2 Oct 2022

Testing times: Parliament’s new speakers get a hazing

From The House , 12:30 pm on 2 October 2022

If my memories of school are accurate, when students are faced with a new teacher there is generally a period of re-testing the limits. Are the rules the same? Will this teacher let you away with things that the previous teacher would not? Is the new one a tough nut or a push-over and can you influence which way that goes?

Parliament suffers similar strutting and fretting when there is a new presiding officer (e.g. the Speaker), the folk who interpret and enforce the rules. 

The newly elected Speaker Adrian Rurawhe (heralded by the Serjeant at arms and accompanied by his Clerks) waits at the door of Government House to be summoned by the Governor General for confirmation.

The newly elected Speaker Adrian Rurawhe (heralded by the Serjeant at arms and accompanied by his Clerks) waits at the door of Government House to be summoned by the Governor General for confirmation. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

First tests for the new blood

Recently Parliament elected as Speaker Adrian Rurawhe, the Labour MP for Te Tai Hauāuru. He comes with a hefty five years of experience as a presiding officer. 

There is also a new Deputy Speaker: Labour MP for Ohariu Greg O’Connor. He has only a few weeks experience in the chair but as a former police officer is trained in raising threatening and quizzical eyebrows. This is an essential skill.

The testing by the naughty boys in class starts early and can last a while. Just minutes into Rurawhe’s first day he was calming a small stoush (MPs get excitable in the uncertain newness). 

With a teacherly calm, he waited for the MPs to settle rather than wailing over the din, then gave them a blast of cheerful sarcasm.

“Are members ready for me to rule? Thank you - I appreciate that. Both the point of order and the member speaking to the point of order are out of order.”

Of course all presiding officers are challenged to some extent all the time, but it seems to ramp up a notch when there is new blood. Especially brand new blood. 

Nelson MP Rachel Boyack (Labour) answers MP's questions from the Table during the committee stage of her Plain Language Bill.

Greg O’Connor chairs a committee stage from the Table. Photo: Phil Smith

Early naughtiness

Not long after Greg O’Connor’s confirmation he needed to employ a threatening eyebrow with intent in the direction of National MP Simon O’Connor who was playing moody, recalcitrant schoolboy. 

Greg O’Connor (L) asked Simon O’Connor (N) to stick to the topic and speak about the bill under debate please, a very common prodding. Simon O’Connor’s response was delivered with a tone a classroom teacher might describe as insolent. 

“Yeah, probably - probably. …” He began to speak again, possibly on the bill, but was interrupted by Greg O’Connor unwilling to let the attitude slide.

“No, no, you will, Mr O'Connor.”

“Oh, very good. We like to follow instruction in this democratic world…”

As we noted up front: 

‘Are the rules the same? Will this teacher let you away with things that the previous teacher would not? Is the new one a tough-nut or a push-over and can you influence which way that goes?’ 

National MPs Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse react to answers in Question Time

National MPs Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse react in the House. (File photo) Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

As a brand new presiding officer Greg O’Connor has had a fair bit of that attitude in the last few weeks. Early on he kicked National MP Michael Woodhouse from the House for losing his cool when O’Connor accepted a closure motion (a request to stop debate and take a vote during a time-unlimited committee stage). 

Woodhouse’s first infringement was interjecting while O’Connor was putting the question (which is the start of the voting process). You don’t talk over a presiding officer, and you also don’t interrupt a vote. Woodhouse then called for a Point of Order (a request for an interpretation of the rules) which is not usually allowed during a vote. 

O’Connor warned him he had better not be questioning his decision to vote. MPs step onto thin ice in questioning a Speaker’s ruling but it is more allowable during the committee stage when presiding officers are acting as chairs, not speakers. (It’s a confusing and historical difference.)

“Well, if we don't have a conversation, the Speaker may well be recalled. And I think it'd be good to avoid that.” — Woodhouse. 

That might have sounded better if it wasn’t couched as a threat. It had the ring of ‘nice debate you’ve got here, it’d be a pity if anything happened to it’. 

Technically speaking if there is a disagreement with the chair during a committee stage the Speaker can be recalled into the debating chamber to make a judgement. It’s unusual and is arguably a slap at a presiding officer to demand a recall, especially in one of the first committee stages they have chaired. 

It would also be very rare for a Speaker to overrule their subordinate. Here, it felt like an attempt to see if the new Speaker would blink. O’Connor did not. He carried on with the motion to vote. Hansard records Woodhouse's response as, “This is outrageous. I'm out of here. What a load of shit, Greg!”

O’Connor asked him to withdraw and apologise. Woodhouse refused.

Refusing to follow a presiding officer's direction is the chamber equivalent of a full tantrum and Woodhouse was probably lucky not to be ‘Named’ (a punishment for misconduct that can lead to a loss of pay). Instead, O’Connor took back the initiative by demanding that Woodhouse do what he was in the process of doing anyway and kicked him out of the chamber. 

It’s a tough thing for a presiding officer to suddenly have to act as the judge and enforcer over their colleagues. Especially in an environment where tension and emotions are frequently elevated.

They have to put up with behaviour that - in a normal workplace - might result in an employee being given a formal warning. But giving quarter would only make their job more difficult later.

And because of this hazing or testing that presiding officers tend to be subjected to, they often get the worst at the front end.

ACT leader David Seymour in the House

ACT leader David Seymour in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Recidivism from the law and order corner

The worst repeat offender in these testing times has probably been ACT leader David Seymour. He has made various forays with different approaches to test the boundaries. (Yes, he often does this, but it’s been amplified).

Among the various tests, Seymour made a play to see if Rurawhe would be more generous - wildly generous even - on the rules that apply to urgent debates. He wasn’t.

A week or so ago he appeared to attempt to gaslight Greg O’Connor. 

During a debate O’Connor called National MP Nicola Grigg to speak (she was next on the roster - yes they are organised).

But shortly after she stood to speak, so did Seymour. Seeing him rise (for what everyone would presume was a point of order) she sat down again. ACT wasn’t scheduled any speeches so it could only be a point of order - right?

Having been got the Speaker’s attention Seymour then launched into a speech of his own. O’Connor interrupted to tell him he didn’t have the call.

“You've called me, Mr Speaker, and I have the call.” - Seymour.

The call is what MPs call the right to speak. 

“Oh, sorry. I call Nicola Grigg.” - O’Connor

“Well, she sat down.”  - Seymour.

“I actually called Nicola Grigg, so the member will sit down. Nicola Grigg.” - O’Connor

“Point of order, Mr Speaker.”  - Seymour.

"Mr Seymour, you will sit down. I called Nicola Grigg." - O’Connor

“Mr Speaker, it's a point of order; you have to take it.”  - Seymour.

“No, Mr Seymour. Just take it easy. All right. Now, your point of order.” - O’Connor 

“Mr Speaker, with respect, if the member has the call, then you have to let them take the call.” - Seymour.

“I actually gave the call to Nicola Grigg, and so the member will sit down. Nicola Grigg has the call.” - O’Connor.

With a weltschmerz shake of his head and an amused chuckle Seymour relented. Cheeky grin or not, it’s hard not to see that as directly testing the new Deputy Speaker’s mettle, and gaslighting him on the rules to boot. 

O’Connor has stood up to MPs’ hazing with aplomb.

That is possibly not surprising given his background as a police officer, including as an undercover officer, as Chris Hipkins had noted when nominating him.  

“Any of us who choose to challenge him in the role ... might do well to think about what he has done and seen in his life and then reassess their opinion of how intimidating he thinks we might be.”

Parliament can be rowdy and MPs uncivil but it's not exactly 'team policing' at a bar brawl.

National Party MP Gerry Brownlee gives a speech in the House.

National MP Gerry Brownlee giving the speech referred to below. Photo: Phil Smith

Friendly fire

It always seems to be like this with a new gang in town. MPs have got excited enough to try it more than might possibly be usual with presiding officers from their own party.

For example Gerry Brownlee to Jaquie Dean, again in the committee stage of a bill. Brownlee interrupted his National Party colleague repeatedly while she attempted to bring him back to the topic under discussion. When he finally resumed he began:

“Well, that is exactly my point, Madam Chair — exactly my point. I started my contribution here, before I was interrupted by people who clearly weren't listening to what I had to say, asking the question: how's it going to work?…”

Ouch. He got away with it though.

Parliament elects Adrian Rurawhe as its new Speaker.

 Speaker Adrian Rurawhe. Photo: Phil Smith


For his part, the new Speaker appears to be undaunted. And has adopted a 'what's good for the goose approach'. Here he responds to Shadow Leader of the House Chris Bishop helpfully suggesting how he should do his job.

“…I've sat here and waited for someone to take a point of order on this, and so my warning is to both sides. When I became Speaker, it was indicated to me that you wanted more robust debate at question time; that's what you're getting. So, to both sides, if you don't want that any more, if you want me to intervene, I will do it, but it will be a very different look to question time, and the indication that I've had from many parties is that you don't want that. You either want it or don't want it; I'll leave it up to you to decide.”

As my father would have said, “put that in your pipe and smoke it".