5 Aug 2018

Poachers into game keepers: becoming a speaker

From The House , 7:35 am on 5 August 2018

Anne Tolley and Poto Williams are the electorate MPs for East Coast (National Party) and Christchurch East (Labour Party) respectively. They are both also something more - a Speaker. So how does it feel stepping up to become the keeper of your colleagues?

Both were asked to take the Speaker role by their party leaders at the beginning of this session of Parliament, and then voted into their roles by the House.

But, you cry, isn't Trevor Mallard the Speaker? Yes he is, ten points to Griffindor. Trevor Mallard is the Speaker, but not the only one. So, kind of a trick question.

National MP Anne Tolley is the Deputy Speaker of the House.

National MP Anne Tolley is the Deputy Speaker of the House. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

One Speaker couldn't possibly do the whole job themselves (sitting in the big woolly chair is just a part of the role).

And also, the Speaker is not allowed to chair the House when Parliament goes into committee. So you need at least two helpers so they can take turns chairing interminable committee stage filibusters.

In this current Parliament there is one Speaker (Trevor Mallard); one Deputy Speaker (Anne Tolley), who is Trevor Mallard's number two (rare for an opposition MP); and two assistant speakers (Poto Williams and Adrian Rurawhe who is Labour's MP for Te Tai Hauāuru).

The chair for the Speaker of the House in the debating chamber.

The Big Woolly Speaker's Chair (no, it's not really called that, the adjectives are superfluous) Photo: Supplied / Office of the Clerk

The three back-ups all do the same job as each other but Anne is the senior partner and has the status to go into the House and decide a line call, in the rarish case when an MP throws their toys and demands that the speaker recall the 'real' Speaker to back them up on a decision.

It's like when someone says to a service worker "I demand to speaker to your manager". That's Trevor Mallard, but if he's unavailable it's Anne Tolley.

Eight months into the role we sat down and chatted with Poto Williams and Anne Tolley about the job. You can listen to the audio above for the details.

Poto and Anne both claim to be still getting to grips with the rules of the House, but all evidence is that both of them have wrested control of what can be an unruly classroom of children.

And when necessary they run the place with strength and confidence - because arguably you can't show weakness without becoming a potential target. 

Labour MP Poto Williams in her role as Assistant Speaker.

Labour MP Poto Williams in her role as Assistant Speaker. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The Speakers both credited their own helpers for keeping them on the right track. Speakers do not control the House alone, but have the assistance of both the Speaker's Assistant (who acts as a second brain and sits beside the Speaker) and the Clerks at the Table (who sit at the big table in front of the Speaker and are part of the secretariat that runs Parliament). The Clerks are there to offer their enormous expertise and boggling understanding of the minutiae of the rules.

Listen to the audio for an explanation of a Speaker's most common refrain "don't bring me into the debate", and to hear the surprising thing that is the most difficult part of the job.