23 Oct 2022

Trevor Mallard: 'Humble backbencher of Wainuiomata'

From The House , 7:30 am on 23 October 2022

Trevor Mallard ended his career as an MP this week, a very long career stretching back 38 years to 1984. They say the past is another country but in many ways 1984 really is. It also a very different Parliament and a radically different electoral system. 

The House sat down with Trevor Mallard recently to chat through his career and memories, his views on how Parliament has changed, and his insights into how the place works. The interview turned out to be pretty expansive and so we have split it in two. This article particularly focuses on the more history-oriented elements. Next weekend we will focus on Parliamentary skills and insights.

Below you can:  

  • Watch the Parliament TV video of Trevor Mallard’s valedictory speech to MPs.
  • Listen to the boadcast version of part one, (immediately below in fact).   
  • And with next week's article you can listen to the full interview.
Trevor Mallard delivering his valedictory address in Parliament.

 Trevor Mallard delivering his valedictory address in Parliament. Around him are children (including four of his grandchildren), whose presence in the chamber would have been impossible before he was Speaker. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

We began with place, family and political influences.

'You can’t even take the boy out of Wainui'

Having recently resigned as Speaker Trevor Mallard described himself with a cheeky smile as “a humble backbencher of Wainuiomata.”

Wainuiomata is an elevated suburb in a valley behind the eastern hills of Lower Hutt; an old dry lake-bed that is traditionally a working class area with a surprising number of churches. 

Trevor Mallard went to primary school there and despite periods elsewhere, he chooses to live there still. I put it to him that many folk on an MP’s salary might find somewhere fancier.

“I really like living in Wainuiomata. I think that's because community is important to me. And I feel like I'm part of the Wainuiomata community. There's lots of kids who I went to school with who are still living there; and I see them, I see their children and grandchildren, and in a few cases, great-grandchildren. And so there's a sense of belonging. And there's something special about Wainuiomata – you go over the hill, and you know you're there.”

It also is apparently a great place to have a good garden. He says he gets in trouble for talking the suburb up though. People worry it will get too popular. 

He also doesn’t mind being recognised and being stopped to chat. Just the opposite.

“Most of the people and the Hutt South electorate are lovely people, and it's good to talk to them.”

He says that while you might initially meet them campaigning door to door they will then stop you to chat in the supermarket. It means a trip out for milk can take a long time, especially if he’s in jeans and jandles, which he thinks say “you're having time off, Trevor, you’ve got plenty of time to chat.” 

The advantage of this he says is that people with an issue will seldom make a formal appointment to see their MP, but are happy to chat if they can do so casually. Which can then lead to an email, and so on.

Trevor Mallard deals with the final holdouts on the Parliamentary lawn

Trevor Mallard deals with the final holdouts on the Parliamentary lawn Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Under the influences

Trevor Mallard’s grandfather was an Political Electorate Secretary in Miramar and a recipient of an early state house in Strathmore.

“That made the difference in their life, between between real poverty and having a warm, secure place to live and to eventually buy, which they did – my understanding is that the 100 pounds was the deposit that was required. And it took them over 20 years to save it.”

He learned from union stalwart Ken Douglas more about his family's trade union involvement including during the brutal 1951 waterfront strike.

Mallard says his family's story demonstrates the value of social intervention. But that experience didn’t get him actively involved in national politics. That step was achieved by his then wife-to-be and big Norm Kirk.

“During the 1972 campaign I was encouraged to go down and listen to Norm... at what is now Civic Square. I listened to him and it was just exceptionally moving … He was an orator … he made a fairly simple proposition, and it was essentially, ‘here are 10 points. If you agree with six of them, well, you'd be pretty silly not to vote for us. But if you're up around the eight or nine ... then probably you should be doing some work to make sure that we do win the election’. And that convinced me.” 

Newly inspired he helped out on David Shand’s campaign that election – a campaign that was very nearly successful (Shand narrowly lost on special votes after having already joined the caucus).

Mallard wonders whether – if David Shand had won that election and stayed in politics, he might have ended up as Finance Minister in David Lange’s cabinet.

“If it was David, and not Roger Douglas, he almost certainly would have kept the Labour Government together when it blew apart.” He might also have been New Zealand’s first openly gay cabinet minister.

Mallard finally put himself in the electoral firing line after he set up a Labour Party branch in the King Country and then stood for Hamilton West. He had a lot of support from Koro Wetere who then held Western Māori.

“My very first campaign meeting in 1983 as a candidate, was at joint meeting with him, sort of Hamilton West and Western Māori. We shared brochures, both of us would be on each other's brochures.” Mallard says that Koro Wetere was so keen that Labour win the marginal seats that he encouraged young Māori to join the general role. (Māori seats pre-MMP acted as something of a gerrymander, gaining huge Labour majorities and by soaking up Māori votes helping National win more of the general seats.)

Trevor Mallard addresses the House

Trevor Mallard addresses the House Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

In Parliament: counting and loud

Trevor Mallard won that election and was knee deep in issues very early. His 1984 Maiden Speech left little doubt that he had strong opinions and a willingness to share them. 

In this first introductory speech he criticised the state opening of Parliament as unreflective of New Zealand society, then laid into the outgoing Prime Minister Robert Muldoon for abuses of power, and into Muldoon’s cabinet colleagues for not standing up to him.

Pretty brave for a new MP he outlined a range of policies he thought should be considered, and ripped into the National Party’s male MPs for behaviour that Mallard decried as displaying attitudes that leads to rape in New Zealand. “The male members need to examine their values carefully,” he said.

The drive to improve standards of parliamentary behaviour is not a recent passion apparently. His speech was described by Doug Kidd (who spoke next), as “the most outrageous abuse of conventions of the House”. I asked what led to his criticism.

“What happened when a number of the Labour woman MPs were sworn in was that National Party male members were scoring them out of 10. In the house, out loud, people could hear them. The sort of behavior that even in the 1980s was generally unacceptable. But we had a group of people in there who were not used to having as many women in their workplace. They certainly weren't as used to having some younger women there and they just behaved like they would in a bar with far too much drink on them.”

Being willing to share his opinions is a defining characteristic of Trevor Mallard's career. He says he actually got much better at holding them in once he became a minister, because he explains – when a minister speaks they speak for the Crown. So loose lips launch policies. During his valedictory address this week he was also pretty forthright (but nothing compared to his maiden speech). Particularly he offered a number of policy suggestions, especially around KiwiSaver and even a possible new inflation lever for the Reserve Bank.

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Trevor Mallard cracks up Fran Wilde as they reminisce about working on the Homosexual Law Reform Bill together.  Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

During Trevor Mallard’s first term the Homosexual Law Reform Bill (to legalise gay sex) was a major focus. Mallard became part of the team working to ensure it passed. His role as a former accountant who was also prepared to shake the tree and get MP’s real opinions was as ‘numbers man’.

“It was a really crude thing. I had lists of caucus members, and I used colored pens.”

The task was to achieve the best version of the bill possible while still ensuring it passed. This particularly meant determining exactly how many MPs would support the various possible versions of the bill, particularly the different options for an age of consent.

“It would have sailed through at 20, got through relatively comfortably at 18, but it was a close thing at 16.”

For different reasons those strongly in favour and those strongly opposed were both keen on 16 being the age of consent; those opposed hoping that lower age would guarantee its failure. 

“I basically had to look a lot of people in the eye, people who were supportive of 18 and 20, and get the real sense of if it came to the crunch, and it was 16 or nothing, whether they'd vote for 16.”

He partnered up on this with National Party MP Catherine O’Regan who counted her colleagues.

“We thought we had [a majority of] three, we were told all the way through that we were going to get a surprise vote on the third reading, and we did, so the majority was five. So, you know, a very important bill that had taken a couple of years to work its way through the system … came down to ‘if three people have voted the other way it would have failed’. So that's where the numbers were important.”

For the record they got it over the line with 16 as the age of consent, the same as for hetero sex. The human rights clause protection did not survive the numbers though. 

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Photo: ©VNP

A second term, a whip and a hell caucus

In his second term Trevor Mallard became a junior government whip. It was very bad timing. The caucus he was meant to help manage was becoming unmanageable. 

The caucus degraded until it was famous for internecine warfare. The prime minister was Labour leader David Lange but his caucus (and sometimes his cabinet) also included ideological and personal opposition from Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble (and their supporters). This group went on to found the ACT Party. 

“It was nasty. I think both Michael [Cullen] and I were challenged by Richard Prebble to fight… physically. Both of us declined. I think I can remember a voice from the back of the room saying ‘He's not worth it, Trevor’.”

Mallard declines to divulge which colleague offered that review.

The physical challenge apparently occurred over a pretty trivial matter but illustrates the level of animus and tension in the group of what should be close colleagues.

“Oh, that caucus was rough. People had strongly different views. There were constant attempts, especially after 1987 to roll Lange. Looking back at that, once those attempts got any sort of momentum, then it was clear that the caucus was going to be dysfunctional, and stuff becomes inevitable. It's a pretty big lesson. And what also became clear to me was that the factions … were destroying good decision making, because people were voting with their mates.”

He notes that there were lots of votes in that 80s caucus whereas in the Helen Clark-led caucus a decade later decisions were more likely reached by consensus. He can’t comment on the current Labour Party caucus, because as Speaker he hasn’t been a part of it.

Mallard says Roger Douglas would send out speaking notes to media prior to caucus (which is very naughty), and then David Lange would manipulate the meeting to try to avoid getting to those parts of the agenda. 

“When you get to that level of distrust, then caucuses can't survive and in the end Lange went. Helen Clark and I visited Lange in Māngere at his place over the weekend after Douglas was elected to cabinet in order to try and talk him out of resigning… because we thought it was more or less inevitable that he would and in fact after the weekend he did. And in retrospect, he more or less had to.

"But we were in a position where two thirds of the caucus wanted Lange to be prime minister, and two thirds of the caucus wanted Douglas to be finance minister. And it meant that one third of the caucus was basically mad because it couldn't happen at the same time, mad or just overly optimistic. It had not been working and wouldn't work, and couldn't work.”

Quick Side Note: Under Labour Party rules the caucus elects cabinet members and the prime minister only allocates their roles. When a caucus is united the MPs are likely to elect a group suggested by the PM. It definitely wasn't. 


In next week’s article: the skills of question time (and who does it well), how Trevor Mallard as Speaker made fast rulings, one or two regrets, some changes he would make to the rules, and how Parliament has changed (and improved) over his 38 years. That and more besides.

Trevor Mallard delivering his valedictory address in Parliament.

Trevor Mallard delivering his valedictory address in Parliament. Around him are children which would have been impossible before he was speaker. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Trevor Mallard: Valedictory Speech

Embedding willing, the final speech should appear below. If not click you can watch it on Vimeo.

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