24 Aug 2022

Trevor Mallard leaves the House: A long and colourful career in politics

11:08 am on 24 August 2022

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard is headed off to Ireland as New Zealand's Ambassador, 38 years after he first started working in Parliament.

It marks the end of a long and colourful career in domestic politics for a man known as a straight talker, somewhat belligerent but also with a soft side.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Not to be confused with the eponymous duck in Niue, Mallard has been the 'father of the house' - the longest continuously serving MP - since Nick Smith's resignation last year, with 29 years since he was out of Parliament.

First elected as MP for Hamilton West for two terms in 1984, he then lost in 1990. He returned three years later, winning the Pencarrow electorate - now Hutt South - in his home town of Wellington.

During the fifth Labour government of Helen Clark, he went on to hold various ministerial portfolios including education, state-owned enterprises, sport, labour and broadcasting.

He has never been one to pull his punches, but got into trouble in 2009 when he took a swing at then-National MP Tau Henare outside the debating chamber after Henare made comments about Mallard's separation from his wife.

The MPs got into a scuffle and had to be separated by a Parliamentary staffer. Mallard later apologised, saying what he did was "absolutely wrong" and "one of the most stupid things I've ever done in my life".

Henare at the time said his comments were "edgy" but Mallard should evaluate his career given his violent response: a taunt, perhaps, hoping to elicit another outburst.

Mallard himself of course was known to taunt political opponents over personal issues.

In late 2006 he hinted in the House about then-National leader Don Brash having an affair with Business Roundtable deputy chairwoman Diane Foreman. Brash then went on leave and his marriage broke up the following year.

On the opposition benches during John Key's prime ministership, Mallard remained a top spokesperson for Labour.

He has been a contentious Speaker of the House too, making clear his plans to shake things up in the stuffy institution of Parliament from his early days in the gig.

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Trevor Mallard acting in his role as Speaker of the House. Photo: Dom Thomas

Parliament's referee during debates, the Speaker is expected to remain politically neutral, and is also responsible for overseeing the administration of Parliament's grounds. That last part is usually fairly unremarkable, but when recent protests occupied Parliament's grounds Mallard went on the offensive, blasting music out and turning on the sprinkler systems in an effort to drown out the protesters.

It was a move which earned criticism from the opposition who lodged a notice of no confidence in him, and may have stoked those protesting to dig in further, potentially exacerbating what became a sometimes violent conclusion with police after 23 days.

He also copped flak after his office issued trespass notices to those at the protest - 144 for those arrested, and seven more to other 'persons of interest' including at least five former MPs.

The most high-profile of them was former deputy PM Winston Peters, who threatened legal action, and the notices were swiftly withdrawn for those five former MPs after a meeting with all the parties in Parliament.

The consensus was former MPs should not be treated differently from the general public, but the response must be proportionate to their involvement. The opposition continued to express a lack of confidence in Mallard as Speaker over the matter.

It was an ongoing trend - they had several times urged his removal, including over his allegations about a former staffer.

Mallard had to settle a defamation suit from the staffer for more than $330,000 after he claimed on live radio a rapist was working on Parliament's premises - a claim he later admitted was wrong.

He later also used Parliamentary privilege to accuse the man of sexual assault.

He acknowledged he had made a mistake regarding his claim, but would not resile from his general position that the staffer's "ongoing behaviour has caused distress to a number of women, and he was asked to stop and he hasn't", and further claimed there had been a culture of cover-up.

Mallard was grilled over those claims by opposition MPs in Parliament as part of an hours-long debate. It got heated enough in the debating chamber that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had "serious concerns" about his conduct, and Minister Chris Hipkins urged all MPs involved to "step back".

But Mallard's controversies have not always been so dark.

Animal Welfare spokesperson Trevor Mallard with Violet.

Trevor Mallard with his dog Violet Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

He's a big fan of dogs and instituted new rules to allow them regularly around the halls of power. His own dog Violet once got so excited at meeting police puppies she urinated under his desk.

A grandfather, he's also a big fan of children, and gained international attention after feeding and cradling babies in the debating chamber.

It was a tradition that would continue throughout his tenure: in his final day arbitrating Parliament yesterday, he was seen holding a child with an impressive head of hair.

He also reinterpreted the leave arrangements to make it easier for new parents, and spent $500,000 on a new playground at Parliament as part of a range of efforts to make Parliament more child-friendly.

Something Mallard is not a fan of however, is ties. He had long been of the view ties were outdated, and in February 2021 finally ruled they would no longer be compulsory at Parliament.

The move was not without its own tangled controversy though. He had clashed with Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi who had refused to wear what he called a "colonial noose" in the House, instead sporting a hei tiki.

Mallard ejected Waititi for breaching the rules, but after a repeat the next day made no comment. Just a week before, the Speaker had reluctantly said the tie requirement would remain after feedback on a proposal to remove it.

While he acknowledged there had been "tension", Mallard said Waititi's stunt had helped "focus the issue".

So now, a string of rivalries behind him, Mallard prepares to cut his own ties with Parliament. The place has been a second home to him - literally, his role as Speaker granting him the privilege of an apartment on the premises - and his workplace for 35 years as an MP.

He has held 13 ministerial portfolios, been part of 12 Parliaments, represented three electorates, and had the complicated responsibility of shepherding politicians through the arcane rules of Parliament for five years.

He officially resigns today, with deputy Speaker Adrian Rurawhe widely expected to take up the role after a vote from the House. Mallard is expected to begin his posting in Dublin in January 2023.

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