Speaker Mallard plans to let the game flow

Trevor Mallard says he wants to be a hands-off Speaker in Parliament — if MPs are prepared to play ball. Mallard spoke to Sam Sachdeva about which predecessor is his role model and his plans for parliamentary reform.

Unsurprisingly for a former Rugby World Cup Minister and keen Black Ferns supporter, Trevor Mallard leans on sporting metaphors to describe his transition from a low-ranked opposition MP to the Speaker’s chair.

“It does feel like I’ve gone from being the touch judge at Wainuiomata junior rugby to refereeing a test match.”

Mallard has already faced some pressure under the stadium lights, with a spat over written questions and a fleeting threat to his Speakership that was resolved by a (so far) rare compromise between the Government and the Opposition.

Speaking to Newsroom in his new office, Mallard says he does not intend to be a prolific whistle-blower during his time in charge.

“Some of the best referees do occasionally make comments which help people, issue quiet warnings, but generally it’s the players in the game who have got to be in the centre of it, not the referee.

“Some of the worst referees are the people who think they’re the key to the game, and I want Parliament to run as much as possible without me.”

That’s supported by the predecessor Mallard intends to model himself on.

“The person who I’ve actually admired most in the time I’ve been here has been Kerry Burke, who was a contrast with his predecessor Sir Gerry Wall, who was an absolute interventionist and a pedant, so basically lost the respect of the House both sides.

“Kerry was much more relaxed. I often use refereeing terms: he played the advantage, let things run a bit and people seemed to get better interchanges as a result.”

He hopes to emulate Burke, being less involved than recent speakers, but says that depends on whether the House is willing to play along.

“I’m trialling a bit of a system at Question Time, but it depends on people accepting that people have a right to ask questions and to be heard.

“I’m just trying to get a slightly improved level of quality of questions, applying some of rules there, encouraging ministers to be fulsome but not excessive in the length of their answers.”

Rather than formally calling on ministers and MPs during Question Time, Mallard has simply been nodding in their direction a move he says is deliberate.

“[In the past] everyone was interjecting away and the Speaker had to intervene to give someone the call to ask question and someone else to answer it. Well I just hope the Speaker doesn’t need to be involved in that way.”

“If you go out to the public with policies, you go out with draft legislation, you get a lot of feedback and you make sure that by the time the bill’s introduced it’s in much better form than some legislation that currently comes in, then my view is that there should be a reward for doing that.”

Mallard says the transition from player to referee has been a two-step process, with a three-year stint as Assistant Speaker assisting in what he describes as “behaviour modification”.

“That’s been good having that step, and it’s given me quite a lot of time to think about ways that the Parliament might run better.”

There are a number of suggested reforms to standing orders rejected by the previous Government that he is keen to reconsider, perhaps through one or two-year trials.

Chief among those is what he describes a proposal to “give credit for proper pre-legislative process”.

“If you go out to the public with policies, you go out with draft legislation, you get a lot of feedback and you make sure that by the time the bill’s introduced it’s in much better form than some legislation that currently comes in, then my view is that there should be a reward for doing that.”

That reward would be an automatic right to put that legislation through in extended sittings, meaning “you don’t tie up the normal time of Parliament in putting things through”.

“There’s a lot of areas where you’ve got legislation that is of different ages and vaguely inconsistent at points and if it’s consolidated and brought together, then you’d have a better law book, but no-one wants to do it because it takes hours of parliamentary time to do it.”

While a 2011 change to standing orders allowed the House to extend its sitting hours, Mallard says that has primarily been used for Treaty of Waitangi legislation “and I think there’s room for much more”.

While there have been grumblings among some on the right that Mallard could prove more “tribal” than recent Speakers, he is keen to maintain a healthy distance from his Labour colleagues.

He says he won’t attend regular caucus meetings, and while he may go to the more social summer caucus meetings,”if any discussions come close to short-term policy or House tactics, I won’t take part in it”.

“What I’m hoping for, [for] example is when the different caucuses have their Christmas functions or whatever, they’ll invite me, and I’ll make a point of attending those that I’m invited to.”

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