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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rodney's Letter of the Year-Trevor Mallard and Breach of Privilege

Letter of the year from ACT leader Rodney Hide, to Speaker of the House, Margaret Wilson.

From Rodney's Blog

Speaker

Hon Margaret Wilson

Parliament

WELINGTON

Complaint of Breach of Privilege

Dear Madam Speaker

I am sorry I have to write this letter. I am sure it’s one you wish you didn’t have to receive.

But it’s an important letter. And your response will be very important for the signal it sends New Zealand about our country’s attitude to physical violence. Of course, I know your views – and I know our Parliament’s – but actions following incidents such as this speak louder than words. It’s what we do that counts – and that we are seen doing it.

We can’t ignore the assault and pretend that Hon Trevor Mallard didn’t punch Hon Tau Henare in the head with a closed fist – not once, but reportedly repeatedly.

I feel sorry for Trevor. I have known him for over a decade. He is a boisterous, aggressive and, at times, nasty Member of Parliament. As the Prime Minister would say, “That’s Trevor!” But he has never to my knowledge been physically violent. His punch is definitely out of character and I can’t imagine what he was thinking at the time.

I also know that he will be punishing himself more than anyone can punish him further. Trevor doesn’t do apologies easily and his public apology was fulsome and complete. But this is no longer about Trevor; it’s now about our Parliament and, our government, and our country’s attitude to violence. It’s now about what we as a Parliament do.

We can’t ignore the incident and by implication say punching someone in Parliament is okay as long as you apologise or whatever other excuse can be proffered. As the TV ads implore us – it’s never okay. It’s what you do now Madam Speaker that counts. It’s not just the signal it sends the country; it is also the signal it sends MPs. What happens now if an MP threatens to punch another MP? We would have to act against that – but we would look hypocritical if we did nothing when actual punches were thrown.

The responses must occur at two levels.

First, Hon Trevor Mallard is a member of the Executive. I have said publicly that he has to be fired. It’s not because I wish him ill-will but because of the need for the government to say unequivocally that physical violence is not okay. However, his position in Cabinet is up to the Prime Minister. As she has said, she will take her own time on the appropriate response.

Second, there is Parliament. This is our place. Not just our place as MPs but our place as a country. It would be unacceptable if that punch was thrown in a bar or on a rugby field. That would be bad enough. But this was a punch thrown in the government lobby of our legislature – our place of law making, our place of law and order. Worse, the Minister aggressively invited Mr Henare out of our legislative chamber into the government lobby there to punch him to the ground. It’s hard to imagine worse conduct.

Parliament must act. It can’t wash its hands of this. To the best of my knowledge there has never been an MP punched by another MP in our Parliament’s history. I was in the lobby when Winston Peters pulled John Banks by the shoulder. That was a technical assault only. It wasn’t violent and it wasn’t meant to hurt. It was a far cry from a punch. Bob Clarkson himself told me that Trevor Mallard’s bopping him on the head with a folder of papers was playful and not violent.

What we have with this incident are repeated punches to the head driving a member to the ground and an ensuing fight where the two of them had to be prised apart.

I thereby raise with you a matter of privilege under Standing Order 392.

I am writing to you in time before the next sitting of the House. I realise that the incident occurred on Wednesday on the 24th but I did not learn that a punch was thrown until Mr Henare told me in the House after question time on the afternoon of the 25th. I could not have raised it any earlier. I simply did not know that there was a punch. I had Mr Henare’s account confirmed when Hon Trevor Mallard admitted the punch on the TV news of the night of the evening of the 25th.

I am in time because it is only when you learn of a breach that you can lay a complaint. It was that knowledge that triggered my duty to act. I learnt of the breach only after the sitting day of Thursday was underway.

I also had heard you rule at the start of Thursday’s sitting that your jurisdiction didn’t extend to the lobbies. I concluded on the evening of the 25th that there was nothing that I or you could do.

However, the following day TVNZ have alerted me to page 129 of Dave McGee’s Parliamentary Practice:

Indeed, formerly, the Speaker was not regarded as having jurisdiction over what occurred in the lobbies, except during a vote. Now the Speaker’s delegation of authority from the House to control admission runs as equally to the lobbies as to the Chamber and the galleries, so disorder in the lobbies could be dealt with by the Speaker if necessary.

The reference is to Standing Order 42:

42 Speaker Controls Admission

On behalf of the House, the Speaker controls admission to the Chamber, the lobbies, and the galleries, and may from time to time, may issue rules setting out who may be admitted to those areas and governing their conduct there.


It would seem you do have jurisdiction over the lobbies.

The specific contempt is covered by Standing Order 400(l):

400(l) assaulting, threatening or intimidating a member or an officer of the House acting in the discharge of the member’s or the officer’s duty.

My detailed charge is that Hon Trevor Mallard breached standing order 400(l) and committed a contempt of Parliament when he punched Hon Tau Henare when Parliament was sitting on Wednesday 24 October.

I urge you Madam Speaker to use your discretion to send this matter to the Privileges Committee for consideration. You can dismiss my complaint for two technical reasons: one, that your jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the lobbies; and, two, that I should have raised the matter before the sitting day Thursday. As I have explained I simply didn’t know of the breach until after the Thursday sitting day had commenced. And with the greatest respect I think you are wrong about your jurisdiction.

I think it would be a grave error to dismiss my case on technical arguments because that would be seen as sanctioning physical violence in our Parliament. I urge you to use your discretion to send my complaint to the Privileges Committee for our Parliament’s and our country’s sake.

I enclose the transcript of the news of Thursday evening where Hon Trevor Mallard admits to punching Hon Tau Henare as evidence of the breach.

Yours sincerely

Rodney Hide

Cc Hon Trevor Mallard

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