Labour Leader Andrew Little and the party’s Chief Whip Chris Hipkins face suspension from Parliament after they both criticised the actions of Speaker David Carter saying he was politically biased.
Both MPs have been referred to the Privileges Committee for breaching privilege by committing contempt of Parliament.
Whilst theoretically, the Committee has the power to recommend that they be imprisoned by Parliament’s Sargent at Arms (which would mean incarcerating them in Parliament Buildings) suspension is a more likely punishment.
It could be for a day , a week or even longer.
Significantly on three separate occasions when MPs have criticised the Speaker over the past 40 years, suspension has been the punishment.
Because the comments related to the Speaker, David Carter, it was left to his deputy, Chester Borrows, to refer Mr Little and Mr Hipkins to the committee.
The incidents that led to the complaint to the Speaker from National’s Chief Whip occurred a month ago and related to a Labour Bill to require a “warrant of fitness” for rental properties.
On October 15 the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (No2) in Labour leader Andrew Little’s name was drawn from the members’ bill ballot at midday but two hours later Mr Carter ruled he would rule it out of order – effectively vetoing it – if it came up for first reading this year. Labour chief whip Chris Hipkins said that was unprecedented.
Mr Hipkins said there was no warning from Carter that he planned that step.
Rules prevented a bill being introduced if it was substantially the same in content as an earlier Bill.
But the party had received advice from the independent Clerk of the House that this one was sufficiently different to the early bill, in the name of Phil Twyford, to proceed.
He said Mr Carter was over-ruling that advice and acting to avoid “inconvenience” to the Government. Mr Twyford’s bill had been defeated by one vote, but National had lost a vote since the Northland by-election and NZ First had gained an extra vote meaning there was a good chance Mr Little’s Bill would pass.
“Instead of helping to push the legislation through quickly National has clearly had a word in the Speaker’s ear, leading him to make an unprecedented decision to stop the bill being read this year,” Mr Little said.
“The ruling raises serious questions about political interference. The Speaker must say whether this issue was raised with him by the Government after the Bill was drawn today or if he himself put pressure on the Clerk.”
It is these statements that are the subject of the contempt claim by National’s Chief Whip, Tim McIndoe.
Mr Borrows said: “The matters of privilege raised are significant ones. The Privileges Committee, in its recent report, stated that “reflections against the Speaker or other presiding officers, and in particular any comment that alleges that they have been biased in performing their duties, are among the most serious reflections that can be made about members.”
“In my view, allegations that the Speaker acts on the instruction of the Government and interferes in parliamentary process for political reasons are serious matters that suggest that the Speaker is not only biased in performing his duties but is open to partisan manipulation.
The comments complained of were not made in the heat of debate but were premeditated.
As experienced politicians, they went to the media.
“The members concerned have not withdrawn the comments or resiled from them in any way.”
But the Speaker had another problem with Parliament yesterday being forced to explain why he had failed to pull the Prime Minister up with his series of claims on Tuesday that the Opposition supported rapists and murderers.
Mr Carter said that the interchange between members was a robust one.
“There was a point at which the Prime Minister made an unparliamentary remark in saying: “you back the rapists;”.
“I did not clearly hear the comment at the time because I was on my feet calling for order.
“When order was restored, I then admonished the Prime Minister sternly, telling him that when I rise to my feet, I expect him to resume his seat.
“Had I heard the remark properly, or had it been drawn to my attention at the time, I would have ruled it to be unparliamentary and required the Prime Minister to withdraw it and apologise for it.”
Under Parliament’s arcane rules however, the matter ended there.
The Prime Minister could not be required to apologise for the remark yesterday because it had not been made yesterday so he happily confirmed to various questions that he had said it the day before.
Parliament’s Chamber this week has been inflamed by the Prime Minister’s remarks.
It would be a bizarre irony if the only casualties of the week were to be two of the members of the Opposition who took the strongest exception to them.