Q+A: Jessica Mutch interviews David Carter
Sunday 29 September, 2013
Jessica Mutch interviews David Carter
Speaker says Labour’s David Cunliffe is a ‘very accomplished performer’ in the House
The Speaker of the House and former National MP, David Carter, has told TV One’s Q+A programme that the new Labour leader, David Cunliffe, is going to be “a very effective Leader of the Opposition, in my opinion”.
He told Q+A interviewer Jessica Mutch that although Mr Cunliffe had only had one Question Time against the Prime Minister, John Key, which he rated nil-all, he saw David Cunliffe as being “a very accomplished performer”.
He says how well Mr Cunliffe does will depend on the issues Labour “decide to debate, whether the government’s in a spot of bother over a particular issue, whether Labour can bring the issues to the fore that are going to help it get out of Opposition and into government.”
The Speaker says the PM and his Deputy, finance minister Bill English – both National MPs – were among the best performers during Question Time.
When asked who else, Mr Carter says: “one of the very best questioners is the Labour MP Chris Hipkins. He’s concise with his questions. He’s quick on his feet, and because he asks good, sharp questions, I can help him get good answers.”
Mr Carter also says the role of Speaker is a “lonely job”.
“I no longer go to caucus, so in some ways it’s quite a lonely job. I see very little of my former colleagues. I try and stay aloof from colleagues so that I cannot be accused of being biased.”
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Q+A – 29 September, 2013
Speaker of the House
Interviewed by Jessica Mutch
SUSAN Jess spoke to David Carter on Friday and began by asking him about whether the Christian prayer recited before each sitting is still appropriate.
DAVID It’s been there for as long as— certainly for as long as I’ve been in Parliament – 19 years we’ve started every Question Time with the prayer. I presume it’s happened probably for decades. I detect no reason why we shouldn’t have a prayer, but I do recall, and I think it was Margaret Wilson who actually surveyed members to see whether they still wanted to start with a prayer, and at that stage the result was overwhelmingly yes, let’s continue with the tradition.
JESSICA Is it part of that tradition? Is it setting the tone and part of the pomp and ceremony of Parliament?
DAVID Yes, certainly. Parliament starts at 2 o'clock with the Speaker being escorted into the chamber. The mace precedes the Speaker as he arrives in the chamber. I read the prayer and then start with the business of the day, and lead to Question Time.
JESSICA Is it a little bit redundant, though? In the latest Census, only about half of people identified as being Christian. Is it a bit outdated?
DAVID Well, I think you could run that argument that maybe it’s time to have a look at it, but unless there was a movement from Parliament itself, from the Members of Parliament asking me to have a look at it, I would not attempt to change the tradition without good reason.
JESSICA And that’s not something you’re considering at the moment?
DAVID Well, certainly I’ve not had anybody else raise it with me as to whether it’s still relevant in this day and age, but if Members of Parliament were to raise it with me, I would probably do what Margaret Wilson did – again survey Members of Parliament - see what their feel is, and that would guide me in making a decision.
JESSICA You're the Speaker of the House. This is a job you didn’t want. Are you enjoying it more than you thought you would?
DAVID You’re not right in saying it’s a job I didn’t want. I thoroughly enjoyed my Cabinet role. I went with the aspiration—
JESSICA So you’re saying you wanted this role and sought out this role of Speaker?
DAVID No, I certainly never sought it out, but when it was officially offered to me, I accepted it with delight. I’m thoroughly enjoying the role. It’s a huge honour to be the Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, and it’s a role that I’ve grown into, I think. I’m enjoying it.
JESSICA How do you do that? How do you make that transition going from National minister to a neutral Speaker?
DAVID I think that’s the hardest part of the job. I have been a National politician since I arrived there, fighting for the National Party cause. I can't be in that role any more. I’ve got to truly be apolitical. I go into Parliament at every Question Time determined to give every Member of Parliament, wherever they sit in that House, a fair go, provided that Member of Parliament abides by the rules. I no longer go to caucus, so in some ways it’s quite a lonely job. I see very little of my former colleagues. I try and stay aloof from colleagues so that I cannot be accused of being biased.
JESSICA So you are the Speaker first? You’re not a National MP who happens to be Speaker?
DAVID Well, I certainly was a National MP who became Speaker, but now I am Parliament’s man. I am independent, and as I say, as proof of that, I have not been to a caucus meeting or a National Party gathering effectively since I became the Speaker.
JESSICA Because we spoke to some of the other political parties and asked them about you and your role, some of them saying that you haven’t quite got that balance right yet, that you’re still favouring Ministers. Is that hard to get it right?
DAVID Oh, I think if anything I’m probably harder on former colleagues than I am on the Opposition, and that’s probably a good way to be, but, listen, I think at the end of Question Time each day, there’d be probably 120 members who would find something to criticise in the way I’ve handled the day. In my own mind, I follow through the Hansard every day to see how I think I’ve performed. I think I’m doing a credible job of being apolitical and giving MPs a fair go.
JESSICA Do you think some of these Opposition MPs try it on a little bit?
DAVID Oh, yes, yes. At the end of the day, Opposition’s brutal. I’ve been there. I never enjoyed it, and I’m sure most of the Labour and Green MPs don’t enjoy it either. They aspire to be the next government, so they are going to try and make it difficult for the government and if they do that by making it difficult for the Speaker, that’s what I expect. And in fact I think the tensions will increase between now and the next election, inevitably, because the current Opposition either is going to be back in government or they’re going to face a further three years in Opposition.
JESSICA Because it is kind of like controlling a bunch of school kids sometimes, isn’t it? I mean, you're the referee, effectively, and in Question Time, you’re the only one on the floor who gets to see how everyone operates. Do you think MPs are ramping it up? Do you think they’re worse than they were, say, when you first came into Parliament 19 years ago?
DAVID No, I think it’s stayed much the same. I remember the debate – because I came in under First Past the Post, and I remember the debate led by Rod Donald that MMP will be more consensus-building, etc, etc. I think—
JESSICA It’s not, is it?
DAVID No, Question Time – it’s a rugged part of the Parliamentary day. It’s the chance for Oppositions to try and bring down a government; it’s the chance for a government to try and get its good stories out. It will always be rugged, but I think it will get more rugged between now and the end of next year when we go to a General Election.
JESSICA Now, this is going to be a tough question for you, but who do you think is the best performer in the House, and who do you think is the worst?
DAVID Oh, I certainly don’t think I’ll mention the worst, but there are some very good performers in answering questions—
JESSICA Who’s the best, do you think?
DAVID Oh, there's some very good performers. The Prime Minister’s good, Bill English is very good at answering.
JESSICA Both National MPs. Who else?
DAVID Well, one of the very best questioners is the Labour MP Chris Hipkins. He’s concise with his questions. He’s quick on his feet, and because he asks good, sharp questions, I can help him get good answers.
JESSICA Who grates you the wrong way? Who is a poor performer in the House – perhaps except for Winston Peters?
DAVID Well, Winston and I have a history, but he’s still a very good performer in the House. He uses the House very, very effectively, and will try it on to the nth degree and he’ll try the Speaker on. I expected that.
JESSICA What about David Cunliffe? You’re the only one who has got to see him face to face. How is he going against John Key?
DAVID I think he’s going very, very well. Of course, he’s only had one Question Time at this stage against the Prime Minister, but I think David Cunliffe is a very accomplished performer—
JESSICA Better than David Shearer, do you think?
DAVID David Shearer was a really nice guy. I don’t think he was ever comfortable in that role, particularly at Question Time. David Cunliffe is going to be a very effective Leader of the Opposition, in my opinion.
JESSICA Did he get under John Key’s skin, do you think?
DAVID On that first day, no. I would say it was nil-all.
JESSICA Do you think he will, though? You think he’ll improve and get better?
DAVID Well, having said that, they’re both good performers, so I think it’ll depend a lot on the issues that they decide to debate, whether the government’s in a spot of bother over a particular issue, whether Labour can bring the issues to the fore that are going to help it get out of Opposition and into government.
JESSICA Looking forward now, traditionally Speakers go on to do some very exotic overseas postings. What role would you like to do next?
DAVID I haven’t really thought about that, because at this stage, I want to continue being a good, fair Speaker of the House of Representatives. Of course, the next election result may well change that. I suspect if the National Party does not form a government and the Opposition— the current Labour Party do, they’re unlikely to ask me to be the Speaker. They’ll probably give it to one of their own people.
JESSICA So, would you be looking for an ambassador role then?
DAVID I’m going to get to the end of next year and see what happens. I’m hoping I can still continue to be the Speaker, but of course that depends on who the government is.
JESSICA You did a lot of work in South America. Would you be looking at one of those posts?
DAVID Oh, I haven’t any thought at all. I certainly have been to South America. It was a country that I greatly admire. It’s an agricultural country that needs some assistance. I haven’t given any thought to what might be on the horizon for me afterwards. I’ve still got my own farms to manage as well. Maybe I’ll go back and do a bit of that.