Speaker Trevor Mallard dodges questions over handling of Parliament protest

Speaker Trevor Mallard has dodged a number of questions over his handling of the protest at Parliament and the trespass notices served to former MPs.

Mallard appeared before Parliament's Governance and Administration Select Committee on Wednesday to discuss the Budget's Estimates for parliamentary services - essentially the planned expenditure for the running of Parliament over the next year. 

However, Opposition MPs on the committee were keen to question Mallard over the protest on the forecourt of Parliament in February and its aftermath - including the trespass notices handed down to a number of former MPs, including former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. 

He shut down a number of questions about the protest, saying he was there to comment on issues related to future expenditure.

Mallard refused to answer media questions after the committee, walking past reporters repeating "no comment". 

The Speaker wouldn't stop to speak to media on Wednesday.
The Speaker wouldn't stop to speak to media on Wednesday. Photo credit: Newshub.

During the Select Committee, the Speaker did confirm no further money had been included in the Budget for the remediation of Parliament's front lawn after the protest. 

It became a field of mud and hay after campers dug trenches to divert water coming from both the wet weather as well as sprinklers Mallard turned on early in the occupation. Newshub revealed in April that the overall repair bill was $960,000 and that the lawn had been infested with rats and faeces. 

The Speaker also said no money had been set aside for an inquiry into the protests wider than the current Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) investigation, which has a narrow scope of only looking at police operations

ACT's Simon Court raised "your decision to issue trespass notices", to which Mallard interjected, saying he "made no such decision". Mallard has previously said he delegated authority to issue trespass notices to parliamentary security and had no involvement himself. 

He said on Wednesday he wouldn't get into the trespass notices - which were eventually withdrawn after Peters considered legal action - due to ongoing court cases related to the protest and the IPCA inquiry.

"I've made it absolutely clear, Standing Orders are clear. It is not in the public interest to go into things which are currently before courts, will be before courts, where the IPCA is looking, which will affect both individual police and a wide range of other comments they might make. It is not my intention to prejudice those inquiries."

National's Chris Bishop asked if he could ask about the process of how the trespass notices came to be issued. Mallard would only say he wasn't planning to change the system.

There were a number of interjections by Labour during the committee suggesting the Opposition MPs weren't asking questions about the coming year. 

Mallard was criticised for his handling of the protest.
Mallard was criticised for his handling of the protest. Photo credit: Newshub.

Labour MP Rachel Boyack asked what was being planned to upgrade security on Parliament premises.

Mallard said "things have changed enormously" from when he entered Parliament in 1984 when security was a single person at a door whose job was to point people to what office they needed. 

He expects increased expenditure on security in the future, but none has so far been asked for as there are no concrete plans. 

Mallard is yet to receive advice on whether a fence or wall could be built around Parliament to allow security to block off entry if needed. He believes that "99.9 percent of the time" the premises will be open to the public.

"There's a big call to make around the whole perimeter security and our ability to close it off if we want to," the Speaker said.

"My view has changed, from not wanting to change it at all, I think we do need to have a look at it over the next couple of years."

Mallard suggested fencing similar to that around the Old Government Building.

"It is open to see through, not absolutely impossible to climb over but pretty tall and pretty hard to climb over and gates that actually shut."

In May, Peters called for a vote of no confidence in Mallard. He took issue with a suggestion in a statement from the Speaker that those previously trespassed "were originally considered likely to 'seriously offend or incite others to' and to be a 'risk to the safety and security of Parliament'."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the time that she retained confidence in Mallard

"Yes, I do. The experience that Parliament has had has been unprecedented and obviously there are issues in the aftermath of the occupation at Parliament to work through," she said.

"All parliamentary parties have a role to play in supporting that work, sharing their views, and ultimately coming to an outcome where we try to prevent it occuring in the future."

Mallard has faced scrutiny before as Speaker, including over comments he made about a parliamentary staffer and his decision to use sprinklers and loud music against protesters.

1News reported on Tuesday night that a poll had found just 17 percent of people approved of Mallard's handling of his job as Speaker, almost half disapproved, and the rest didn't know.