Attacks on Speaker makes trio look like bullies, not fighters.

The committee often known as the "powerful" privileges committee has an unusually full agenda owing to some blatant breaches of parliamentary standards by the Labour Party.

Labour leader Andrew Little has led a mini-revolt against the established protocol of showing respect to the Speaker, or at least not demonstrating disrespect.

The problem with the leader instigating such a revolt is that it leaves no place for the party's wiser heads to go.

Little has dragged Chris Hipkins, chief whip, and Grant Robertson, shadow leader of the House, into the fray with him.


They must back up Little publicly or leave the leader out on a limb. There is really no choice. Instinctively they back him.

With all three on the case of the Speaker, it leaves Labour looking petty, always arguing the toss, not concentrating on the issues that matter, blaming the referee.

They may have convinced themselves their attacks on the Speaker define them as fighters to the core, but they often come across as bullies.

And they seem oblivious or unmoved by the extent to which they have lowered standards.

There has been one egregious error by the Speaker this term, in letting the Prime Minister get away with claims that Labour supported murderers and rapists.

But Labour and Little's constant clash with the chair smacks more of frustration that the party is not making gains where it wants, in hits against the Government or its own policy triumphs.

Little is not what you'd call "a parliamentarian" in the sense of being one of those MPs who are creatures of the House.

"Parliamentarians" are a declining breed: MPs who cut their political teeth through hours of House debate, who specialise in the House and its protections and traditions, who see themselves as much as guardians of the proper processes of Parliament as players of today.

In this Parliament they include Hipkins and Robertson, Trevor Mallard, David Parker, Chris Finlayson, Gerry Brownlee, Winston Peters and Bill English.

They tend to be the sort of MPs who sit on the privileges committee.

Some of them are lawyers but not all. Little is a lawyer but so breathtaking was his disrespect on Tuesday that during the delivery of a prima facie finding against another of his MPs, Ruth Dyson, who was being referred to the privileges committee, he interjected on Acting Speaker Chester Borrows to say that his statement was "an abuse of power".

The outburst was yet another blatant breach that could have seen him tossed out of the House, if not referred to the privileges committee on a separate charge to the one he already has to answer, but more on that later.

What prompted Little's outburst - backed up by Hipkins and Robertson - was that Borrows added some reflections of his own on what has been happening of late, instead of simply referring Dyson's case to the privileges committee (over tweets, cited in the House, accusing the Speaker of being incompetent, biased, lazy, sexist, doesn't give a toss) without comment.

To boot, the Dyson tweets happened less than two months after the privileges committee came up with a set rules explicitly stating that tweets criticising the Speaker were a serious matter.

Borrows' so-called "abuse of power" was to say that the Speaker cannot respond to personal attack and that while members could disagree with his rulings, they should not turn that disagreement into a personal reflection.

That was what Labour defined as a so-called "abuse of power" - treating Borrows' comments from the chair as though they were the equivalent of jury tampering.

The matter that has the Labour leader and senior whip, Little and Hipkins, before the privileges committee is even more serious than Dyson's.

They suggested widely in media interviews that the Speaker had acted on the instructions of National to postpone a private member's bill in the name of Little from being introduced, after it had been drawn out of the ballot.

It went further than a general allegation of bias to a specific suggestion he had taken instructions from the Government.

The rules clearly state that a bill that is substantially the same as another cannot be introduced again in a calendar year - and Little's bill on a warrant of fitness for rental property was virtually the same as his colleague Phil Twyford's that had been tied 60-60 on a vote taken before Winston Peters won Northland and brought in another list MP for the Opposition.

Little wanted to have another go with a similar bill in the hope of embarrassing National with a 61-60 victory for the Opposition after Peters' win, excepting his bill was not different enough.

The Government agency in charge of WoF standards would be the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, not Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, as in Twyford's bill. The policy was the same.

Labour deserved to be annoyed and disappointed. Its staff had sought advice from the Office of the Clerk on the bill and had been assured by someone in the Tables Office (where members' bills are lodged) that Little's bill would be acceptable.

But straight after it was drawn, the new Clerk of the House, David Wilson, decided otherwise.

He told me this week he became aware of the Tables Office advice only on the day it was drawn from the ballot: "I did not agree with the advice. Since all staff of the Office of the Clerk act on behalf of the Clerk, if they make a mistake, it's up to me to correct it. It was on that basis that I advised the Speaker [to postpone the bill to the next calendar year]."

Instead of accepting the Clerk's word, Little and Hipkins went straight for the Speaker's jugular with no evidence of wrongdoing.

The privileges committee is often called "powerful" because the House has the power to imprison people if it accepts the committee's findings of a breach of contempt - though it has never been exercised in New Zealand.

Little, Hipkins and Dyson will not have the book thrown at them, although each of them is clearly in contempt.

There are three ways they will avoid censure: Firstly to hope the problem goes away with John Key dispatching the Speaker to the diplomatic corps earlier rather than later in the term.

Another would be to go through protracted privileges committee hearings at the start of next year knowing that with an even split in Government and Opposition members, a censure motion would not be passed without the support of Winston Peters - and hell will freeze over first.

The other would be to apologise - which would be the proper thing to do.