A ballad for Mallard

When beleaguered Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard switched on the sprinklers in Parliament grounds during February’s protest, he may unwittingly have been playing The Last Waltz — for himself.

The strains of Engelbert Humperdinck may not have been among the sugary ballads used to serenade the protesters — played intermittently along with pro-vaccination messages via loudspeakers as they dug trenches in the mud — but may as well have been.

What seemed like a good idea to Mr Mallard at the time, to annoy and provoke the rag-tag bunch to move on, backfired. Instead, it sparked up more determination to stay the course.

Such a poorly thought-through manoeuvre could be seen as somewhat quintessential Mr Mallard behaviour. It is not the only time the feisty Labour Party politician has acted and then asked questions later, although to be fair he had reportedly talked to local residents about it first.

Mr Mallard is well-known for an approach which borders on truculence at times. He has had some highly documented encounters with other politicians which could never be described as merely having a cup of tea and a pleasant chat.

Yet compared with some elected members, who see themselves as the bee’s knees and wouldn’t recognise a voter if they saw one, he brings a refreshing honesty to politics. He is approachable and decisive, believes in fairness, justice and inclusion, and has that Kiwi "bloke next door" persona which will make some of his colleagues green with envy.

However, much of the criticism of his performance as Speaker, particularly in the past six months or so, is well-founded. But to Mr Mallard, the controversies around rape allegations, his use of parliamentary privilege, and clothing standards in the chamber seem like water off a duck’s back.

Mr Mallard should step aside before he ends up being mentioned in the same breath as a very stubborn politician whose surname also began with "M" and contained seven letters.

Who can forget how former National Party prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon effectively held the country to ransom when he lost to David Lange’s Labour in the July 1984 election, refusing to give the new government access to the Treasury books and stymieing its ability to start governing?

That was the same year that Mr Mallard became an MP, representing Hamilton West. After losing it in the 1990 election, he won the Pencarrow seat three years later and stayed as MP in the renamed Hutt South until 2017, when he became a list MP.

Mr Mallard is a vastly experienced politician, having held some heavyweight portfolios, including education, state-owned enterprises, environment and labour. He became Speaker in November 2017 when the Labour-NZ First coalition came into power, and in the same month three years later he was reappointed unopposed.

The Speaker has an unusual, sometimes fraught, relationship with other parliamentarians. It is Parliament which gives the Speaker his or her imprimatur to rule over them. Even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has to abide with Mr Mallard’s rulings.

The whole delicate house of cards is built on trust that the Speaker will make decisions which are fair and reasonable, and mostly correct. The Speaker may be unpopular at times, but must be respected by the House. Once that respect has gone, the structure starts to crumble.

It might have brought forth a few titters when Mr Mallard approved serving five trespass notices to former MPs who visited the anti-mandate protest. Perhaps it was worth it to visualise a harrumphing Winston Peters’ reaction alone?

But by stirring up that particular hornet’s nest — even though the five notices were later withdrawn — he drew ire from across Parliament and calls for his removal as Speaker. Ms Ardern was then forced to defend his right to issue them in the first place.

A good Speaker, like a good person in any public role, needs to know when it is time to go.

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