By Jason Walls
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching the faces in the public gallery in Parliament during Question Time.
Often, they’re seeing the theatrics, the drama, the heckling, the jeering and the interjections that come with the hour of questions for the first time.
From my spot in the press gallery, I get a perfect view – mouths agape, shocked at the scenes unfolding below.
The House in Question Time is often likened to a disorderly classroom and in the public gallery, onlookers have a front row ticket.
This analogy has always been punctuated by MPs being kicked out of the House for misbehaving – the “naughty kid” being thrown out of the room.
But, until this week, an MP had yet to be thrown out of the House by current Speaker Trevor Mallard.
Instead, Mallard has chosen to deduct supplementary questions from the Opposition if its MPs are being unruly. If Government MPs are acting up, he will award supplementary questions to the Opposition.
National don’t like this and have good reason to be upset.
As pointed out by political commentator Ben Thomas, it’s harder for the Opposition to plan a strategy when it has no idea how many supplementary questions it may or may not have.
“Imagine going into a three-hour exam, being told halfway through you have an extra hour, then 45 minutes later being told actually it ends in 15 minutes,” he tweeted.
Even if National has actually been the beneficiary of the process – as Mallard points out, the Opposition has gained an extra 22 more supplementary questions than it would have otherwise because of unruly Government MPs – it still makes it very hard to figure out a plan of attack.
This issue has been boiling away for months, but it reached melting point this week.
Bennett, Brownlee and Bennett
On Wednesday, after a scuffle with the Speaker on this issue, National Deputy Leader Paula Bennett ejected herself from the chamber.
The next day, she was kicked out by Mallard. David Bennett, National MP for Hamilton East, came within a whisker of following his Deputy Leader and Mallard even went as far as threatening to “name him.”
As far as punishments for MPs, being “named” by the Speaker is one of the most severe and could result in said MP being suspended and docked pay.
Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee also questioned the Speaker’s “neutrality” in subsequent media stand-ups and a letter to the Speaker, he made public.
It has been suggested the events in the House on Wednesday and Thursday were orchestrated – a strategic move by National to try to draw attention to their claims the Speaker was being unfair to their side.
If this was the case, National well and truly achieved its goal. Paula Bennett did the Breakfast TV shows, Brownlee did the drive-time radio and all the while newspapers across the country covered the story.
By the end of the day, hundreds of thousands of Kiwis were aware of National’s beef with Mallard.
Although Brownlee and co might chalk that up as a win, all I could think about is those gob-smacked onlookers in the public gallery.
Outside of maybe a 400-meter radius of Parliament, very few people care about question allocation and the Speaker’s rules during question time.
It is very much a beltway issue.
For the rest of the country, they’re seeing the “naughty kids” throwing their toys because they didn’t get their way – never mind Bennett and Brownlee do have a reason to be upset.
On Thursday, Mallard notably did not deduct or award any supplementary questions.
Whether he has bowed to the pressure, or it was just a temporary decision is yet to be seen.
But one thing is for sure – it was more than just the usual onlookers in the public gallery sitting mouths agape, watching MPs play politics this week.
Was it worth it, Mr Brownlee?