Max Johns - missing Geoff Robinson, Blenheim

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Speaking when appointed to

The surprise announcement that Margeret Wilson will be the next Speaker of the House - that is, Parliament's version of a square leg umpire provided by the batting team, who already get the benefit of the doubt - has been met with some pretty harsh opposition. This is more surprising than it first seems, because Speakers are usually given endorsement from both sides of the House (and often appointed unanimously) when they take over the big seat at the front. Even in politics, it's considered bad form to slag off the ref.

Act, who not so long ago were pushing for the job to go to Richard Prebble, are now advertising Ken Shirley as a candidate, but even he admits that he's only standing "as a matter of constitutional principle" (as he did against Jonathan Hunt after the 2002 election) and would prefer current Assistant Speaker Ross Robertson to be in charge. This is all academic, given the support pledged by United Future and the Greens (who support the job not going to an "old boy", but don't indicate which of those two adjectives the emphasis should be on, and claim to like Wilson's sense of humour) to Helen Clark's decision. Gerry Brownlee has led National's charge against the appointment-to-be, attacking both the reasons behind the decision and Wilson's ability to handle the job.

Brownlee claims that the appointment hasn't been made because Wilson will be a good speaker, but because it will remove an unpopular Minister from Cabinet and solve a problem Clark has with working out what to do with Wilson. Already she's been relieved of a former post overseeing the foreshore and seabed mess, and could well be seen as not fulfilling her current duties adequately. But even if this is a convenient reshuffle of a problem Minister, that's not something any opposition could ever prove. That might be why Brownlee left such accusations to the side when interviewed on National Radio this morning, and instead focused on Wilson's suitability for the role. He took issue with her lack of parliamentary experience, particularly given that she has never sat either on the backbenches or in opposition (Wilson first joined Labour's list at number 10 for the 1999 election). Moreover, that Wilson has been working in ministerial capacities since she became an MP means that her time in the debating chamber has been limited more than that of most MPs with five years under their belts. There has already been something of a concession that experience isn't on Wilson's side - she herself told the Herald that she thinks she will "learn on the job".

But should a Speaker learn on the job when more experienced candidates are available? Brownlee was told by his interviewer (who is this mysterious women on my airwaves and what has she done to Geoff Robinson?) that "surely" there must have been Speakers in the past who were appointed before they'd served years in opposition, and on the backbenches, and aged suitably. He knew the answer, but correctly guessed that the interviewer didn't: "Name them," was his simple reponse. The short silence that followed (would Geoff ever let a subject stump him like that?) was good radio, but bad interviewing. "Well...you'd have to go back a long way..." our national broadcaster admitted.

How far back? Is National just making this sound worse than it is? After all, most people can't name the current Speaker, let alone previous holders of the title. Isn't it the sort of job you can flick to anyone with a reasonable ability to memorise a few rules (okay, 402 Standing Orders), regardless of how much they've played the game? I did a bit of hunting, and history would suggest not.

Since 1943, there have been sixteen speakers fill seventeen appointments (with Sir Roy Jack playing the part on two different occasions). The least experienced in terms of time in the House was National's Matthew Oram, who'd been around for seven years before his promotion. He hadn't spent any of that time as a Minister, and so it can be assumed that he'd seen a lot more of the debating chamber than Wilson has. Of the other fifteen, four had spent twelve years as MPs. The rest even longer: Jack waited thirteen years, two each sat through fifteen, sixteen and eighteen years, while others had waits of nineteen, 22, and 25 years. The soon-to-retire Hunt set a record of 33 years from first election win to Speaker appointment. The sixteen post-WW2 Speakers had spent, on average, over sixteen years in the House before their appointments.

History is also on Brownlee's side with his other claims. Every single Speaker since 1900 had spent time in opposition and as a backbencher prior to appointment (before then, the fluid nature of political parties makes "opposition" difficult to define). That this breadth of experience in the House would make a Speaker better in the job seems fair enough - the Speaker is expected to allow balanced debate to take place while also apportioning time to parties depending on the electorial weight they have to throw around. It can't be easy, especially for someone who has only experienced parliamentary debate from one privileged angle. So why is Captain Clark sending someone so inexperienced to judge the run outs? Possibly to remove her from the batting line up without having to make her 12th man, or possibly because, as she claims, Wilson's got what it takes by virtue of her seniority in the current Government and her legal abilities.

These benefits she touts will prove to be only slight at best. A Speaker should be as neutral as is practical while the House sits. This requirement sits uneasily with the inevitable interest that a recent senior member of Cabinet will have in the Government's continued implementation of its policy. Looking at post-war history again, only six out of the sixteen Speakers had ministerial appointments prior to becoming Speaker. Of those six, Sir Peter Tapsell was entirely free of any conflict (being a Labour MP presiding over a National Government), Sir Basil Arthur served as a Minister in the Kirk administration but was Speaker for the first few months of Lange's fourth Labour Government (death cut his reign short), and Hunt held his portfolios under Lange, Palmer and Moore before spending nine years in opposition prior to his appointment by the Clark administration. Jack's first term as Speaker pre-dated his brief membership of cabinet and ended in 1972, when a major reshuffle followed Sir Keith Holyoake's voluntary departure from the Prime Minister's office. Jack filled the roles of Attorney-General and Minister of Justice through the last few months of that National Government (under new PM John Marshall), and next became Speaker after Muldoon's 1975 election win. Only Douglas Kidd and Thomas Burke leapt, as Wilson will, straight from Cabinet to the Speaker's chair.

The legal ability that Clark touts, meanwhile, is no replacement for an intimate knowledge of how Parliament works. A knowledge of rules needs to be backed up with the ability to apply them in the spirit of the game. I read with interest in the short parliament.govt.nz biography of Sir Robert Macfarlane that
Labour had a majority of only one during his term of Speaker in the second Labour Government. Then Labour Party Leader Wallace Rowling noted at the time of Sir Robert's death that no Speaker had worked under more difficult conditions. Sir Robert had controlled the situation by using common sense rather than the rule book, he said.
I hope that similar praise will one day be given to Wilson, and that she will allow common sense to rule over a strict application of rules. But without a reasonable chance for her to first develop her parliamentary commonsense, it doesn't seem likely.