23 Oct 2018

Speaker of the House seeks advice on Jami-Lee Ross situation

9:42 am on 23 October 2018

Parliament is holding its collective breath to see what's going to happen as MPs return to the capital today, after one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent political history.

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Photo: RNZ

After unleashing a volley of damaging allegations against his former leader, National's Simon Bridges, and his party, Jami-Lee Ross was reportedly taken into mental health care over the weekend.

RNZ has not formally confirmed what happened to Mr Ross over the weekend.

The Speaker of the House has asked for advice about how to best deal with the situation facing the now independent MP.

There are several ways an MP can lose their seat, and one is on mental health grounds, under the Electoral Act.

Speaker Trevor Mallard has to be notified if an MP is admitted to an institution either by compulsory treatment or inpatient order.

As of yesterday afternoon there had been no such notification.

Mr Ross resigned from the National Party caucus last week after Mr Bridges identified him as the leak of his travel expenses.

At the time he also said he intended to resign his Botany seat, effective Friday October 19. However, Mr Ross said on that day he had changed his mind and would stay on in Parliament as an independent MP.

He has been the subject of several allegations of harassing women, claims he has denied.

Mr Ross admitted to having had a mental breakdown a few weeks prior but said he had recovered.

Mr Mallard has been taking advice about the relevant legal matters and privacy guidelines.

The Electoral Act does not appear to require Mr Mallard to report to Parliament if he does end up getting a notification.

Under the Act he would, however, have to alert the Director-General of Health:

"Who, together with some medical practitioner named by the Speaker, shall without delay visit and examine the member to whom the notice relates, and shall report to the Speaker whether the member is mentally disordered."

Then follows a six month period after which the Speaker and the Director-General have to go back to the medical practitioner for an assessment as to whether the MP is "still mentally disordered" - if that is the case the MP's seat becomes vacant.

Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler told Morning Report that a proxy vote was "technically possible" but "high unlikely".

He said Mr Ross had not taken part in any of the parliament votes since he was expelled and so there should be no flow-on effect.

"My understanding is I don't think Jami-Lee Ross took part in any of [the votes] since he was expelled I don't think he sat in the house ... if he had it wouldn't have made a difference."

However, because Mr Ross was an electorate MP and not just a list MP who could be automatically replaced, and it meant his possible departure would reflect on proportionality in parliament.

"If National wanted to use the so-called Waka Jumping legislation, the electoral integrity law, they could, that's a possibility. They've lost parliamentary funding, they lose a vote, they've lost a select committee hearing, they lose the occasional question in the house, and those are all things that when the Supreme Court looked at this in the one previous time the old version of the electoral integrity law was used said [those] were issues that were important."

Since Mr Ross is an independent MP now, it further complicated the process, Mr Edgeler said.

"It's particularly different in this case because it's currently an independent MP. If this was a National or Labour MP, then the party could just cast their proxy vote as one of the quarter of the caucus who can be outside the house.

"The fact that someone outside the house has made a decision, this person should not be able to vote on legislation effectively, is something I imagine that will concern the Speaker... If this was someone doing it without a good reason it could be contempt of parliament."

The current process was the first official step in an assessment of Mr Ross' condition, he said.

"Under the mental health legislation, there's an initial five-day assessment period, if that's not enough to determine if someone should be formally committed for a longer period, there can be another 14 days of assessment.

"At that point, then the family court and the judge has to look at it and approve it and that hasn't happened yet, that's the first step... at that point the court has to formally tell the speaker and that starts the six-month process."

That is all based on a hypothetical situation, and is not the necessarily the course of action that would be taken in Mr Ross's case.

The National Party said it has been seeking advice from medical professionals over the past few weeks and ensuring support was available, but declined to comment any further.

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