Tensions high in Parliament: National MP Louise Upston accuses Labour of 'interfering' in outcome of vote

Tensions were high in Parliament after a Labour Party Assistant Speaker was accused of changing the outcome of a vote on legislation following an interjection from a Labour MP.

MPs gathered on Thursday morning to vote on wide-ranging COVID-19 public health response legislation, which is currently at what's called the 'committee stage' where MPs vote on proposed amendments to it. 

Labour MP Jenny Salesa, standing for Speaker Trevor Mallard as Assistant Speaker or 'chairperson' in this case, called for a verbal vote on an amendment to the legislation, which is called a supplementary order paper (SOP), put forward by National MP Melissa Lee. 

"The ayes have it," Salesa said after calling the vote. 

Salesa's declaration clearly caught Labour MPs off guard, because it would mean that Lee's proposed National Party amendment would go ahead. 

"Sorry madam chair, you said the ayes have it," Labour MP Willow Jean Prime interjected. 

Salesa then changed the outcome. 

"My apologies," she said. "The noes have it."

Willow Jean Prime then called for a party vote to clear up the mess. Because Labour has a majority in Parliament, party votes always go in Labour's favour, and this time was no exception. 

"The ayes are 43, the noes are 75," Salesa said. "The amendment is not agreed to."

National MP Louise Upston was not impressed. 

"You declared a vote on the SOP as a 'yes' vote, then based on some interference from the Labour Party, you then changed the vote, and I'd like some explanation why because I think that is a very, very serious matter and if I'm not satisfied, I will seek to have a recall of the Speaker."

Labour MP Chris Hipkins, Leader of the House, argued that Salesa, as Assistant Speaker, is independent and was within her rights. 

"The declaration of the chairperson as to whether the ayes have it or the noes have it is an indication to the House of how the chair interprets the vote and the chair is at liberty to make that declaration however they choose to. 

"If it is then contested, it is then ultimately a roll call of party votes that determines the matter and that is exactly what happened."

Hipkins said Upston was wasting Salesa's time. 

"It is absolutely unacceptable for any member, to at any point, suggest that a presiding officer's actions in the House have been the result of any coercion from any members of the House. That is actually one of the most serious breaches of Standing Orders that any member of the House can do."

Salesa said: "It was my mistake saying 'the ayes have it' instead of saying 'the noes have it'."

Upston wasn't satisfied and called for the Speaker to be brought in to settle the dispute. 

"That's a mistake, so I'm going to seek a recall of the Speaker. That is an egregious issue that occurred in this committee stage on a very significant piece of legislation and I would like the Speaker recalled."

But once again, due to its majority, Labour voted it down. 

"In terms of parliamentary procedure, I will make zero apologies for taking this seriously and in my 13 years I've never seen a motion to recall the Speaker voted down," Upston said. 

"Absolute abuse of power," she could be heard shouting. 

Salesa laid down the law. 

"It is absolutely out of order to allege interference in the chairing of the House," she said. "The chair's ruling is final."

Shadow House Leader Michael Woodhouse, of the National Party, argued that Salesa's first ruling on the verbal vote should have been final. 

"There is no question that the result of the vote on Melissa Lee's SOP having been declared, the chair saw the matter as concluded." 

But Deputy Speaker Adrian Ruwawhe, a Labour MP, later recognised that Salesa had admitted she made a mistake, and "corrected" it with a party vote.