Is Trevor Mallard an impartial Speaker? Two experts on the job weigh in

Speaker Trevor Mallard has been accused of protecting the Prime Minister from tough questions, prompting a mass National walk-out on Wednesday.

But does the accusation hold water? Two former Speakers spoke to RadioLIVE about how they think Mr Mallard is doing in the role.

Chester Borrows was the Deputy Speaker until Anne Tolley was sworn in at the end of 2017. He says it's one of the hardest jobs in Parliament because of the difficulty of remaining impartial.

"It's whether your rulings are impartial, is the main thing," he says. "You're never going to be able to deny your history."

"I thought of my best lines and comebacks while I was sitting in that chair, and wishing I had the opportunity to tell them what I really thought.

"But it's about the rulings - it's not about what's going on in your head at the time."

He says Wednesday's chaos in the House was far from the first time a Speaker has been accused of protecting a Prime Minister.

"Remember David Carter was accused of protecting John Key over the comments made about defending rapists," he says, in reference to comments made about refugees in 2015.

"The Green Party walked out when they felt that David was protecting John Key. So it's not like we haven't been here before on both sides of the House.

"This is classic parliamentary theatre that means bugger-all outside Parliament, really."

He says Mr Mallard has "put his own stamp" on the job during his year in the role.

"He lifted the game of debate in Parliament by shutting people up and sitting them down if they were getting too repetitive, or if they were reading from notes, reading a speech -  which is not within the rules.

"But I think everyone was probably surprised when he became the Speaker because he'd been the attack dog for Labour, he'd been so partisan.

"It'd be a bit like putting Judith Collins or Rob Muldoon up there; you can't be so hard-out and rabid in protection of your party, then all of a sudden you have to have some semblance of partiality."

In terms of his own opinion on Mr Mallard's job performance, he says he's "probably" not impartial enough - but that's nothing new.

"If I was sitting where the Opposition were, I'd say he's definitely being partial. I don't understand the reason behind his ruling [to throw out Simon Bridges], and of course I doubt if he'll ever justify it because Speakers don't do that.

"But I don't think it's probably any different than the way David Carter was seen in those other two situations that I've cited. Labour bore the brunt of that last time, and National are bearing the brunt of it this time."

However he says appointing a Speaker who doesn't belong to any political party isn't the solution. 

"I don't like the idea of bringing someone in from outside to be the chair, because you'd end up with some wonk who knew all about the history of politics and bugger-all about the practice of it.

"It'd be like having a rugby referee who'd never played."

Sir Lockwood Smith was the Speaker from 2008 to 2013, and knows first-hand how easily things can go wrong in Parliament.

"I tried to do my best, but it ain't the easiest job."

He says the Speaker's role is tough because they need to make sure Parliament runs smoothly.

"You're always going to get criticism - I got criticism at the time. The crucial thing for me is to make sure the important functions of Parliament work really well.

"That's why Question Time is so important; that's when Ministers are out on the spot, and the Speaker needs to make sure Ministers answer the questions coming their way.

"If it's a political statement rather than a question, then the Member asking the question deserves to get all the political answer that's coming their way."

He says Ministers, including the Prime Minister, "should be exposed to the full heat of straight questions".

"I give Sir John Key absolute credit. In the four years I was Speaker, never once did he ever speak to me about the way I was conducting the House.

"Never once did he ever suggest that what I was doing wasn't fair to the Government, fair to the National Party or whatever."

He says he treated Sir John the same way he treated all MPs, often telling him to sit down or answer a question.

"One day I said he was a naughty boy."

Sir Lockwood refused to comment on whether he thinks Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is being protected by the Speaker.

"I have a lot of confidence in Trevor Mallard. He cares about Parliament and I'm sure he's doing his best to make it work well."


Contact Newshub with your story tips: