John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Parliament's ref makes wrong calls

Winston Peters. Photo / APN
Winston Peters. Photo / APN

No other Speaker in recent history has devoted as much genuine thought, time and effort to lifting parliamentary standards as has Lockwood Smith. But yesterday he had an absolute shocker. He made the wrong calls on a number of fronts.

For starters, there was far too much whistle from Parliament's referee. This reached the level of the absurd when National's Steven Joyce began a ministerial answer by saying "welcome back" to Labour's David Cunliffe, who has just returned from a lengthy overseas holiday.

Smith demanded Joyce withdraw and apologise to Cunliffe for apparently referring to a member's absence, something banned under Parliament's rules.

Smith also got himself in less than justifiable high dudgeon when Winston Peters raised points of order over the responses he was getting to questions about Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson's handling of a court case relating to the Crafar farms affair.

Smith was quickly on his feet, cutting Peters off in mid-sentence.

For once, Peters, who is a serial points-of-order maker, had genuine cause for complaint at his treatment.

But Smith's patience was wafer-thin yesterday. After further argy-bargy, Smith ejected Peters from the chamber, noting Parliament had just had a serious debate about New Zealanders losing their lives overseas "and we carry on like spoilt brats".

The "debate' referred to by Smith had been on a prime ministerial motion enabling the House to pay its respects to the three latest soldiers to die in Afghanistan.

In what was his biggest mistake of the afternoon, Smith cited the holding of that "debate" as part of his rationale for declining a Green Party application for a far more political snap debate on the Afghanistan deployment.

Such a snap debate on a matter of "urgent public importance" is one of the few mechanisms other than question-time available to Opposition parties to put pressure on ministers and force them to explain their actions.

An application for such a debate must satisfy three criteria. The subject must be a particular case of recent occurrence. It must involve ministerial responsibility. It must require the immediate attention of the House.

Smith's argument that the House had more appropriate ways of marking such events and had done so earlier by means of the prime ministerial motion is worrying, to say the least.

On the whole, MPs deliberately kept politics out of that "debate" out of respect for the fallen soldiers.

Even more bizarre was his suggestion that MPs talk about the rights and wrongs of the Afghanistan deployment during the House's consideration of an Imprest Supply Bill, a debate where, Smith noted, there were virtually no restrictions on what matters could be raised.

Smith's refusal of a snap debate might have had some small justification on grounds of technicality, particularly on the question of "recent occurrence". The Cabinet had yet to make a decision on the date of the withdrawal of New Zealand's provincial reconstruction team, while questions about the adequacy of the troops' equipment might be considered ongoing matters, rather than something needing the urgent attention of the House.

But to rule in such a fashion is to ignore one of the fundamental roles of Parliament as the voice of the people.

It denied elected representatives the opportunity to provide catharsis for a shocked nation.

If the Opposition cannot secure a snap debate on something as momentous as five New Zealand soldiers being killed on active service in the space of two weeks, it may as well give up hope of ever getting a snap debate on anything of importance. And that simply is not right.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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