23 Jul 2020

Parliamentary privilege gets an outing in harsh general debate

From The House , 11:25 am on 23 July 2020

The General Debate started typically enough, but a few speeches later it took a very sharp turn.

In normal circumstances, the opening acts would have been the focus. Not yesterday.

It was a first outing for the new leader of the Opposition, Judith Collins. A chance to stamp her authority and message on the proceedings. Her plan was to put pressure on the government over a list of planned infrastructure projects.

Judith Collins on the attack in debate

Judith Collins - "Release the list". A many-repeated catch-cry soon to be overshadowed by events. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

In response, Megan Woods, had her own critique on the new leader of the Opposition. "Was it a blueprint for an alternative vision for this country? No. It was 'release the list'."

Megan Woods in debate

Megan Woods - "What we have is an Opposition that is full of rhetoric." Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Chris Bishop interjects

Chris Bishop, the new Shadow Leader of the House has a dig at Megan Woods on the topic of transport. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Next up, the new deputy leader of the National Party, Gerry Brownlee with his first outing in the deputy-leadership role. So far, so normal. His approach was part punch and part punchline.

National MP Gerry Brownlee in the House

Gerry Brownlee - "Meantime, if you've got a bit of spare time, write to the Deputy Prime Minister and tell him that you love nature and are quite interested in the Antarctic. You might get a trip! You might get to post pictures on your social media!" Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

For the penultimate speech before normal business failed, Labour Minister Chris Hipkins. He began the way all Parliamentary speeches tend to begin, with an ad-lib response to the previous speaker before moving onto his notes. 

"Gerry Brownlee forgot the first job of a deputy leader, which is don't overshadow the leader in her first big speech. Mind you, Judith Collins set the bar pretty low, something that we've of course come to expect from Judith Collins in all of her endeavours in this House," Hipkins said.

Chris Hipkins in the House

Chris Hipkins demonstrates the Opposition leader's low bar. "The best thing we can do for our economy is lock in the gains that we have made by stamping out Covid-19, and there is one party in Parliament that wants to put all of that at risk. It's the party opposite, it's the National Party, who have been very clear they would throw away the gains that we have made," Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

And finally, Shane Reti, new to the Opposition's health spokesperson role.

Shane Reti in the House

 Shane Reti "Thank you, Mr Speaker. It's a pleasure to follow a caretaker health minister who replaced a caretaker health minister." Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

And at that point the usual script ended.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters stood up and read a speech of pointed accusations against a long list of named individuals inside and outside of the House whom he believed were involved in the release of information about his personal superannuation mistake. It was quite a long list.

If spoken outside the debating chamber much of what he said might be considered defamatory, but inside the Chamber MPs are protected by parliamentary privilege and can speak without fear of legal redress.

Winston Peters in the House

Winston reads his 'j'accuse'. "Today, I am going to outline the truth about the leak of my superannuation." Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

One subject of Peters' accusations was ACT Leader David Seymour, who stood immediately following the speech and asked for the right of reply - in this case by seeking to make a 'personal explanation'. This is allowed in Parliament but only with the unanimous consent of the MPs present.

David Seymour in the House

"I seek leave to make a personal explanation." - David Seymour Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

"The member has sought leave to make a personal explanation. Is there any objection? Yes, there is," Trevor Mallard said.

"You've had your chance," shouted Peters, having objected to leave being given.

But, regardless, another chance was about to arrive.

The new Shadow Leader of the House, Chris Bishop, about to rise for his own speech asked National's Deputy Whip Matt Doocey to arrange for one of the party's General Debate slots to be gifted to Seymour.

Chris Bishop in the House

Chris Bishop gives Deputy Whip Matt Doocey the nod. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Perchance Bishop was next up for a speech himself and defended himself and others accused.

There is a Parliamentary convention that MPs don't make accusations against named members of the public, since they do not have the capacity to defend themselves under the same level of privilege that the MPs enjoy. Peters' accusations were particularly unusual for including a series of named members of the public. 

Chris Bishop in the House

Chris Bishop in response to Winston Peters. "Well, that will be the Rt Hon Winston Peters' valedictory. And what a great valedictory it was, going out the same way he has spent his political career: fabricating things, alleging things without foundation. And the classic is always this: will Mr Peters repeat those statements outside this Chamber?" Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

While that speech was underway Seymour spoke with tNational Party Deputy Whip Matt Doocey to find a speaking slot.

David Seymour with National Whip Matt Doocey

David Seymour speaks with the National Party Deputy Whip, Matt Doocey. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

And a few speaking slots later, he got his opportunity.

David Seymour in the House

David Seymour - "There are people all around the world who would love to live in a society where they can elect their representatives to come to a House like this and speak for them, and there is a quid pro quo for having the privilege of standing in this House. That is to use parliamentary privilege judiciously, with class, and with discipline, for the public good as we say in the prayer at the beginning of every day that this House sits, not for our own private interests." Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

But at the very end of his speech Seymour broke a rule about impugning another MP, when he accused Peters of lying. You can call MPs many things, but not liars, not specifically at least.

"...Winston Peters, that's your problem, don't lie and make it mine," Seymour said.

So the Speaker asked him to withdraw and apologise, he refused and was kicked out. But soon after the next speech began the Speaker decided that wasn't proper form and sent the Serjeant-at-arms after Seymour to bring him back to the Chamber.

The next speech happened to be Labour MP Poto Williams, a former assistant speaker herself. She abandoned her prepared speech to talk instead about the behaviour of MPs, the privilege they have, the honour of serving, and the example they set.

Labour MP Poto Williams - "We should be upholding the mana of that by being the best that we can be as parliamentarians.
And I know we can be. But unfortunately, when we throw stuff around, whether it's true or not, it sticks. And it smells. And it stains."

Labour MP Poto Williams - "We should be upholding the mana of that by being the best that we can be as parliamentarians. And I know we can be. But unfortunately, when we throw stuff around, whether it's true or not, it sticks. And it smells. And it stains." Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

And during that speech Seymour returned to the chamber, where the Speaker gently explained the state of play.

Speaker Mallard explains his ruling to David Seymour

Speaker Mallard explains his ruling to David Seymour Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

And so, at the end of Poto Williams' speech he got a second crack at the formula parliamentary apology for an 'unparliamentary remark'.

"I withdraw and apologise."

Just another quiet day in the House.