Originally Published by the Democracy Project
Is Parliament just the fiefdom of Trevor Mallard and his colleagues? That's the impression the public might take from yesterday's news that the Speaker of Parliament is issuing trespass notices to political opponents who visited the protest in March on the lawns of Parliament.
Speaker Mallard has the absolute right to decide who can and can't visit Parliamentary grounds. However, in arbitrarily trespassing selected political figures, he brings both himself and the institution of Parliament into yet more disrepute. In particular, the decision to threaten New Zealand First leader Winston Peters with arrest if he visits Parliament makes a further mockery of how authorities have dealt with dissent. A sense of pettiness now pervades Mallard and those that defend him.
Parliament already has a bad rap. Poll after poll shows confidence in, and respect for, the institution has been declining in recent times.
One of the big problems is that Parliament and politicians are seen as out of touch, elite, and aloof. To get a better understanding of the problem, in 2018 Parliament actually commissioned a Colmar Brunton survey into how the public feels about Parliament. The results were so bad they were buried.
Here's what New Zealanders think of Parliament:
• 21% "feel a sense of ownership of Parliament"
• 16% "feel connected to Parliament"
• 13% "would speak highly of Parliament"
• 7% "would speak highly of MPs"
• 27% trusted Parliament, compared to 29% who expressed distrust, and 41% who declared trust in the "civil service"
• 60% "believe big business and vocal minorities are the ones who influence Parliament"
• 37% "feel there's no point in trying to influence Parliament as nothing will change"
These results are a real problem for an institution that is constitutionally regarded as the "people's place". And Mallard's actions over the protest, and attempts to punish those people who attended the protest just reinforce the notion that Parliament is actually just the fiefdom of elites.
The big problem for Mallard in sending out trespass orders to figures who came to observe the protest is that it is entirely arbitrary and issued without justification. Over the course of the weeks of the protest, the site was visited by dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists, politicians, academics, public servants, and so forth.
I was one of these – visiting as an academic researcher of politics and political commentator. Like many others, I wasn't there to support the protest in any way but to observe and try to understand what was occurring. In my case, I made it clear that I opposed the politics of those protesting.
To what extent Winston Peters was opposed to the protesters is less clear. But there has been no attempt for Speaker Mallard to explain why Peters is being legally banned from the place. Was he considered part of the protest? Or in some way encouraging it? We don't know.
It seems unlikely that other observers at the protest such as media and academics will have trespassed because that would surely create an immense fightback by all those who value democratic principles. But in lieu of such public figures – or even just neutral members of the public – being trespassed, Mallard needs to explain such inconsistencies. At the moment it looks as if he is simply targeting those that he doesn't like.
If the criteria are that anyone who visited and was perceived to show support for an illegal occupation should be banned then there will be many current and former MPs, – especially Māori MPs from Labour, Greens and Te Pāti Māori – who would end up with quite a stack of trespass orders. That's the problem with denying access to basic human and democratic rights to score political points – own goals are inevitable in the end.
Being the representative of Parliament, and the Labour Party who keeps him in the role, Mallard's actions also reflect on the rest of the politicians in the institution. Those who stand by his decisions on this issue will have to also bear responsibility for them. And those that don't will need to make their opposition clear.
As with all of Mallard's other missteps over managing the protest, this one also seems destined to backfire. Not only will his actions reinforce the sense of persecution of the actual protesters, who felt conspiracies and the heavy hand of the state, but it will boost the political chances of Winston Peters in his attempted electoral comeback.
Peters is now well-placed to enter the upcoming Tauranga by-election, and potentially do very well. By-elections can throw up some odd surprises, as voters don't feel constrained to vote with the same degree of seriousness as in general elections. A large proportion of locals might well want to use a vote for Peters as a protest vote against the Government, or even just a slap in the face of Mallard for being dictatorial. And given that National appears to have chosen a weak and uninspiring candidate, anything could happen.
Of course, a surprise win by Peters would make Mallard's trespass order somewhat moot and embarrassing, as the Speaker would have to rescind it to allow a triumphant Peters to take up his elected place.
Regardless of this unlikely scenario, there seems a good chance that Mallard will be forced to rescind the trespass notices, and stop sending out more. His survival as Speaker might depend on it. Certainly, if wiser heads around him, such as the Prime Minister, care about how the public feels about the institution of Parliament, or even about the Labour Party, then Mallard's overreach will soon be put on notice.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is a Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.