Heather Du Plessis-Allan: Why House Speaker Trevor Mallard has to go

OPINION:

The 22nd of May last year was a Wednesday. A parliamentary staffer arrived at work that morning, probably just like he always did.

But that morning something happened that changed his life. The Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, gave a radio interview about a report released the previous day. The report alleged bullying and harassment at Parliament.

PR-wise, it was a good look for the Speaker to take a tough line on bullying and harassment. It helped to soften his tough image. It made him look more progressive, and in touch with current issues like the Me Too movement.

But then he dropped a bomb. Mallard claimed there was a rapist working at Parliament. It sent a shockwave through the parliamentary workforce. Staffers felt fearful. Political leaders called a meeting with the Speaker. He was urged to call the police in.

By that afternoon, the parliamentary staffer had been sent home. The Speaker told media “one of the key dangers is no longer in the building”.

But the man had not done anything close to rape. He’d been accused of hugging a female colleague in a moment of celebration years before. The claim had already been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.

This man’s public story could have ended on May 22, 2019. He could have disappeared from the media and been forgotten. The Speaker could have earned positive headlines for clearing out Parliament’s threat. The now-former parliamentary staffer could have spent the rest of his life living with the shame of being labelled a rapist by the third most powerful man in the country.

But that’s not how the story ended. Because the next day, a journalist suspected something was wrong, arrived at the man’s door, found him crying in his dressing gown, and set about correcting the record.

This week, the Speaker was forced to apologise to the man, admit he was not a rapist after all, and pay $330,000 in settlement and legal fees using taxpayer money.

This has opened Mallard up to criticism from opposition parties who say he has lost their confidence.

I don’t believe Mallard should have been given the role. In my opinion the role should have been given to someone who has the respect of their colleagues, control of their temperament and can suspend their party bias.

Mallard is, by contrast, not well-liked in Parliament, has a history of ill-judged behaviour (including punching Tau Henare and saying he wanted to shove a Heineken in an “uncomfortable” part of a rugby official’s body) and has been accused of bias in the debating chamber through his apparent attempts to protect the Prime Minister.

His rape allegation – and his abuse of his power – have demeaned the office of the Speaker. What he did was bad enough, but it was made worse by his apparent attempt this week to bury the story by releasing it on the same day as the Royal Commission report into the Christchurch mosque attacks, then his initial attempt to hide behind a gag agreement, and then the revelation that the rules had been subsequently changed to ensure taxpayers paid his bill instead of the Speaker himself, as was the case before he made these comments.

We’ll probably never know why Mallard did this to an innocent man, but whatever his reason, it was the kind of behaviour that ends with a reputation damaged and a career ended.

If Mallard doesn’t resign the Speaker’s job, he could become a liability to Labour. National has indicated it plans to move a motion of no confidence next year which will only drag the story into the new year. If the opposition is smart, it’ll hammer him as much as possible. It did that last term by constantly alleging bias and baiting him into ejecting National MPs from the House, which only reinforced its argument. So, the Nats have it in them to keep goading him.

He is a bad look for Labour. For a party that makes a big claim of kindness and wellbeing, it’s a terrible look to promote and defend a senior MP who did the opposite of kindness to a working-class Kiwi.

Mallard should resign, for the sake of his party and the Office of the Speaker. In my view, his conduct is unbecoming of both.

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