Roadkill, a fly infestation, and the Speaker's "hypocrisy" tangle

by Toby Manhire / 27 October, 2012
Vivid imagery in the week in politics, writes Jane Clifton. And guess who called the Government "roadkill"?
It was already clear by the time John Key described his Government as “roadkill” this week that we had by now passed the point in the electoral cycle where people talk about “sleepwalking to victory.”

Admittedly the context relieved the description of its worst connotations.

Speaking on Newstalk ZB Wellington, Key said ungovernable events like the Canterbury earthquake and the global financial crisis had left the Government in the position of roadkill in their wake; meaning a blameless victim in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than pure dog tucker.

But it was a vivid and telling piece of imagery from the mind of the PM, whose temperament generally dwells on Planet Key, with a lager bottle and golf cart to hand.

And then there was a cut-down Old Testament portent for the Government. A swarm of vinegar flies, no doubt drawn to their own kind, infested the office of the acerbic Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson, forcing the evacuation and fumigation of two ministerial suites.

Apparently the creatures are drawn to rotting fruit and blocked drains, but they made an exception in this case, to also swarm round Revenue Minister Peter Dunne.  Perhaps they intuited that his latest crackdown on “tax base maintenance” – a joint taxman’s ticket-clip deal with the United States -  would attract rotten tomatoes from business.

But it turned out the chief magnet for pelting and booing was Speaker Lockwood Smith.

A Speaker under fire is never a good thing for a government. This one has gone from hero to bane in a surprisingly short time. When Labour’s Clayton Cosgrove complained in riskily bolshie tones that MPs deserved clarity and consistency from the Speaker, Smith’s tart reply – that he had been perfectly clear to anyone of intellect – was in kind, but hardly fair. He has been inconsistent over recent months, and at times overbearing.

When this week’s ructions developed he had already attracted a no confidence motion from Winston Peters earlier in the session, a censure for his habit of offering a gratuitous translation service for the often garbled answers ministers give at question time.

Ministers have occasionally thanked Smith for his efforts to give them clarifying subtitles, though sometimes adding their own contrasting self-translation. More often, however, struggling ministers like Hekia Parata have looked rather grateful for what amounted to a Speakerly rescue.

As Peters rightly objected,  the point of question time is to have ministers on the record, the important thing being what they said, not what the Speaker reckons they meant.  If a minister gives garbled or impenetrable answers, that’s as telling as if they are frank and lucid.

Though now strenuously trying to avoid intervening in this way, Smith ended up making an even more controversial incursion, after backing himself into a corner when the Prime Minister accused the Greens of hypocrisy. The H-word has been banned in Parliament as a term of abuse since a 1905 Speaker’s ruling, and till now all Speakers have pulled MPs up severely if they use it, even obliquely.

John Key said the Greens’ support of laid-off Spring Creek miners, while at the same time it opposed the opening of new mines, was hypocrisy – and was not pulled up.  Smith found himself dancing on the head of a pin for a good 20 minutes while Opposition MPs argued against his contention that saying someone occupied a position of hypocrisy was not the same, and not as grave an accusation, as saying they were a hypocrite.

For the life of me, I can’t see the difference either.  If you knowingly and willingly hold conflicting positions, you are hypocritical.  The act of maintaining a position of hypocrisy surely makes one a hypocrite.

But Smith was adamant it didn’t, and went so far as to lecture MPs about being too precious about name-calling.

He’s not wrong there. Green co-leader Russel Norman, for one, welcomed the unexpected liberalising of the rules.  He – and this writer – believe MPs should be able to call one another hypocrites, and the other parliamentarily-verboten epithet, liars.

Both have been banned  because Parliament’s standing orders and Speakers’ rulings are founded on the conceit that “all members are honourable.”  Patently they are not all honourable all of the time. While ingenious formulations of words are always found to convey “liar” and “hypocrite” – “the member should tell the truth/stop talking with a forked tongue” – lies and  hypocrisy are a staple of politics and should not have to be euphemised.

Smith is also right that the banning of various terms and expressions under some previous Speakers had gotten right out of hand.  Jonathan Hunt’s red-lining of naughty words probably averaged three a week.  My favourite was when he nixed “diddly-squat”, as mellifluously squawked by Pam Corkery – who admittedly could make “fluffy bunnies” sound scatological.

But, without wanting to wear out the H-word, Smith himself recently vetoed “glossy” as it pertained to Government publications, ordaining it perjorative because, he said, it was a way of saying a document lacked substance.

What on earth, one could ask, is wrong with that?

That the publication concerned was printed on light-reflective paper, and that even the minister responsible for it, Steven Joyce, would not argue that it contained only goals and plans, not substance or actual achievements, made this ruling especially peculiar as it could not have met the criteria for glossy more comprehensively.

Smith caused further mayhem when he refused to intervene after Parata gave a single “no” as the answer to two questions, but did not say which question she was saying no to. The House wasted another ten minutes or so as MPs reasoned with Smith about the inanity an answer to which no one knew the question.

What’s all too plain is that Smith longs to be off.  He is due to take over as High Commissioner in London – but not till next year. The encumbent has already left the post, but the sort of arcane faffing about that seems endemic in the glacial systems by which governments and heads of state exchange ambassadors has meant it would not be manners for Smith to take up the post any time soon.

The psychology of having run the race and being ready for the next event seems to have taken its toll. Smith’s performance in the chair has become erratic – a pity, as he began his reign with a veritable revolution of common sense which has made question time a lot crisper and more robust.

Smith has rejected the past Speakers’ legalistic interpretations of standing orders about “addressing” rather than having to actually answer a question. Ministers who give cute answers are routinely told, “answer the question.” He even awards penalty shots to the Opposition.

More riskily, he has also played the advantage – allowing ministers to have a political shot back if Opposition MPs ask politically loaded questions.  This causes plenty of arguments, specially if a question was only lightly loaded and gets  a bigger dose of contumely back.

And there are ministers – Joyce and Finlayson in particular – who seldom answer a question of any sort without a salty turn of phrase.

A further flare-up came when Smith – in somewhat unwise self-justification mode – boasted that he made sure questions were answered, which “certainly did not used to happen in this place!”

Peters and several Labour MPs leapt to their feet to admonish him. “What on earth does that mean?” Peters barked furiously.  “That you are criticising every previous Speaker?  That you are a paragon of virtue?”

There will be further brushfires in the thickets of sophistry that regularly engulf question time. The danger of Peters’ no-confidence motion making it onto the agenda is slight, but not quite zero.

When piqued, such as after Smith’s put-down of Cosgrove, Labour now has a policy of seeking leave for the motion to be debated.

The Government wil always veto this, but there’s always a danger of it’s being missed. It’s not impossible in the rowdy cut-and-thrust and sheer boredom of legislative marathons, specially as the Christmas party season approaches,  that the Government’s House leaders won’t be paying attention next time Labour moves the debate, and it’ll get snuck through.

That’ll be the time to be a vinegar fly on the wall.
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