Parliament is something of a circus. It has strongmen (and women), acrobats (both political and oratorical), clowns; there’s even the occasional elephant in the room.
The action happens in multiple rings. Keeping up is a task, staying on top a miracle.
The Speaker is the ringmaster of the whole show. He’s everything from the landlord (quite literally), to the symbol of the institution. The latter role is why suggestions of bias (such as got the Leader of the Opposition kicked out recently), are a serious infringement.
Even for a circus Parliament has seen a bumper year, with all manner of sideshows and ructions. I sat down with the still newish ringmaster to see what has changed and whether he feels like he's spent a year on the trapeze rather than the megaphone.
Speaker Trevor Mallard has not gone gently into the wild show, but has shown a willingness to grab the institution by the horns and shake it. Most recently he instigated a wide ranging review of work culture (particularly bullying and harassment), which could lead to significant changes in the next year or so. The investigation covers all of Parliament’s numerous employers (including contractors) and judging by the questions sent out is not just lip service.
Question time in the House has changed quite a bit under his rule, with a faster pace and fewer interruptions from the chair. Supplementary questions are now heard in silence, and this gives the Opposition a more uninterrupted opportunity for inquiry.
There has also been a shift in how discipline is meted out with poor behaviour from one side benefitting the other side via the addition of subtraction of supplementary questions. The Speaker says he's noticed this impacting team discipline.
“When a Government member misbehaves and the Opposition gets two, three, four additional supplementary questions, ministers who are coming up tend to give the person whose given the extra supplementaries away quite a dirty look; because most of the time ministers don’t welcome extra supplementaries.”
A whole category of changes attempts to make Parliament a more family-oriented workplace. Being an MP is famously inconsistent with parenting, despite Parliament recently including 11 MPs with babies under one-year-old, so this will be welcomed.
The Speaker says one method has been granting leave.
“I think I’ve been more liberal in the interpretation of the leave arrangements for members of parliament, made it easier for people who are new parents to have some flexibility early in their parenthood around attendance.”
This helps stop parenting needs being overwhelmed by political ones, he says.
“Within our system, there’s a certain amount from each party who are allowed away at any time. And what I don’t like is the needs of a new parent being up against the political needs of a party; so that a parent doesn’t get to go home with their baby because some minister has an urgent political appointment.
“It’s okay to be a parent and a member of Parliament. Even more importantly it’s okay to be a mother and a member of Parliament. I think we’ve only got two under one now where their mothers are members - both cabinet members.”
And it’s not just babies who are now welcomed rather than just tolerated. The Speaker is very much a dog person, and has brought that love into the workplace as well.
“There are quite a few people who now bring their dogs into work. ...It’s funny saying dog’s humanise a place, but in a funny way they do. People, I think, often behave better if there’s some animals around and the place is sort of normalised, rather than being quite as highly pressurised as it can be at times.”
One of the more obvious family-oriented changes is plans for a public playground on the front lawn, but costs and difficulty in securing contractors have slowed this project, which is now slated for the new year.
Watching a Speaker manage the circus would only lead a masochist to envy. I ask Mr Mallard whether he regrets taking the job on. The answer is no, but he’s not without regrets.
“You have ups and downs, you know. I make mistakes in the House and you have periods of regret about that, but not about the overall job. ...I used a derogatory word towards the Leader of the Opposition ...relatively recently, which was wrong and didn’t help the dignity of the place. The Speaker should be setting the best possible example and I wasn’t,” he says.
For all that oppositions are known to vent frustrations on the chair, the current Speaker’s certitude about his core function must cause MPs from his own party sleepless nights.
“There is a very important role in making sure that the government is held to account, and I see that as central to my role. I think I’ve been relatively lucky in that we’ve got a new set of ministers mainly, and they’ve been pretty accepting of the fact that they’ve got to answer questions.”
The Speaker has been pretty tough on his own former colleagues at times, and I ask whether helping hold ministers’ feet to the fire has affected his relationships with them?
“It’s been uneven it’s fair to say. ...There’s been no doubt that we do have some pretty tense times. ...There are occasions where I insist that they answer questions that they’re not comfortable with answering, and we have some interesting discussions in my room afterwards on occasions. There have been ministers who have got quite upset, but I’ve made it clear that there are some standards that I think are important, both in the House and in response to written questions, and in general, ministerial obligations.”
Few of the current group of ministers came into the role with prior experience (not unusual after a long prior administration), and few of the 12 current Select Committee Chairs had previously held that responsibility either (even with a number of them coming from the National Party). This has highlighted yet something else that the Speaker has plans to change.
“One of the things that has become clear to me is that our preparation for ministerial roles and our preparation for chairing Select Committees is abysmal, and that is something that I’m working on, and I hope to make some announcements in the new year.”