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Dunne Speaks: Mallard Has To Go

It is time for Speaker Trevor Mallard to go. His extraordinary conduct in Parliament this week in defence of false rape allegations he made against a Parliamentary staffer not only further demean himself, but also Parliament as a whole. For the sake of Parliament’s reputation, if not his own rapidly diminishing credibility, he needs to go, and quickly.

The role of Parliament’s Speaker is a crucial one within our Parliamentary system. It is normally held by a senior Member of Parliament, more often than not from the government party, who has a measure of respect from all sides of the House. Because of the nature of the role, the Speaker needs to demonstrate impartiality, good judgement, and fairness, topped off by a calm temperament, and an extraordinary level of patience and good humour. The Speaker also needs to maintain the confidence of the House as a whole, not just the government majority, to be able to operate effectively, and gain the co-operation of Members.

Few Speakers achieve all of these requirements. But most have enough of the skill-set to be able to operate constructively, albeit on occasions with the most grudging support of the non-government side of the House.

Mr Mallard is the exception. Despite being a very long-serving Member of the House, he possesses none of the tact and sensitivity good Speakers need to gain the respect and co-operation of all parties in the House. Mr Mallard’s political style has always been brutal, confrontational and uncompromisingly partisan, useful attributes for the cut and thrust of normal government/opposition politics, but never desirable qualities in a person chosen to be Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The manifestations to date of Mr Mallard’s temperamental unsuitability to be Speaker have focused around his management of the House, particularly Question Time. While there has been an edge to them, they have, by and large, been the standard complaints all Oppositions have from time to time, that they are not getting what they would regard as a fair deal from the Speaker. Although Mr Mallard’s irascibility and rudeness has been causing this traditional friction to be more tense than usual, the situation, although increasingly difficult, was not out of control – until this week’s events.

The controversy surrounding Mr Mallard’s handling of sexual abuse allegations, including his false rape claim, has been around for some time. It was brought closer to a head recently with the revelations of the substantial legal bills the taxpayer has already met as a consequence of his remarks. Mr Mallard had always said he would answer his critics and offer a full explanation at the appropriate time in Parliament. That time was this week.

Those who may have expected the Speaker to have provided a reasoned, factual and possibly contrite explanation of his conduct and the reasons for his claims were completely off the mark. True to form, Mr Mallard’s response was defiant, aggressive, belligerent and intolerant of any criticism. His remarks were highly personalised towards those National MPs who had been raising the issue in recent months, and went way beyond what anyone might have imagined the reasonable response of a Speaker would be in such circumstances.

But herein lies the problem and the reason why Mr Mallard can no longer continue as Speaker. The Opposition has been expressing “no confidence” in the Speaker for some time, but given the Prime Minister’s unwavering support of him and the government’s strong majority in the House, it has been comparatively easy to date to brush that criticism aside as just another disgruntled Opposition grizzling.

However, the visceral and highly personal nature of Mr Mallard’s response changes all that. Now, there can be no doubt that, having showed his true colours so clearly, the Speaker lacks the capacity to deal with the Opposition impartially and fairly that his position requires. In turn, that creates a significant problem for the government and the Prime Minister in particular. To date, her position – correctly – has been that the choice of Speaker is a matter for Parliament, not her, to resolve, since the Speaker is elected by Parliament, not appointed by the Prime Minister.

Mr Mallard’s behaviour this week puts both the government and the Prime Minister in a bind. If they do nothing and continue to stand by him, they will be effectively condoning his conduct. But it would be an unprecedented step for the government to support a vote of no-confidence in the Speaker. At the same time, given her long and frequently professed commitment to a kinder, gentler style of politics, the Prime Minister will be aware of the potential long-term cost to her own reputation of continuing to be seen remaining so closely tied to a Speaker who is so clearly neither of those things.

Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have now spoken out against the Speaker’s conduct after this week’s Parliamentary events, although both say still they have confidence in the Speaker. These are at best holding statements. They sound remarkably like the start of the time-honoured political tactic of slowly but firmly pulling the rug out from under someone. It is the way you withdraw confidence in someone, without formally doing so. You cannot credibly carry on indefinitely being critical of a person’s conduct on the one hand, while continuing to express confidence in them on the other. Once the Prime Minister expressed “serious concerns” about his conduct, Mr Mallard was effectively left with nowhere else to go. It is not just a matter of Mr Mallard’s credibility any more – the Prime Minister has now placed hers on the line as well. Mr Mallard cannot win against that.

In such situations, the person concerned is usually allowed a quiet time of reflection before announcing they have decided, as they always intended, that it is now time for them to move on to pursue those other interests they really have always wanted to. For the sake of Parliament, and the credibility of the Prime Minister he has served so loyally, Mr Mallard must now come to that realisation quickly – and resign.

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