The many roles of the Speaker
Constitutionally, the position of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the third highest in the land. The Queen’s representative, the Governor-General, is highest of course, followed by the Prime Minister and then the Speaker. This helps illustrate that Parliament is not a mere sideshow in the democratic governance of the country – I view it as the main event.
When our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy was still developing in Britain, the presiding officer became known as “the Speaker” because the House of Commons would elect one of its members to be its “mouthpiece to the crown”. The Speaker would convey the wishes of the House to the King (or Queen).
There is a widespread belief that several British Speakers were executed in the line of duty in the 15th and 16th Centuries because the King or Queen was unhappy with the message delivered on behalf of the House of Commons.
However, it was more a case that some of office-holders having other roles which, given the politics of the time, were rather more hazardous.
It is true that some people who held the office of Speaker went on to lose their heads, but it had more to do with their activities when they were not presiding in the House – taking part in the civil war, for instance and ending up on the losing side.
The distinction of having filled the office of Speaker also proved to be of little protection for two whose activities extended to extortion and whose unpopularity eventually led to the chopping block.
While the myth might be more interesting than the reality, it has served to highlight the responsibilities the Speaker had to the House and the courage that might be demanded of anyone accepting the job.
Take the case of Speaker Lenthall in 1642.
On January 4 of that year the King went into the House of Commons intending to arrest five Members of Parliament.
When he asked the Speaker to tell him where the members might be, Lenthall replied: “I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me”.
These were courageous words in dangerous times but Speaker Lenthall served well the institution that had chosen him, and the same would be expected today.
My conduct as Speaker is governed by very clear conventions.
The first and most important is non-partisanship. I must never display favour or disdain for one party or side of the House. All Members of the House must be treated equally, regardless of their party affiliation and I have had to put aside my personal political beliefs when carrying out my functions as the Speaker.
Any Speaker who does otherwise would soon lose the confidence of the House.
The second principle, although related to non-partisanship, is independence from the executive government. My rulings and actions cannot be dictated or in any way swayed by Executive orders, or ministerial demands.
As Speaker I have several roles – I am a presiding officer when the House is sitting, a landlord, a committee chairperson, a spokesperson for the House, a quasi-Minister of the Crown, and of course, an ordinary MP.
My most visible job is that of presiding over the House.
I am responsible for maintaining order and decorum enabling business to proceed without unnecessary disruption.
One of the most challenging sessions is the daily question time. It is during these sessions that the Government of the day is most visibly accountable to the House and it keeps Ministers on permanent notice that government activity must always be capable of standing up to regular scrutiny.
If during the course of debate or Question Time, members get too rowdy, I call for order and, hopefully, they shut up. If they choose not to shut up, having been warned, I choose to eject them from the Chamber.
If they don’t leave at this stage, I can call on the House to suspend the member and this illustrates why I must always act impartially: I must be able to rely on the House agreeing to suspend the member.
It is my role to apply the Standing Orders - the rules governing House procedure - and adjudicate on matters of procedure.
The House determines its own rules, so it would be nice to think members would all stick to them without question. However, in the heat of debate, the rules are frequently tested.
Members can stand and raise a ‘point of order’. I then judge whether the member’s complaint is justified and in doing so I often rely on rulings from past Speakers. Just as the courts use precedent when interpreting the law, Speakers use precedent to keep order in the House.
One of my less-publicised roles is that of ‘Landlord’. Technically I control all of Parliament’s grounds and buildings. Parliament House, the adjoining library, the lease on Bowen House and the Beehive are, according to statute, administered by the Speaker.
I have the sometimes-unenviable responsibility of allocating office space and controlling access to the buildings and grounds. In adjudicating on matters of access it can be difficult to balance the right of those who work at Parliament to an orderly and respectful working environment with the democratic right of access by the news media and the public to their House of Representatives. After all, every Member of Parliament is accountable to the public and it is essential that those they represent have access to them and that the news media, representing the public, can ask questions of them.
From its very first sitting in 1854, the proceedings of the New Zealand Parliament, have been reported by the news media – in fact, for the first 13 years of its existence, newspaper reports were the only written reports of debates.
The establishment of a formal Press Gallery for New Zealand again follows on from an 1803 British precedent, the result of a long and, at times acrimonious struggle between newspaper owners and the House of Commons.
The first person to be accredited to the New Zealand Press Gallery was one Edward Gillon who was given a pass to the ‘Reporters’ Gallery’ by the Serjeant at Arms in 1870.
These days a large news media contingent occupies permanent offices within the Parliamentary complex and it is my job to approve their accreditation and occasionally issue rules for their conduct within the parliamentary complex.
Again, it is a matter of balancing their needs with those of MPs.
For instance, MPs have a fundamental right in law to unimpeded access to the debating chamber when the House is sitting but when a major story breaks the assembled reporters; cameras, microphones and photographers can rapidly create a serious bottleneck in the corridors.
The Speaker’s role also involves chairmanship of three select committees.
The Business Committee which coordinates the business of the House comprises representatives of all elected political parties. These members can discuss any problems they have with House business but it is not about “back room” deals; instead it ensures the House can focus on debating issues rather than managing business.
The Officers of Parliament Committee covers with the Controller and Auditor-General, the Ombudsmen, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, all of whom are directly responsible to Parliament.
The third body I chair is the Standing Orders Committee, which reviews the rules of the House.
The Speaker also has some quasi-ministerial functions in relation to Officers of Parliament and the organisations that service it. These are: the Office of the Clerk of the House, the Parliamentary Service, the Audit Office, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment.
In carrying out these functions I am wholly independent of executive government but my role ensures the same political accountability required of any government department.
As Parliament’s representative I regularly meet foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, visiting delegations and presiding officers on behalf of Parliament.
From time to time I also travel overseas to maintain links with other parliaments and parliamentary organisations, which are active in fostering democracy throughout the world.
Just as the Westminster system evolved out of periods of civil unrest, some countries today face the same issues and through these international links, we can contribute at an inter-parliamentary level.
My most important role – and the most fundamental – is that of being a Member of Parliament. In some countries the Speaker sheds official political party affiliations on election to the position. Indeed, they stand almost unopposed in General Elections to ensure they are not involved in political campaigning.
In New Zealand Speakers are not required to resign from their political party. Our system is a little more practical and recognises that members have basic political values, beliefs, friendships and loyalties that do not magically disappear on resignation from a political party.
We only require that a Speaker actively and conscientiously approach the job in an impartial manner. The advent of list seats has meant a Speaker need not campaign for election in an electorate.
Under our MMP system the Speaker, like all other MPs, has a vote in debates, though never a casting vote. This differs from the first-past-the-post system where the Speaker did not vote except to make a casting vote in the event of a tie.
My vote maintains the proportionality of the results of the General Election, as decided by the party vote and I always vote the party stance except on issues that are designated matters of conscience.
MMP has brought a greater diversity to the House and with it, challenges that have made my job more interesting and demanding.
It is also hugely satisfying to have held the position at a time when our democracy is maturing in its own unique way, often to the surprise of those nay-sayers who thought MMP would never work.