner based in Auckland. He writes from a libertarian perspective and is a member of the Taxpayers’ Union but not of any political party.

* CORRECTION: Chris Bishop is a National Party list MP. An earlier photo caption on this story incorrectly said he was the sitting MP for Hutt South. (Amended May 10, 2021, 8.33am.)