As the political year comes to an end, the Labour Party has much to celebrate, highlighted by an electoral victory that could lead to its longest term in power under its most popular leader in history. This was remarkable, in an era when governments in most Western democracies are under strain.
But there is at least one blot on the Labour escutcheon: the Mallard affair.
Despite calls for his resignation, Trevor Mallard has no intention of stepping aside from his role as Speaker, the third highest post in NZ’s constitutional arrangements.
He has offered profuse apologies for having defamed a person with an accusation of attempted rape, the Prime Minister has accepted he made a “mistake”, and the taxpayer has picked up the legal bill of $330,000 (and counting) that is the price-tag on this “mistake”.
So that’s all neat and tidy, it’s history now, and Parliament can look forward to another year of his judicial guidance in the tradition of his predecessors?
Well, not quite. Opposition parties have declared they have no confidence in him.
Hardened Labour supporters can say this is just the Opposition parties playing politics. And many taxpayers who have to pay the legal price of the Mallard “mistake” may yawn at what they regard as nothing more than the ugly side of the political games played inside the parliamentary arena.
Yet this is the issue: how much judicial authority can Mallard exert in what is supposedly the highest court in the land?
Presiding in Parliament is not some sort of game, with the referee flourishing a red card now and then.
Mallard told a select committee he almost immediately regretted describing the series of sexual assault complaints in a review of parliamentary culture as “rape”. If this be so, why didn’t he offer an apology earlier? Is it because a motion of no confidence may have been moved long before the election?
Veteran Press Gallery journalist Barry Soper contends he withdrew the rape claim just recently because, had he done so last year, chances are he would not have survived a no-confidence vote in his Speakership. New Zealand First would not have supported him.
He may, of course, have been bound by legal advice. But meanwhile the target of his allegation not only had had his employment suspended but was suffering from mental stress. And if he had not been tracked down by a journalist and aided in finding a QC, he could have been left the victim of an unfounded calumny.
This means scant compassion was shown to a person who (Point of Order understands) had served in the parliamentary precinct for 20 years.
Those who support Mallard argue he was motivated by the need to overhaul the once prevalent culture in Parliament of bullying and other unpleasant practices. And who can be critical of his championing the underdog, essentially the tribal instinct of any Labour MP?
With the support of the Prime Minister, accordingly, it seems he can occupy the Speaker’s chair for as long as he wishes.
But Point of Order portends one delicate issue remaining for the Prime Minister. It’s the tradition of offering a knighthood to a Speaker serving a second term.
The dilemma for Ardern is that she will be accused of setting a new standard, if she offers Mallard a knighthood, and it will be the mark of disapproval that would rule out a third term in the Speaker’s chair she if she doesn’t.