7 Nov 2017

Govt denies being hoodwinked over Speaker election vote

3:54 pm on 7 November 2017

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is describing confusion over this morning's election of a new speaker "a minor irritation".

The Labour front bench in deep discussion.

The Labour front bench in deep discussion. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The 52nd Parliament got off to a rocky start, with the National Party appearing to have hoodwinked Labour on the coalition's first day.

After MPs were sworn in, a hasty deal was struck between National and Labour on the floor of the House when Labour did not appear to muster a majority to have its MP Trevor Mallard elected as Speaker.

National had questioned whether Labour had the numbers in the house to get Mr Mallard elected.

After a quick consultation between party whips and senior MPs, Labour agreed to increase the number of select committee positions from 96 to 108.

In fact Labour did have the majority it needed, but fell for National's bluff.

Five government MPs and one National MP were absent from Parliament as MPs were sworn in this morning. This means 55 National MPs and David Seymour for ACT were present; versus 58 for the coalition.

Two of the absent MPs, Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Trade Minister David Parker, are out of the country attending the APEC meeting.

Ms Ardern insisted Labour knew it had the numbers, but did not want to force a vote.

"It tends to be a tradition that you'd prefer to have all parties supporting the speaker and we didn't want to have to ask the speaker to have to vote for himself.

"Look, that issue could have been issued in [the] Business Committee, it was resolved there [it was] a minor irritation, it's not going to stop the business of this government."

Ms Ardern rejected the notion that the government had fallen for National's bluff.

National and Labour MPs struck a hasty deal.

National and Labour MPs in lively discussion on the floor of Parliament during its first day. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The reduction in select committee slots, as decided by the last Parliament, was a point of contention for National.

Earlier today, National Party leader Bill English told RNZ a reduction in select committee seats was anti-democratic.

It had argued nearly a dozen of its MPs would not be sitting on a select committee, therefore diminishing its ability to hold the government to account.

National said the shambles over the Speaker's vote this afternoon was an indication of how the government intended to run its administration.

Outside the House, Mr English said the government came to the House disorganised, which put the vote for the most powerful position in Parliament at risk.

"They've got three parties, they didn't know their own numbers - every day they're going to have challenges being organised enough to run the Parliament properly."

Before the vote National had already agreed to support Mr Mallard, but Mr English said if there was the opportunity the party could have considered voting in someone else.

He denied National blackmailed Labour, saying having the numbers in Parliament is just how it works.

Doing a deal on the floor of the House was "unprecedented", Mr English said.

"I've never seen that happen on the day of electing a Speaker where the proceedings of Parliament were stopped because the government didn't know what numbers it had, didn't know whether it could elect the Speaker and essentially sought our support."

It was a very early victory for National in opposition, Mr English said.

"It's been a win for the role of a large opposition in Parliament because the government tried to restrict our capacity to scrutinise legislation, today because they were disorganised they had to come to an agreement, pushed into it, to make sure the strength of the opposition was recognised."

RNZ understands government ministers outside of Cabinet will now have to sit on some select committees, to ensure their majority.

As it is, the government only has a majority on five out of the 12 select committees.