Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Twitter and Parliament

Yesterday, in response to a complaint from the National Party, the Speaker referred the issue of MPs tweeting from the House to the Privileges Committee. Ostensibly this is to "clarify the rules", but its pretty clear that he wants to stop people from slagging him off. And this is a gross over-reach of his power.

Parliament's Standing Orders exist for one reason and one reason only: to ensure a modicum of order in the House so it can do its job. No more, and no less. They're not there to police the conduct of MPs generally, and they're certainly not there to police the conduct of members of the public outside the House (as some of the examples of breach of privilege purport to do). Unless something poses a direct threat to the functioning of the House, it is simply no business of the Speaker, end of story.

MPs tweeting from the Chamber does not pose such a threat. Unlike verbal interjections, they do not lead to retaliation in the House which interferes with its function. Criticising the Speaker on Twitter rather than verbally challenging them does not lead to disorder, as it is confined to another forum. It may make the Speaker feel bad when he is told about it later, but protecting the Speaker from hurt feelings is not the function of Standing Orders. Neither is protecting the Speaker's sense of "authority" from things said outside the Chamber. While he gets to be a petty tyrant in the Chamber, he just has to put up with what people say about him outside it (subject of course to the law of defamation). And if he feels that those outside statements prevent him from performing his job impartially, then the only honourable course of action is to resign.

What MPs tweeting from the Chamber does do is give us a direct line into our democracy. Its immediate, its informal, and its responsive - and therefore hugely valuable in terms of citizen engagement. We also get to see our MPs warts and all - Judith Collins' bullying and vindictiveness, Tau Henare's humour, Jan Logie's over-extended simile - and judge them accordingly. And by threatening it, Carter is undermining a key part of our democratic conversation. And that's not something we should let him get away with.