Comment

From ‘prissy’ to popular

It's clear why a Code of Parliamentary Conduct is necessary, but the idea it was devised by the Francis Inquiry and the Speaker’s Office is utter fantasy, says Peter Dunne - whose own suggestion back in 1995 was rejected as "prissy"

Anyone who has been involved in politics or spent time, professionally or casually, observing politics for even a small amount of time will understand a couple of basic realities.

First, the nature of humankind means there are very few genuine, new ideas over time – most are some form of refashioning to contemporary conditions of ideas that have been around in some way or another for many years. And second, the reason that ideas can be re-presented and reworked this way is because people generally have fairly short memories. If something happened more than 10 years ago, it may as well be ancient history.

Often ideas often go through several incarnations before the time is right for their introduction. And ideas that were out of step with one generation of voters quickly find fresh favour with the next generation. Politics is therefore a constant process of refashioning, modifying, and adapting, and re-presenting political ideas until the time is right for their adoption by the body politic and the wider public.

This is precisely the case with the current debate about a Code of Parliamentary Conduct.

Recent awful events have made it clear why such a Code is necessary and overdue, but the notion that it is an idea devised by the Francis Inquiry into abusive work relations, and the Speaker’s Office, as a solution to a bad Parliamentary culture is utter fantasy.

It was widely rejected at the time as “prissy” and trying to curtail the robust nature of Parliamentary debate. David Lange was particularly vocal, dismissing it as Parliament’s equivalent of taking the teetotaller’s Pledge.

In fact, a Code has been proposed twice in the last 25 years. On both occasions it was emphatically rejected by the very individuals and parties now falling over themselves to appear so in favour of the idea. And the public’s and the media’s short memory means they can get away with it.

So in the interests of the facts and balance here is what actually happened in that time.

In 1995, as a result of appalling incidents of Parliamentary behaviour, I proposed MPs be invited to sign up to a voluntary Code of Conduct, governing their behaviour in the House including the way they spoke to and about each other; honesty and integrity in their personal and professional relationships with staff and the general public; and an end to unsubstantiated claims in the House about outsiders under the protection of Parliamentary Privilege.

It was widely rejected at the time as “prissy” and trying to curtail the robust nature of Parliamentary debate. David Lange was particularly vocal, dismissing it as Parliament’s equivalent of taking the teetotaller’s pledge.

Undeterred by this rejection, I began compiling an annual list of Parliament’s worst behaved MPs each year, based on the number of times an MP had been thrown out of the Chamber or asked to withdraw and apologise for comments made in the course of debate.

Mallard was such a constant performer that one year I ironically awarded him the “Lifetime Achievement” award for serial misbehaviour

The “Bad Boys” list as it became known was released at the end of each of Parliamentary year and attracted quite a lot of media attention. My aim was simple: to shame the minority badly behaving MPs, whose conduct was impacting on the reputation and standing of Parliament as a whole, into improving their behaviour.

Over the years until 2008 when I stopped compiling the register three MPs consistently stood out as at or near the top of the list each year: Trevor Mallard, Dr Nick Smith and Winston Peters.

Mallard was such a constant performer that one year I ironically awarded him the "Lifetime Achievement" award for serial misbehaviour. Both he and Smith were unfazed and unrepentant, saying being named on the list so regularly simply proved how effective they were as MPs.

During the 2005-2008 Parliament, under the Speakership of Margaret Wilson, there were again instances of bad Parliamentary behaviour. Discussions between ACT, the Maori Party, the Greens and UnitedFuture led those parties to develop and jointly agree to a Code of Conduct modelled on the earlier version. Each of those parties then formally committed to the Code which we presented to the Speaker.

Our proposal to her was that individual MPs from all other parties should be invited on a voluntary basis to lodge their support of the code in confidence with her office. This was to protect them from any bullying at the hands of colleagues.

But once again, Labour, National and New Zealand First rejected the idea of a Code for all the same reasons as before. Very few, if any, of their MPs signed up, leaving the Code as something that only ACT, the Māori Party, the Greens and UnitedFuture took any notice of.

We told the Speaker at the time that our parties would support her publicly in the House if she was to take strong action against badly behaving MPs, but she demurred, saying that for actions to have any impact, she really had to have Labour and National on side. 

The sneering responses from Labour, National and New Zealand First whenever one or other of us tried to support the Speaker in the House confirmed then that once again the idea of MPs agreeing to any curb on their behaviour was going nowhere.

Events during the current Parliament involving staff harassment, bullying, other inappropriate behaviour by and between MPs, not to mention the Walker and Falloon incidents, have severely tarnished Parliament's reputation, and made it impossible to ignore MPs behaving badly any longer. Rather than continue to stand aside from accepting responsibility, as has been the case too often in the past, MPs now have to take responsibility for themselves.

It is both the most delicious yet unfortunate of ironies that the perennial “bad boy” of earlier years Trevor Mallard, as the current Speaker, now finds himself having to address the concerns raised first by the Francis Report, and more recently by the Walker and Falloon scandals.

That is why the adoption of a Code of Practice for Parliamentary Behaviour must be a priority. But, notwithstanding the current nadir of Parliamentary behaviour, there is no guarantee that the Code will be embraced by all parties and MPs. Although, this time both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition seem to be on-side, which is a positive step forward.

However, the same enforcement issues still apply, so it is going to require deft leadership to bring it to fruition successfully. To be taken seriously the code has to be complied with by MPs, and the public has to believe MPs are finally doing something about cleaning up their act.   

It is both the most delicious yet unfortunate of ironies that the perennial “bad boy” of earlier years Trevor Mallard, as the current Speaker, now finds himself having to address the concerns raised first by the Francis Report, and more recently by the Walker and Falloon scandals.

Some, with an eye to the poacher turned gamekeeper analogy, will see him as the ideal person to address the issue. Others, mindful of cases like the Erin Leigh affair, (where then-Environment Minister Mallard had used the protection of Parliamentary Privilege to attack her professionalism and impartiality as a public servant, only to have the Court rule that the Privilege was not absolute, enabling Leigh to sue him successfully for defamation, requiring him and the State Services Commission to apologise unreservedly to her) and other incidents during his career will see his current seizing of the high moral ground as peak hypocrisy.

Either way, it makes it hard to take his position seriously as the person who will enforce a change of behaviour standards.

However, the situation has deteriorated to the extent that Parliament must develop and implement a credible Code of Practice as soon as possible. But for the wider public to have confidence in its credibility and integrity, the Code has to be led by an MP untarnished by past conduct. Unfortunately, for Parliament, Trevor Mallard is not that person.        

 

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