Friday, October 07, 2011

Our monarchical Speaker strikes again

On Wednesday, a man sitting in the gallery of Parliament attempted to throw himself over the railing and on to the floor of the chamber. The Herald's Audrey Young, sitting in the Press Gallery nearby, knowing news when she saw it, snapped a photo on her phone of the ensuing struggle as security guards and members of the public attempted to stop the man from going over the edge. The Herald, also knowing news when they saw it, published it. And as a result, Lockwood Smith has now banned them from reporting from Parliament for two weeks.

Publication of the photo was clearly in breach of Parliament's Standing Orders, which prohibit filming or photographing interruptions from the gallery. At the same time, it is obvious that the Speaker has not considered the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act in his decision. As the voice of the legislature and an official performing a public function, he is bound by the BORA, and must therefore ensure that his decisions respect the public's freedom of speech and that his punishments are not disproportionate to the offence. Any departure from these principles must be "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society".

This decision is not demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society which respects the freedom of speech and allows the public to see what is happening in their legislature. But sadly, no court can overrule the Speaker here. The British Bill of Rights Act 1688, which asserts the supremacy of Parliament, prevents it. Which makes the Speaker effectively a king, possessed of unreviewable and uncontrollable power. We need to change this.

Secondly, this shows that our Parliament is still in some ways stuck in the mindset of the eighteenth century, regulating itself like an exclusive gentlemen's club with public scrutiny permitted by grace and favour, not as of right. This too has to change. It is not the Speaker's House - it is our House, and we have an absolute right to know and see what happens there.