Back in March the NZ Herald carried a report headlined “Mallard mess needs sorting”. It was written by Audrey Young, then the political editor.
The Labour Party didn’t heed the warning and now this failure is leaving a bigger mess: on Tuesday night Speaker Trevor Mallard accused a former parliamentary staffer, to whom he had apologised for claiming he was a rapist, of sexual assault.
In the aftermath, National Party leader Judith Collins again called for Mallard to be removed as Speaker of the House, describing his behaviour as a disgrace and contending he was “temperamentally unfit” for the role
Meanwhile Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has boxed herself into a corner. She has expressed “overall” confidence in Mallard as Speaker of the House, so she can’t sack him.
But the longer he stays, the more damage can be done to Labour.
According to reliable reports, senior ministers had sat down with Mallard before Tuesday’s debacle in the House and rehearsed how to handle the debate, but clearly that advice was quickly forgotten.
The Prime Minister was left lamenting the next day:
“The serious issue of alleged sexual assault was poorly managed and and inappropriately politicised last night. The tone of the debate did not reflect well on Parliament as a whole.
“Any investigation of claims of sexual assault should be in a manner that takes a victim-centric approach. It also needs to include principles of natural justice for the person allegations are made against.
“I have spoken with The Speaker this morning. He retains my overall confidence, however I have expressed serious concerns to him about the manner in which he conducted himself in the House last night. It did not meet the standards I expect. Nor do I consider it to have met the needs of the victim in this situation. The Speaker acknowledges he did not meet his own standards either”.
With those words ringing in one’s ears, a resignation might have been expected.
But if Ardern expected one, she didn’t get it. That left some National MPs quietly rejoicing: they know the stain won’t be washed away this term.
If you are told by the Prime Minister your behaviour is “totally inappropriate”, isn’t that clear enough?
Although, as one authority put it, it’s important to keep a healthy distance between the government and the impartiality of the Speaker’s office, Ardern is the only one who could have potentially stopped Mallard derailing.
As Ardern herself conceded:
“Parliament rightly needs to set the standard for others to follow”.
But if the Speaker doesn’t lead the way, who else can do it?
It was notable on the night that few ministers rose to their feet during the debate and have been reticent since, whenever questioned about Mallard’s performance.
As Audrey Young wrote so pertinently back in March:
“National clearly does not see Mallard as the sole target. It sees Ardern as a dual target for her continued support of him. It believes it is damaging to both of them, little by little.”
Let’s see, then, if Mallard gets a diplomatic post (Ambassador to Ireland perhaps, although some would suggest he be despatched to Yemen).
But then a new Speaker would have to be found, and it seems Labour doesn’t have anyone ready to step into Mallard’s shoes.
Meanwhile, good luck to the cross-party working group which is being convened to consider “how the Behavioural Standards can be given practical effect when Members of Parliament are dealing with sensitive staff conduct matters such as sexual assault”.