Speaker Trevor Mallard talks changing Parliamentary rules

Speaker Trevor Mallard talks changing Parliamentary rules
Photo credit: Getty.

Trevor Mallard has gone from team player to referee as Speaker for the 52nd New Zealand Parliament and he's already changing the rules of the House.  

Praying to God, not Jesus

Trevor Mallard wasted no time changing procedures when he was announced as Speaker in November, opening the house with a new prayer which omitted references to the Queen and Jesus.

That move met with some pretty strong criticism, so Her Majesty was re-inserted. The reference to Jesus wasn't resurrected, however, despite protests by Christian groups.

Mallard says the modernised prayer, which has retained a reference to an 'Almighty God', found a middle ground between those who believe religion and legislation should remain separate and those with more traditional Christian views.

"I think the majority of New Zealanders do have a view around a supreme being," says Mallard. "The people who are Christian have dropped as a percentage of our society pretty heavily, but there are a lot of other groups who do believe in a supreme deity."

Quietening down the house

As one of Parliament's most booted out members, Mallard is no stranger to commotion - making him well-qualified to figure how to stop it.

As Speaker, he's developed an effective way to quieten the house with a simple disciplinary system using one of Parliament's most valued commodities - supplementary questions.

"One of the basic rights of any Member of Parliament is to ask a question. It is how we hold the Executive to account. I was finding it was becoming very hard to hear questions because the other side were making a lot of noise."

The new system means members who interject during question time lose a supplementary question to the other side of the House.

"Most days I take some away or add some in, but not nearly as many as I used to. Generally it is working well and there is quite an interesting discipline that is occurring within the Parliament - because it is effectively getting one's own team interested in having your team behave itself."

This is because it is not the interjecting individual who loses the supplementary question, but the team.

"It is like giving away penalties in front of the post in a rugby match. All of us think if we had one more supplementary we could nail the Minister or we could make a point against the opposition and I understand both sides have had some interesting discussions when they have lost the opportunity to do that.

Landlord rules

Mallard has been vocal in his support for a family-friendly Parliament and, with a growing number of babies entering the Parliamentary whanau this year, Mallard wants to see some attitudinal changes.

"I have been encouraging members who are bonding with young children to bring them into the House. There is an amount of breastfeeding and an amount of post-breastfeeding cuddling going on." he says.

"It's happening more with the women members' because there is not as many as the fathers who actually have their babies in Wellington, but it would be nice if more fathers brought them in as well."

Strictly speaking babies are 'strangers' in the House - the term for anyone who is not a member or an officer of the House. A stranger can only enter the Chamber if they follow a number of conditions.

HIstorically if a stranger was seen on the floor MPs were supposed to exclaim "I spy strangers!"

Mallard says ultimately the decision about babies in the House comes down to the Speaker's discretion, and discussions over 25 years have resulted in less rigidity around the issue.

"There has been flexibility, especially around babies being fed ,and I have stretched that out to babies who are not fed in the chamber but want to sleep in their parent's arms."

The Speaker is considered the "landlord" of Parliament Buildings, and so can set conditions of entry to Parliament.

As part of a series of rule changes made by Mallard in December 2017, whānau or staff can also enter the Ayes lobby or Noes lobby to help a minister or member feed, comfort and care for an infant - but Mallard himself has been known to step in himself to help with burping duties.

"There have been a couple that have been given to me because I have some expertise in getting some burps out of them – people who were listening closely have commented they could hear the baby burping in the background because my microphone was live."

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