Week in Politics: Speaker's rapist comment triggers fear and confusion

10:50 pm on 25 May 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - What a week! When Speaker Trevor Mallard told Morning Report there could be a rapist in Parliament he set off a day of fear, chaos and confusion in the precinct.

Trevor Mallard, Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives.

Trevor Mallard, Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Paula Bennett said her staff were afraid. It was reported that women had been told not to walk the corridors alone.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Leader of the House Chris Hipkins sought an urgent meeting with Mr Mallard to seek assurances that Parliament was a safe place in which to work. Party leaders were called in and horrified MPs felt they were under suspicion. Winston Peters, who as usual seemed to know more than anyone else, said the suspect was a parliamentary staffer, not an MP.

Mr Mallard had said he believed one individual was responsible for all three serious sexual assault incidents referred to by Debbie Francis in her report on bullying in Parliament.

Before noon that day, Wednesday, one woman went to Parliamentary Service general manager Rafael Gonzalez Montero to report an assault which happened five years ago - before the period covered by Ms Francis' inquiry.

External reviewer Debbie Francis reveals details of her report into bullying at Parliament.

External reviewer Debbie Francis reveals details of her report into bullying at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

She had complained previously but the inquiry didn't go anywhere. Mr Montero immediately re-opened it. Just before 2pm a staff member was stood down and left the building.

Mr Mallard's comments to Morning Report flashed through the media that day. He had said the three incidents, in his opinion, amounted to rape. He believed the perpetrator could still be working in Parliament. The story quickly escalated, on some outlets, to "there is a rapist in Parliament".

Mr Mallard later admitted he could have handled the situation better. He could have been less forthright and more cautious in his choice of words, but the situation he created had the apparent effect of motivating the woman staff member to go to her boss and renew her complaint. The identity of the alleged offender was obviously known to the Parliamentary Service and to Mr Mallard, and that person was indeed still working on the premises.

Where does it go from here? The woman staff member has been encouraged to lay a complaint with the police. It isn't known whether she has done that and the police won't comment on any aspect of the report or what happened in Parliament that day.

Judith Collins, a former police minister, pointed out that the police don't have to have a complainant before they open an inquiry. If they have reason to believe a crime or crimes have been committed, they can go it alone.

Judith Collins speaks to media at Parliament 21 May 2019

Judith Collins speaks to media at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Surely the three incidents reported by Ms Francis and the fact that Mr Mallard believes one person was responsible for them is enough to provoke a response. Perhaps it has, and police are already onto it.

What makes it difficult is that evidence gathered by Ms Francis was gained under conditions of strict anonymity for the hundreds of respondents who gave her evidence of bullying and bad behaviour in Parliament. They won't be identified unless they decide to come forward, and so far none have.

Parliament's week was notable for other events as well, none of them anywhere near as dramatic but nonetheless important.

The government's zero carbon bill went through its first reading with National's support - for now.

Ms Ardern wanted consensus on the legislation that sets a legal target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and on the first reading she got a vote of 119-1. ACT's David Seymour was the only dissenter.

National's support isn't guaranteed for the bill's later stages. Leader Simon Bridges, with his eye on the farmer vote], says the target set for methane gas emissions from animals is too high and to achieve it would mean culling herds. The bill is now with a select committee for public submissions, and National will be pushing for a reduced methane target. So will the farmers.

Simon Bridges.

National is supporting the government's climate change bill, but leader Simon Bridges says the methane reduction target is too high. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The government, in another pre-budget announcement, revealed a $320 million package for services aimed at reducing domestic and sexual offending.

Ms Ardern said around a million New Zealanders suffer family and sexual violence every year, about 300,000 of them children. The announcement coincided with the publication of Stuff's Homicide Report series which reported that 134 women - an average of nine a year - were killed by a partner or ex-partner in the last 15 years.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressing the media after announcing that NZ and France will lead global efforts to try to end the use of social media to organise and promote terrorism.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

Ms Ardern said New Zealand's domestic and sexual violence statistics were horrific and shocking. The cycle had to be broken and the funding was aimed at doing that.

Then there was Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki's launch of a new political party - Coalition New Zealand.

His wife Hannah Tamaki is its leader and she says it isn't a Christian party. It will be based on family values. "You're going to see politics with teeth," Brian Tamaki promised.

Mrs Tamaki didn't want to discuss policies, although she would like better care for children and fewer people in jail. That's vague enough to mean just about anything.

Hannah Tamaki Checkpoint interview

Hannah Tamaki will lead the new Coalition New Zealand party which is seeking votes in next year's election. Photo: RNZ / Checkpoint

This isn't Destiny's first crack at getting into Parliament. In 2003 Destiny New Zealand was launched with Mr Tamaki saying his church would rule New Zealand in five years.

In the 2006 election it gained 0.62 per cent of the party vote - the mission was obviously going to take a bit longer than five years.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.