22 Feb 2019

'All honourable': Call no MP a liar

From The House , 12:00 pm on 22 February 2019

Over the decades Parliament has written itself rules called standing orders. A lot of them are written for the purpose of maintaining reasonable order, which isn’t always easy in a place created for people to disagree with each other vehemently.

Among those rules are some basic precepts including: what the Speaker says goes; while the Speaker is talking everyone else is silent; and every MP is honourable.

Unlike Brutus and the “all honourable men” conspirators; honourable suggests honest, well intentioned, truthful, incorruptible and disinterested. At least until proven otherwise.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard on his feet

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard on his feet Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

As charming and archaic as 'honourable' may be, the point is that MPs must assume the best intentions and character of their colleagues, regardless of party. While the worst sin for an MP is to lie to Parliament, casually claiming they have done so is also a big no-no. It’s too serious an accusation to be bandied about.

Suggesting another MP is telling porkies is called "reflecting on a member’s character". Often, when the Speaker stops the action to demand… “the member will stand, withdraw and apologise”, the cause is a heated interjection claiming a falsehood.

"Withdraw and apologise" involves standing up and literally saying “I withdraw and apologise”. It means ‘I apologise for what I said and retract it as inappropriate and incorrect.’ Once upon a time I expect this was also a way to stop duels being fought. Probably not in New Zealand though.

This week in the House one MP was kicked out twice in one day. The first time was for committing this offence (soon after a warning). The second time was for a string of offences that included the same offence repeated, talking back to the Assistant Speaker presiding. Even worse, upon being ejected he had failed to depart but continued attempting to argue.

Labour MP Chris Hipkins raises a point of order

Labour MP Chris Hipkins raises a point of order Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The next day the Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins raised this ‘crime wave’ with the Speaker at the start of the day’s play, saying:

“I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, during question time, a member of the House was ejected for some disorderly comments that they were asked to withdraw and apologise for. Normally, of course, that would be the end of the matter, but the member then went on to repeat the comments outside the House and state that they stood by the comments that they had previously withdrawn and apologised for. They then, subsequently, later in the evening, were ejected from the House a second time for making a similar series of comments—in fact, about eight or nine different infractions on the Standing Orders.

It seems to me that if we're going to have any order in the House, a member having to withdraw and apologise for a comment in the House and then going on to both repeat this comment and then repeat the behaviour on the same day does somewhat draw into question whether in fact the House has got any ability to impose any kind of order.”

It’s also worth noting that when an MP gets up and complains to the Speaker about the behaviour of another MP that is not considered 'telling tales out of school', it’s actually a built-in part of the system; a self-policing aspect of the honour code that MPs operate under.

The MPs most likely to do it are the Leader of the House - Chris Hipkins, and his adversary, the Shadow Leader of the House - Gerry Brownlee. Also the various party Whips. Together these are also the MPs who (other than the speakers) are expected to have the best grasp of the rules.

National MP Gerry Brownlee in the House.

The Shadow Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee whose roles offers a counterpoint to the Government's own business manager. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

One reason to raise all of this is to explain some of the jargon and concepts.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard responded to the issue being raised:

“The first point is that if the first matter had been raised with me in writing before 2 o'clock then I would have a matter of privilege to consider.”

A formal complaint about a ‘breach of privilege’ in the House must be given in writing to the Speaker before the next day’s sitting begins (at 2pm). When an MP breaks the rules of Parliament in a way that disrespects the rules and privileges that underpin the institution this is called a “breach of privilege”. The first port of call on whether such a breach has occured is the Speaker. But there is actually also a a cross-party committee, the Privileges Committee, that is a bit like a quasi-court. That committee investigates whether Parliament should discipline MPs, or even non-MPs (yes, anyone can be punished by Parliament).

The speaker continued:

“Clearly, if someone indicates something in the House and indicates that they were not telling the truth in the House soon afterwards, there is a matter of privilege which could have been considered. It can't now because it is out of time. As far as the later behaviour is concerned, I watched it. I think it's fair to say that the Assistant Speaker in the Chair at the time is a more tolerant person than I am, and in the behaviour certainly met the disorderly criteria for naming. It's my expectation that at some stage if that sort of behaviour continues, the member will be named.”

New Zealand First MPs Ron Mark and Tracey Martin listen to a ruling the Speaker

New Zealand First MPs Ron Mark and Tracey Martin listen to a ruling the Speaker Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Naming sounds quaint, but it is a very serious form of discipline for “severely disorderly conduct”. It can happen if an MP refuses to leave the chamber when they have been ordered to leave by the Speaker for disorderly conduct.

For more details on how it works and the various consequences, you can read our bluffer’s guide to the rules, particularly “Rule 8 - Judge Jury and Executioner.”

If you ranked punishments from lightest to most severe, they would go: withdraw and apologise, leaving the chamber, and at the top - being named.