Extraordinary Accusations: John Key accuses the Labour Opposition of "supporting rapists and murderers". The Speaker's failure to require the Prime Minister to withdraw and apologise sparked a rare walk-out from the Chamber and, later, a Vote of No Confidence in the Speaker. That the Prime Minister may have a majority of New Zealanders backing his cruel denigration of Australian Immigration's detainees matters not one whit. Human rights are not the playthings of majorities: they are inherent and inalienable.
THE DAILY BLOG’S EDITOR, Martyn Bradbury, believes New Zealand is better than its present Prime Minister and Government. I hope, desperately, that he’s right. But, ours is a representative democracy, and my great fear is that this John Key-led, National Party-dominated, Government is just that – representative.
Were a majority of Kiwi voters shocked by the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the Speaker during Question Time, yesterday? (10/11/15) Or did John Key launch his extraordinary attack on the Opposition parties in the confident knowledge that, far from being shocked and disgusted, the New Zealand public was lined-up right behind him?
One has only to listen to the talkback radio stations, or hear the comments from listeners read out on RNZ-National’s Morning Report to know that there is a substantial number (quite possibly a majority) of New Zealanders who view the entire Australian immigration scandal from the Prime Minister’s perspective. How likely is it, really, that a politician as shrewd as Key would accuse the Opposition of “supporting rapists and murderers” if he wasn’t quietly confident that most New Zealanders saw things his way?
Fairfax Media’s political editor, Tracy Watkins, thinks it most unlikely: “He [did it] knowing he is on the right side of the argument politically – most people would have no argument with Key’s assessment New Zealand should not bother shedding any tears over the plight of the Kiwi detainees.”
Coming at it from a slightly different angle, the NZ Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, was equally confident in her assessment of yesterday’s events: “The suggestions by some Labour MPs on Twitter that democracy was at stake was over-reaction and nonsense. There were plenty of errors in the high drama at Parliament today but there was nothing undemocratic in what occurred.”
The high drama and errors Young refers to relate to the behaviour of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, David Carter, and to the decision of about half the Labour Opposition to walk-out of the parliamentary chamber in protest. Against all precedent, Carter had ruled that the PM was under no obligation to withdraw or apologise for his repeated accusations that the Labour MPs were supporting rapists and murderers. When the furious Labour MPs finally returned to the House they moved a symbolic Vote of No-Confidence in the Speaker. Again, this was a most unusual and disquieting response to the Speaker’s behaviour.
The independence of the Speaker – most especially his or her independence from the Executive Branch of Government – is a cornerstone of the Westminster System of representative democracy. The tradition dates at least as far back as the 1640s in England.
It was in 1642 that King Charles I, accompanied by a company of soldiers, strode into the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of High Treason. When asked to point out the five traitors, the Speaker, William Lenthall, replied:
“May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
Speaker Lenthall responds to Charles I: "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
As our constitution has evolved over the past 300 years, the Executive and Legislative branches of government have, in some respects, become one. The members of the Cabinet are all drawn from the House of Representatives, as is the Chair of Cabinet, the Prime Minister. The contemporary equivalent of King Charles I, the most important political figure in the land, must be a Member of Parliament.
This places a very heavy burden on the Speaker’s shoulders. If he or she is to be “Parliament’s Person”: the staunch protector of the legislators’ rights and privileges against the Executive’s natural inclination to make them dance to its tune; then it is vital that there be not the slightest hint of any bias in the Executive’s favour. Most vitally, the Speaker must ensure that the Prime Minister and Cabinet can be held to account for their actions. When questions are put to them by MPs, it is the Speaker’s duty to extract meaningful answers.
It is also vital that the Speaker defend the rights of those MPs who form no part of the majority that keeps the Executive in office – the Opposition. Any suggestion that the conduct of the Speaker is regularly failing the test of strict impartiality, and that the Opposition is being thwarted in its duty to hold the Executive to account, is of the most extreme seriousness. If true, then democracy would indeed be at stake. Because a parliament in which the Opposition is prevented from holding the Government to account, is a parliament from which the Executive is free to rule without restraint.
It is this absolute obligation on the part of the Speaker – and of our democratic system generally – to protect the rights of the minority against the power of the majority that goes to the heart of the arbitrary incarceration of New Zealand citizens by the Australian state. No matter what these detainees have done, as human-beings they have the right to be treated justly and humanely. That the Prime Minister has a majority of New Zealanders backing his cruel denigration of their characters matters not one whit. Human rights are not the playthings of majorities: they are inherent and inalienable.
In and out of Parliament, the protection of the rights of the minority is what allows our democracy to function. It is no over-reaction on the part of an Opposition to call out a Speaker who is failing to provide that protection. And to suggest that, in its absence, our democracy is not threatened, is the most dangerous kind of nonsense.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 11 November 2015.