The Pope of Parliament

Interview with Dr. Lockwood Smith

By Gordon Campbell,
interview images by Spike Mountjoy

In constitutional order of precedence, Parliament’s Speaker Dr. Lockwood Smith is the third most important person in New Zealand, after the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. Down the years, the personal style of each Mr Speaker has been something of a microcosm of New Zealand’s journey to independence – with British tradition always in the background, as the main default setting.

We may for instance, be an intimate little democracy, but our parliamentary identity continues to genuflect to the rituals and practices of Westminster. The Usher of the Black Rod for instance, and the tradition on appointment of carting an unwilling Speaker to the Chair, continue to be observed. Like his predecessors, it will up to Dr Smith to decide how much of that pageantry he wants to preserve, and how far he wants to go in aligning the traditions of his office with the informal realities of the 21st century. As he indicates below, Dr Smith plans to bring to the job his long experience as an MP, and as a seasoned television host.

Parliament’s showcase is Question Time. It is here that the Opposition gets to publicly test the Government, and hold it to account. Long ago, Question Time may have been an opportunity to seek answers from Ministers – now, thanks to the research units, it is more often an occasion to mount an attack because the Opposition already knows the answers. In other words, Question Time is part business, and partly political theatre. The Speaker’s job involves managing the egos and aspirations of 120 actors, while most of them are jostling for the spotlight at the very same time.

Since his arrival in the Chair six months ago, Dr. Smith has tried to lift the quality and the tenor of proceedings. The chronic stumbling blocks at Question Time – what are to be counted as valid Points of Order, what constitutes an adequate answer, how strictly relevant a supplementary question has to be to the question it alleges to elucidate – are still works in progress, but some headway has been made in transforming the House into a more efficient, and better tempered environment.

Dr Smith can work hard to the point of obsession, and the number of parliamentary questions he filed a couple of years ago on the saga of Taito Philip Field and the Thai tiler Sunan Siriwan must have been a personal purgatory. By election time last year though, he was past his use-by date within the National Party caucus. This fresh challenge offers him the chance to end his career on a far higher note than seemed possible only a year ago. Too soon yet to predict how the House and this particular Speaker will develop their relationship, but the early returns are promising.

Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell spoke with Dr Lockwood Smith the day before he released details of MPs travel spending, and issues directly related to such spending were off limits.

Campbell: So far what’s been the hardest part of the job – during Question Time in particular ?

Smith: I think the most challenging part is actually making sure that you listen to everything. That’s quite a challenge, you know. To make sure you heard accurately the questions and that you hear the answers. You dare not miss anything.

Campbell: And there’s no Instant Replay.

Smith: No. So you’ve got to have instant recall of exactly what’s been said because often a member will get to their feet and say : ‘I asked this.’ And you’ve got to know whether or not they did ask that, or asked something slightly different. Because that’s important.

Campbell: Do you think you’ve made any progress in getting Ministers to answer questions more fully ?

Smith: Oh hugely,. I think public reaction shows that. People are very positive about seeing Ministers now…when there’s a straight question, Ministers are now actually answering.

Campbell: And you’d say that’s a result of directions from the Chair ?

Smith: It’s a result of the changed interpretation I’ve given the [relevant] Standing Order – I’d say so, indeed.

Campbell: One in particular ?

Smith: I think its 377.. That’s the one where in the past there’s been some controversy over what that Standing Order says. It says “ An answer must be given that seeks to address the question, so long as it can be given consistently with the public interest.’ My predecessor gave a lot of emphasis to the middle bit – ‘ that seeks to address the question.’ I’m giving more emphasis to ‘An answer must be given.’…consistently with the public interest.’ .

Campbell: Because the prior interpretation really meant – any answer at all would suffice ?

Smith: If it mentioned words in the question, it sufficed. To me, that’s not good enough. Parliament, the House of Representatives is where the executive is held to account. That’s a very important part of Parliament’s function.

Campbell: The quid pro quo is getting the Opposition to frame its questions more precisely. Any luck in that area ?

Smith: I think we’re seeing some movement there. I think they’re seeing that where they put a political statement into a question they can expect to get a political statement back – and I think we are now seeing more concise questions. Where they are really seeking information and wanting to put a Minister on the spot, I think we are seeing more concise questions.

Campbell: Is this a product of your own behaviour at Question Time – or is it the result of behind the scenes, in chambers consultation that you’ve carried out ?

Smith: Both. I’ve asked more questions than any other member in the current Parliament. I’ve asked hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of questions. And I’ve answered as many as any Minister in the House. Over time, you come to see – if holding the government to account means anything– you come to see which questions work, and which don’t.

Campbell: No. what I was asking was – have you actually talked to the whips or relevant people in each party machine to say, these are what my expectations are ?

Smith: When I was first put up for the job, I asked to talk to each of the parties, and talked about some of these things – about how to run Question Time, how to fulfil the role of Speaker.

Campbell: To the public though, Parliament still spends a ridiculous amount of time in futile arguments over Points of Order while not getting on with the business of the House. Is there anything much you can do about that?

Smith: I think I’ve made a huge difference there. If you look at how long Question Time takes – on average at the moment, it is taking an hour. It used to take well over an hour and a half. So we’ve reduced the length of time Question Time takes by 50 per cent…by 33 per cent, I should say. The reason for that is – less time wasted on Points of Order that are not Points of Order…If a member seeks to raise a Point of Order that is clearly not a Point of Order I sit them down.

Campbell: In a way you’ve already answered this – but in your view, do Standing Orders give the Speaker much latitude to exercise discretion ?

Smith: Undoubtedly. That’s why you have Speakers Rulings that give some guidance on how previous Speakers have handled and interpreted Standing Orders. Now, I go through those Speakers Rulings and some I agree with more than others. I have tended to be guided more by the basic Standing Orders…

Campbell: And in treating previous Speakers as sources of interpretation, are there any in particular that you tend to treat as a lodestar ?

Smith: Not so much. There are Speakers I’ve tended to model myself on, but that relates more to style. The Speaker I had a lot of regard for was Sir Kerry Burke, a Labour Speaker in the ‘80s. He had a very good manner. Very light-handed approach, very good humoured approach. The House tended to be more good-humoured in his time. And I’ve worked with a third of the Speakers that New Zealand has ever had.

Campbell: Arguably, the last Speaker who seriously set out to impose a discipline on the House was Dr. Gerard Wall. You were here as an MP then. Would that be a precedent you’d seek to emulate ?

Smith: No. I remember Dr Gerard Wall had, at the same time, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition thrown out of the House. To me, he didn’t allow the House to live. And the House must. You’ll notice at Question Time I allow a fair bit of robustness, a fair bit of noise. I allow it to flow. Whereas Dr Wall tried to sort of constrain it, unnecessarily. To me, its important not to waste time, not to get nasty, And to hold the government to account.

Campbell: So as Parliament’s referee, you consciously play the advantage rule ?

Smith: I try to, yes. At the end of the day I want to see fairness and balance…what I don’t want to see the Opposition feel they’ve not been treated fairly…

Campbell: Because you think that part of your job is to ensure the Opposition gets a fair go ?

Smith: Absolutely. Apart from the legislative role, the other part of the role of Parliament is to hold the executive to account. And the part of Parliament that largely holds the executive to account is the Opposition. They must be given that chance…

Campbell: Isn’t there a risk of them then feeling you may be a soft touch, and like Oliver, they’ll always come asking for more ?

Smith: And you’ve got to show where the boundaries lie. There is a risk that if you let things flow, they’ll try to push the boundaries. What I’m trying to do I guess is have a light hand, with clear boundaries.

Campbell: The reason I asked the ‘fair go’ question is this : Dr Wall once said : “Speakers get into trouble when they say its either part of their job to see that the government gets its business done, or to see that the Opposition gets a fair go.” I think his view was that the Speaker’s commitment is to the rules, and if they’re observed, the game looks after itself.

Smith: I’d say : I’m Parliament’s person, first and foremost. Now obviously the government being able to get its business done is important – and so too, is the Opposition being able to function as an effective Opposition. But I agree, that’s got to happen within the rules. But the way you apply them makes a huge impact on how successfully Parliament works. I’m not sure it worked all that successfully under Dr Wall’s tenure.

Campbell: And if you’re choosing to paddle down at the end of the pool that allows greater latitude, how do you stop the fourth formers from running riot?

Smith: The Speaker has huge power. One of the things that you observe over the years and spend time in that place, is that when the Speaker gets to their feet, members are quiet. They sit down and shut up. The Speaker has huge power to sit members down. And at the end of the day, you’ve got the discipline of throwing them out. The Speaker has the extraordinary power of being able to dock their pay. I mean, if I name a member – on the first occasion, they lose a day’s pay. If I name them a second time, they lose a week’s pay. I don’t know very many other people in New Zealand who have the power to dock anyone’s pay like that, but the Speaker has.

Campbell: OK. What we’re saying is – Parliament is a place of business but it is also a place of political theatre. Day by day, have you found it difficult to set the limits of what is acceptable political theatre – because this job has been a learning curve for you as well, right ?

Smith: Right at the moment, I’m at the limits of how much noise to allow. I’ve watched the replay carefully to see how much noise eventually comes through on television for example. You don’t want people listening and watching Parliament and for that to be interfered with by too much interjection noise. And we’re at the limits of that at the moment, and I’m watching it quite carefully. I don’t want it to be dead. When the place is dead and quiet it loses its character.

Campbell: Bad theatre ?

Smith: Well, I guess you could say ‘bad theatre.’ Having been a television front person for many years in Australia and New Zealand, I have consciously tried to make Question Time better on television. I’ve tried to build some pace into it. I’ve changed the way the Speaker calls on to answer – I’m very conscious of pace to programmes. That doesn’t mean speed. Pace has a different meaning. I’ve fronted TV shows for many years..

Campbell: Pace means drama, as well ?

Smith: Yes. And I’m very conscious of that, of trying to make Question Time interesting. Its watched all over Australia. Its watched in Canada. We get mail from Canada telling us how Question Time has gone.:

Campbell: One British text holds that “Mr Speaker must exclude himself from the jest and banter outside the Chamber that restores good feeling after acrimonious debate. Nor can he take part in any social relaxation that involves a lessening in his traditional dignity.” Is this a lonely job?

Smith: It certainly means I don’t have the same interaction with my colleagues. I don’t attend caucus meetings, I’m not involved in policy consideration because the Speaker must be seen to be non-partisan.

Campbell: But you do have the option of attending your party caucus meetings, if you wanted to ?

Smith: Yes, you could indeed. But I just think its important that the Speaker be seen to be non-partisan. And I guess when I was first nominated, there were those who questioned – could Lockwood Smith raise himself above the heavy political involvement I’ve had for so many years, and I’ve had to do that consciously and withdraw, so that I can fulfil the role reasonably well.

Campbell: Well, Sir Roy Jack, one of your National Party predecessors as in the 1960s, said that in his five or six years as Speaker he’d never once visited Bellamys dining room, billiard room or bar. Quote : “I do confess I miss the conviviality of fellow members, one of the compensations for the rigours of parliamentary life..”

Smith: The bit about the bar I don’t miss. I think in my 25 years in Parliament I’ve been to Bellamys bar twice, I think. Three times, maybe. I still go to the dining room. I’ll eat with any members of Parliament in the dining room. And I make a point, when I leave it, of going out through the members and guests dining room, and actually having a chat with any members and guests who are [there]

Campbell: So you’re always “On” as Speaker, even in those contexts ?

Smith: I try to, as Speaker, go round and have a chat to any members in the dining room and welcome their guests to Parliament , that sort of thing. So rather than withdraw from that, I just try and be involved socially in a more balanced way.

Campbell: Has MMP radically complicated the job of the Speaker ? You’ve been here under FPP and under the current system.

Smith: Technically, in some ways, significantly. With MMP we saw the establishment of the Business Committee to work behind closed doors through some of the business of Parliament, so that things on the floor of the House can progress more smoothly. And the Speaker of course, chairs that Business Committee. The role has broadened somewhat, with MMP. In the House, I suppose it changes in that you have so many more parties to consider and the balance of allocation of speaking slots, of questions – and the Speaker has sole discretion on who asks the next question. I try to balance that, I try and ensure…the only thing that is not totally balanced is I always give the Leader of the Opposition the first two supplementaries when he is asking questions. I think that is showing respect for the role of the Leader of the Opposition.

Campbell;. The answer is obvious, but does this office carry an authority larger than the person who occupies it ?

Smith: I think it should. The office of the Speaker is a very important office and the challenge for the Speaker is to uphold that.

Campbell: I wonder whether we’re kidding ourselves about that – of play acting to a concept of the office that may have outlived its time, given that politicians are held in such low public esteem. Are we not wrapping ourselves in the trappings of a bygone age?

Smith: I think there’s a purpose to that. Parliament had fallen into such disrepute. I mean, the public image of Parliament at the end of the last term was dreadful. I’ve tried to raise the tone of the place. I’ve changed how the Speaker enters the Parliament. I’ve changed the way the Speaker behaves in Parliament. I’ve tried to improve the tone of the place. I’ve tried to make it human. I don’t allow Points of Order that attack the other side. You’ll notice I sit people down when they’re raising Points of Order that start to get critical of members of other parties. And I’ve tried to improve the humour of the place, the tone of the place, the dignity of the place. And people see that.

Campbell: In that respect, the objectives of the two main party machines are not the same thing as the objectives of Parliament, or of its members. What can you do to protect the interests of backbenchers ?

Smith: Interesting question. I mean, I’m Parliament’s person. Therefore, I can’t be too influenced – apart from chairing the Business Committee, where the parties do interact and sort out how to handle stuff, looking ahead – I’ve got to ensure that the interests of individual members of the House of Representatives are looked after. Those are individual interests. So I can’t be too caught up in parties’ interests at large. My responsibility is to Parliament.

Campbell: Exactly And the question was – by what means do you ensure that wider interest of Parliament – including the interests of backbenchers and their constituency interests – are not buried by the agendas of the party machines ?

Smith: I think by the way you handle the House. The respect you give to the individual members. The Speaker can’t rule out the role of the parties. MMP has brought the role of the parties more into Parliament. The parties didn’t use to have such a significant effect as they do now, with MMP. The Speaker can’t change that. The Speaker can make sure individual members are treated with full respect, and have every right, in the House.

Campbell: Is there any greater in-chambers role you can play in furthering the interests of backbenchers ? Formally, their interests do get expressed in private members’ Bills. But you said at the outset that you’d consulted and talked through your expectations with the leaders of the main parties

Smith: With all parties.

Campbell: Right. So is there any similar consultative role you could play with respect to backbenchers – by having your door open?

Smith: That’s the key to it – the door open. I’ve made it very clear to members they’re welcome to come in and talk issues over at any time. Any members, of any party. And some do. It’s a significant departure from previous practice when the doors have all been closed down this corridor that they’re all open now. I make a real point of that…

Campbell: People have argued – going back through Oram to Statham in the 1920s – that the Speaker’s seat shouldn’t be contested in elections, in order to underline the non-partisan nature of the job, and to show that the executive doesn’t outrank Parliament. Do you think the advent of MMP strengthens the case for going down that road ?

Smith: That’s an interesting issue I haven’t given a lot of thought to. And I think it would be very wrong for the Speaker to advance much of an argument in that regard, because he would be immediately accused of protecting a patch. Everyone in this House of Representatives is up for re-election every three years and I’m comfortable with that. I don’t see the need for me as Speaker to be protected in that way, yet I’m very familiar with the arguments put forward in the past. In some jurisdictions of course the Speaker does not have to stand for re-election

Campbell: Exactly, and for the reasons I’ve just outlined. .You raised the point that you may be accused of self promotion – and you have only been in the job a short period of time. What are your inclinations though about the virtue of expressing the non-partisan nature of the job, by such means ?

Smith: I don’t think its necessary in New Zealand. I don’t feel the need for it, personally. I’m happy to face my electors after three years of my being Speaker. OK, it limits your ability to advance political policy but as Speaker I still advance the interests of my constituents. I still make representations to Minister on their behalf. As Speaker in some ways I am able to do that more effectively, because you’re Speaker. I do understand the academic arguments on the grounds of the non-partisanship of the Speaker.

Campbell: But not here, not now ? .

Smith: I don’t feel the need for it.

Campbell: The longer you’re in Parliament, do you think the more you’ve become a parliamentarian first, and a party advocate second ?

Smith: I don’t think so, necessarily. But since I’ve become Speaker yes. Over the years, I was still very much a policy person. Right through until my last days in the last term I was still working hard on policy, and the ideas I wanted to see pushed in terms of good government policy. Now that I’m Speaker, I am Parliament’s person. That’s been a real shift.

Campbell: Reason I ask is that the candidates for Speaker have tended to be those who have perhaps gained experience and seniority, but maybe lost the fire in the belly. The nice way of expressing that is to say they’re now Parliament’s creature, rather than the party’s creature.

Smith: That didn’t happen with me. I was still very active. I was still on the policy committee right up until the last days. Very much involved in the shadow Cabinet right up until the last election. I did years of work on tax ideas in the last few years in Opposition, and was still working very much on policy ideas that were being submitted for further consideration. That’s why some, I think, questioned whether Lockwood Smith could withdraw himself from that.

Campbell: So – some observers have seen Mr Speaker’s office as being a kind of national park for the party’s extinct volcanoes. But you’re saying that wouldn’t apply to you ?

Smith: I hope it doesn’t.

Smith and Governor-General Anand Satyanand

Campbell: I’ve focused on Question Time and the business of the House. What’s the allocation of time between that, and the business of Parliament itself, for which you are also the chief executive ?

Smith: Probably about 50:50. I guess in terms of the daily allocation. Morning is spent on preparing for Question Time, whereas much of my afternoon is spent on administration. Administration of the Parliamentary Service –

Campbell: Plus you’re the Minister responsible for the Auditor-General

Smith: And for the office of Parliament, the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and all that stuff, Probably about half is spent [ on that] .but that’s a very rough guess…The Parliamentary Service was seen to be a bureaucracy that had grown significantly and people who had been around this place a fair while felt a lot of taxpayers money was being spent through that, and questioned whether it was being run as efficiently as it might. Certainly, I’m running the Speakers Office on half the budget of my predecessor, and I’m working on how we can better utilize the resources that go into Parliamentary Services to support members.

Campbell: So far the New Zealand hasn’t been beset by the kind of expenses scandals, and public rage that has marked the situation in Britain. I notice in this morning newspaper that MPs in Britain have just voted to double the allowance without receipts.

Smith: Yes, without receipts.

Campbell: What improvements in that area might be called for here – not in response to public outrage, but to pre-empt it ?

Smith: I think the whole scrutiny on it internationally, has been useful actually. Because it has meant that I have looked very carefully at the whole experience – and will be shortly making public members expenses [available] and there are one or two issues that I want to look into further. I want to be satisfied that our system is transparent with clear boundaries, and limited in terms of being able to be abused in any way at all. There are one or two issues I want to look at further. I don’t want to divulge exactly what they are now, because I don’t want to pre-empt my ability, but its thrown up one or two things that I just think are not as clear at the boundaries as I’d like to see.

Campbell: But as things stand there’s no capacity for moat cleaning or the like –

Smith: No, we don’t have that sort of system, which is good. There’s an allowance for accommodation in Wellington, and there’s a limit to it. If you’re paying rent you can claim rent up to that limit. If you own your own property you can claim mortgage payments up to that limit. But you can’t claim to clean the moat, or to improve property

Campbell: And to pass them on with the added value, at a profit ?

Smith: No

Campbell: If one was seeking analogies or metaphors for this job – at one of the spectrum is a kind of papal authority. The Pope of Parliament concept. Infallible, unchallengeable rulings. At the other end you could be seen as Billy Bowden in robes – just a glorified referee trying to entertainingly do his best to maintain order among a bunch of incorrigibles. Where do you think you lie ?

Smith: (laughs) Impossible question. Obviously, balance is what one seeks to achieve in this, you know. You’re not infallible. You’ve got to retain the respect of your parliamentary colleagues. You are, after all, just one of the members of the House of Representatives who has been selected to do a job. You’ve got to retain their respect, and try and improve the way the Parliament operates. And that requires balance. It’s a fine line to tread.