Bryce Edwards: Trevor Mallard – the bullying, biased boss of Parliament

Bryce Edwards: Trevor Mallard – the bullying, biased boss of Parliament

Should Trevor Mallard remain as Speaker of Parliament? It’s a legitimate question, given the current accumulation of concerns about his bullying and bias, and the heightened public concern about the health of this important democratic institution.

Certainly some of his past conduct and allegations against him make for sobering reading – including physical assault, attempts to sabotage the employment of opponents, and sexist bullying.

And some of the terms that have been applied to Mallard – such as “Knee Capper”, “Head Kicker”, “Bully” and, most commonly, “Bovver Boy” – from journalists and commentators (leftwing, rightwing and neutral) give a clue to his temperament and raise questions about his appropriateness for the role of Speaker.

Since yesterday’s report came out, his critics have had a field day drawing attention to the irony of Mallard trying to deal to bullying at Parliament. Former MP Tau Henare went on TV3’s The Project to say that “I think that we have a Speaker that is the epitome of the word irony”. Of course, it was Henare who was punched by Mallard outside the debating chamber back in 2007 – for which Mallard was convicted and fined.

Henare claimed: “This guy was the biggest schoolyard bully in the place. If there was a programme called ‘The Biggest Bully’, he would have won it ten years in a row… When it was announced by him that he was going to do a report on bullying, I literally nearly wet myself” – see Jamie Ensor’s Former National MP Tau Henare lets rip on bullying in Parliament after review release.

Mallard went on the AM Show this morning and responded to criticism, admitting his bad behaviour and claiming that he’s trying to improve – see Jamie Ensor’s Speaker Trevor Mallard acknowledges his behaviour hasn’t been perfect after bullying review.

Mallard claimed his own bullying is a result of his upbringing: “When I was first here it was in the immediate post-Muldoon period, the system up until there had been run by Second World War veterans, it was very stratified, it was very structured, and as was our society”.

AM Show host, Duncan Garner, has also drawn attention to Mallard’s bullying and says he must take more responsibility for what goes on: “He effectively controls the entire Parliament, how it operates, behaves and is perceived. Yet history shows Mallard is always near the centre of controversy, or a dust-up” – see: Speaker of the house Trevor Mallard must lift the lid on bullies.

Garner says: “Mallard still protects the club. He should be naming and shaming our worst MPs and, if he’s on the list, own it – call yourself out. Instead, we slam the door shut. This inquiry is no better than the behaviour itself. Mallard must lift the lid and stop protecting the bullies, otherwise, he’s only encouraging them.”

Over the years there have been a number of significant episodes that might be characterised as bullying by Mallard. Two particularly important ones were his treatment of senior public servant and whistleblower Erin Leigh, and former head of WINZ Christine Rankin.

In 2007 Erin Leigh accused the politician of destroying her reputation. She won her Supreme Court case against Mallard in 2011 – see this Dominion Post editorial from that time: Likeable larrikin becomes a bully.

The former head of WINZ, Christine Rankin, has spoken out in recent times about Mallard’s treatment of her, saying “He was a bully… They were all bullies and they revelled in it” – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s ‘He was a bully’: Christine Rankin accuses ‘crude’ Trevor Mallard of bullying. According to this article, Rankin “says ministers would whisper and laugh about her during meetings – with Mr Mallard using language that still makes her too uncomfortable to repeat.”

His targets also include the media – as the Speaker has a history of personally attacking commentators. He has no compunction in launching personal attacks against people in a manner that makes it hard for them to fight back – the hallmark of a bully.

Of course, the story has rapidly moved on today following Mallard’s shocking allegations this morning that a rapist has been working in the Parliamentary complex – see Derek Cheng’s Parliamentary staffer stood down after historic assault allegation. Mallard went on TV and radio this morning to talk about this, saying on RNZ’s Morning Report that “We’re talking about serious sexual assault. Well that, for me, that’s rape.”

Politicians and political parties are reeling and have demanded action. According to Stacey Kirk, National’s deputy leader Paula Bennett “has accused Speaker Trevor Mallard of ‘harbouring of a criminal’ and urged him to call in police” – see: Paula Bennett says police should be involved over Parliament rape allegation.

According to this article, “The National Party was taking it ‘really seriously’, said Bennett, but Mallard had a duty of care to any victims. Bennett said she had no idea who the potential perpetrator was. But people were now feeling unsafe, following Mallard’s comments, and Bennett said she was personally dealing with staff.”

Mallard also took the chance to lash out at Act Party MP David Seymour’s criticisms of Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman saying he is guilty of bullying behaviour that has crossed a line – see 1News’ Speaker Trevor Mallard says David Seymour bullied Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman.

Is Trevor Mallard also a biased Speaker?

In addition to being known for bullying, Mallard is increasing gaining a reputation for bias in his role running Parliament and the debating chamber. Of course, most Speakers get labelled as biased, but a consensus is emerging that Mallard is the worst in living memory. And some commentators worry that he is bringing the institution of Parliament into disrepute.

The Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, has recently said that Mallard is both extremely good and bad: “I have covered Parliament under seven Speakers and Mallard is both the best and worst of Speakers rolled into one. When he’s good, he’s brilliant but on a bad day he is a House-wrecker” – see: Is it time for fresh challenges for Speaker Trevor Mallard?

Young says Mallard is at his worst “when he abuses the inherent power of the chair by insulting Opposition MPs and then punishes them for reacting under extreme provocation.” She suggests Jacinda Ardern should solve the problem by making him a Government Cabinet Minister in her upcoming reshuffle.

Similarly, in a column late last year, Young declared Mallard “has an inbuilt bias against National Party leader Simon Bridges and a soft spot for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern” – see: Bridges punishment was fair but Mallard’s intolerance is an ongoing problem.

Around the same time, Heather du Plessis-Allan gave her own evaluation: “Speaker of the House isn’t proving a career highlight. He’s been accused of bias towards Labour. And even worse, of trying to protect the Prime Minister. And, much as I like the guy, I have to admit he deserves the criticism” – see: Trevor Mallard is protecting Jacinda Ardern. She outlines the ways in which the Speaker has been biased towards his own side in Parliament, arguing however that this prejudice has actually backfired on the Government.

The most cutting criticisms of Mallard’s bias came in a recent blog post by former parliamentary colleague and opponent, Peter Dunne – see: Parliament’s resident bully boy. Dunne says “time and time again, he seems too quick to intervene to cut the Opposition short, to the benefit and delight of the Government. That is not as it should be.”

Dunne says that Mallard has taken on the role as protector of the Prime Minister: “Faced with a new government and a totally inexperienced Prime Minister he seems to have taken on the role of her protector in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary debate, Question Time in particular. While his paternalistic approach towards the Prime Minister may be understandable in the circumstances, it is, at the same time, not only utterly patronising, but, worse, it is completely inappropriate and totally compromising of the presumed impartiality of the Speaker.”

Going with the analogy that the Speaker’s job is akin to that of a sports referee, Liam Hehir wrote earlier this month that “It is as if the referee, in his excitement, is occasionally catching the ball and kicking a drop goal. It’s not hard to see why the opposing team might feel aggrieved” – see: Parliament’s ref continues to drop the ball and it can’t continue.

Along with many others, Hehir points to the problem of Mallard not being able to make the transition from being one of the hardest Parliamentary brawlers to being in charge: “When he was appointed speaker, the hackneyed cliché of “poacher turned gamekeeper” got a good workout. But for the transition to be sincere, the poaching really needs to stop. It should not remain an occasional sideline.”

Also using a sporting metaphor, legal scholar Andrew Geddis wrote a useful blog post last year about Protecting the umpire, in which he examines the extent to which the Speaker can and can’t be criticised. He points out that Parliament could, in theory, decide to hold critics of Mallard to be in contempt, but in practice this would be highly unlikely to occur.

Nonetheless, the whole debate around Trevor Mallard’s fitness for the job has brought up some important debates about the role of the Speaker and how they are appointed. For the best discussion of this, see John Armstrong’s Mallard and National’s falling out exposes deep flaws in the way we select Parliament’s ‘referee’.

Armstrong argues that the spats from last year have “exposed a yawning gap in the fabric of New Zealand’s democracy. Quite simply, the current procedure employed to select one of Parliament’s number to fill the role of Speaker is archaic, unfair and unacceptable in falling well short of meeting acceptable constitutional standards. In short, there is a drastic need for reform. The New Zealand Parliament needs to take a close look at how some of its overseas counterparts choose their Speaker and – perhaps of even more importance – the steps taken to bolster the independence of the holder of that office.”

But don’t expect reform of the Speaker’s role – or any other parliamentary procedure – any time soon, says Danyl Mclauchlan. He argues it’s not in the interest of the government and nor will it be in the interest of the next government – because they always benefit from the backward arrangements – see: How the Bennett vs Mallard standoff exposes a paradox at the heart of politics.

Finally, despite bullying and bias, the current Speaker is modernising Parliament in some ways, especially through the inclusion of dogs and babies in the buildings – see Lucy Bennett’s Speaker Trevor Mallard on a mission to humanise Parliament, and Wendyl Nissen’s Babies and the Beehive: Trevor Mallard’s big plans for a child-friendly Parliament.