The latest blow up over race relations in Parliament has raised the question – are MPs allowed to call each other racist in the House?
The short answer is ‘no’, says Speaker Trevor Mallard.
However in the spirit of playing the ball, not the person, he’s ruled MPs can describe policies and even views as ‘racist’ but it’s not a term that can be levelled directly against another member.
Tempers flared in the House as National continued its questioning of the government about its plans for partnership with Māori, which leader Judith Collins has previously talked about as “separatist”.
The Māori Party protested against what it said was a “constant barrage of insults to tangata whenua” in the House, arguing when it came to talking about the views of indigenous people, they’re the only people who should be talking.
For the past week or so, Collins has been pushing the government on what National has broadly characterised as secret plans to give Māori powers of co-governance, in some cases veto rights – taking New Zealand down a “separatist path”.
Māori Party MP and co-leader Debbie Ngarewa Packer told reporters “it’s not right that the Speaker hasn’t got the courage to stop racism in the House, it’s not right that we have to endure it”.
Her colleague Rawiri Waititi said it wasn’t about “shutting down the National Party”.
“I’m sure the National Party has many policies, as according to them, that benefit Aotearoa, but… the opposition leader has been constantly bashing Māori to gain the votes of her Pākehā constituents – and that’s all it is”.
That was a “lazy” assessment said Collins.
“And I will not stop asking questions in Parliament about any constitutional changes that the Government seems to be working on until the Prime Minister answers questions directly.”
There should be an “adult conversation”, Collins said, one that “should be able to be had without accusations of someone being called racist because they ask reasonable questions”.
Minister for Māori Crown Relations Kelvin Davis told Parliament Collins was taking a page out of the Don Brash playbook – “the chapter titled ‘What to Do When Your Prime Ministerial Aspirations Go Down the Gurgler’ …after all, if it worked for one uncharismatic leader, it should surely work for the next one”.
Davis said Māori have already “crossed the bridge… we speak the language and know the customs of the non-Māori world”.
“And I ask this question: aside from the member of Tauranga, what other Māori bridges has Judith Collins walked over?
“You see what disturbed me the most about Judith Collins’ speech wasn’t the speech itself; it wasn’t the idiot in the audience who called out “that’s apartheid.” What disturbed me the most was that Judith Collins agreed with that idiot.”
He told Parliament “working in partnership with Māori is not, never was, and never will be apartheid.”
“It is inconceivable, in 2021, that a New Zealand politician can confuse rangatiratanga with apartheid.
“Apartheid is the oppression of people; rangatiratanga is the empowerment of people, and it is a guarantee of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”
This has all prompted questions about how the Parliament can debate such matters, as summed up by National’s Gerry Brownlee:
“Trying to work out how you deal with debate on policy that is formulated, essentially, on race, without offending those who consider that such a debate should not take place, and that there should be no question about the basis of the policy itself.”
Looking back at how former Speakers dealt with MPs calling each other hypocrites or liars, Trevor Mallard concluded “there is a difference between calling an individual a racist and criticising either a policy or a view as being racist”.
“Some people have the view that other members’ views are racist. In my opinion, ruling that out would be excluding the rights to free speech, which we value substantially,” he told Parliament.
Mallard appealed to MPs “to take care as they express themselves, to think of the wider consequences when they do” but would not “ask one part of the House to refrain from suggestions that some policies are race-based or, effectively, racist”.
Furthermore, he would not “stop another group in the House expressing the view that other members’ views – not the members themselves but the views expressed – are, in fact, racist”.
“I think that will get the balance about right. It will leave the freedom of speech, but it will stop people saying that individuals are racist, which I think most members would find offensive.”