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Chris Ford: Parliamentary Bad Boy Behaviour Not On - Time For Parliamentary Standards Commissioner

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

'Bad boys, bad boys, what 'ya gonna do? What ya gonna do when they come for you?'

That is the well known reggae-style theme to the popular reality trash TV show 'Cops'. Perhaps it could be better applied to our current Parliament where bad boy behaviour has come to the fore again lately.

Yes, parliamentary behaviour, particularly in the debating chamber, has long been the subject of public comment and derisory scorn. It must be pointed out though that the House of Commons in the UK was subjected to this same level of criticism regarding its behaviour - back in the 18th Century, that is.

So the use of interjection and the holding of fierce debates is nothing new in the Westminster system. But there have been times when the standard of behaviour and decorum was much better. For example, research undertaken by a friend of mine, Quentin Findlay, for his PhD examining the history of the early New Zealand Labour Party unearthed how in late 19th and early 20th Century Hansards, members were recorded as debating issues (on both the left and right of the political spectrum) at a high standard as they discussed serious ideological and political issues in a way that would not be done in today's House of Representatives. While these exchanges were vigorous, they did not deteriorate into the un-necessary interjections and name calling that goes on in today's Parliament.

With that in mind, the behaviour of some of our MPs, both past and present, has been placed under scrutiny. Back in 1976, then Labour MP and former PM Norman Kirk's son, John Kirk, entered the debating chamber drunk and this resulted in him vomiting over a neighbouring colleague in what became an infamous incident. Then PM Rob Muldoon also constantly violated the traditions of the House when he infamously attempted (under the ubiquitous cloak of parliamentary privilege)to imply that former Kirk (and later Lange) Labour Government minister Colin Moyle was gay in response to Moyle laughing at one of Muldoon's snide comments in debate. In 1997, New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters practically manhandled then National MP John Banks outside the chamber during the period when relations within the then National-New Zealand First coalition goverment had become seriously strained.

More recently the public has been appalled at the antics of former NZ First MP Ron Mark doing the fingers to a National MP while on camera, former Labour MP Dover Samuels' late night peeing session against a hotel door (which had followed a few drinks), the 'Paintergate' and 'Drivergate' scandals that swirled around Helen Clark, Richard Worth's alleged sexual shenanigans with a Korean businesswoman, former Labour cabinet minister David Benson-Pope (and others from all sides of the House) being caught asleep on the job by another TV crew and the Trevor Mallard-Tau Henare heavyweight fight outside the debating chamber (let's note again the same familiar venue for all these confrontations) in mid-2008.

The last of these aforementioned incidents, the Mallard-Henare stoush, ended up with Mallard (then a Labour cabinet minister) having to answer for his actions before a court of law in a private prosecution bought by an ordinary citizen who had no role in the proceedings whatsoever and had merely heard of the incident through the media. Mallard was convicted, fined and ordered to undergo anger management counselling.

Last week Mallard's anger management counselling was put to the test when he was confronted by an angry Act MP David Garrett in a select committee hearing. Garrett, another MP who only recently 'had had strips torn off' him by his leader Rodney Hide (in Garrett's own words, not mine) following a sexual harrassment complaint laid by a staffer, reportedly taunted Mallard with the words 'let's take this outside'. Obviously Garrett was looking to repeat the bout that Henare had with Mallard last year but a bit of stern reproachment from the National Party chairperson of the select committee prevented matters from escalating any further.

It's now clear (and especially given the issues arising around our MP's expenses claims) that a Parliamentary Code of Conduct is needed to govern our MPs. While the court of public opinion and internal party caucas and cabinet peer pressure has played a largely informal role in regulating MP behaviour up until now, something more is needed to bring a sense of decorum back to Parliament. While I concede that for so long as politicians go into politics, there will always be scandal and controversy, we do need to see an improvement in parliamentary behaviour so that the public can gain some degree of renewed trust in the people they elect to represent them.

The UK House of Commons introduced the role of Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, an independent officer who reports to the British Parliament, following the last wave of political sleaze that had occurred under the previous Tory Government in the mid-1990s. Until this year, the Commissioner had been doing a seemingly good job and then the expenses row erupted and again public disquiet over the behaviour of politicians became the number one discussion topic there. However, that should not detract from the need to create such a position in New Zealand.

The Standards Commissioner would, ideally, draw up a Code of Conduct that all MPs would be required to sign upon entering Parliament which regulated their behaviour and upheld the need for them to act with integrity even in their private lives (without any undue interference in their private lives, of course as personally I don't care whether MPs are faithful to their partners or not, I am more interested in how they conduct themselves on the job, except where harrassment or other illegal misconduct is alleged as in the Worth case.) If any MP broke the code and say violated it at least three times, then they should be forced to relinquish their seat in Parliament, even if it meant a potentially tricky by-election where the MP concerned had held an electorate seat.

I also believe that the Privileges Committee where MPs sit in judgement upon themselves should be extended to include an equal number of lay people, chosen for a three year term, from amongst the general public by the Standards Commissioner who would call for public nominations at the beginning of each Parliament to fill these roles. These lay committee members should, ideally, hold a majority of one on the committee. This would enable the public to have greater input into the drawing up of any code and the disciplining of any MPs who come before it. Knowing that representatives of the public would have a more direct role in both imposing and enforcing behavioural standards would act as a powerful incentive for MPs to behave better as the lay representatives would be more inclined to represent the public mood than those who spend most of their weeks swarming around the Beehive and only head home to listen to their electors at the weekends.

That's why we need a system where our bad boy and girl MPs will know who will be coming for them if they ever get that way. And that would be a good thing for our democracy.

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