John Roughan: Parliament trespass notices take a toll on Speaker and Jacinda Ardern

OPINION

Trevor Mallard has retired. Not from Parliament, obviously. He is one of those sad cases who can’t bear to leave the institution, but he has retired from politics. He clearly no longer cares whether the public likes what he says and does or not.

The last thing the Labour Government needed right now was for the public to be reminded of the February occupation of Parliament Grounds. The stupid, vindictive trespass notices sent this week to former MPs who visited the protest coincided with the release of another poll putting National in front of Labour.

It is the third such poll result recently, each by a different polling organisation, and the Government’s political tacticians will be urgently asking themselves what has taken the gloss off Jacinda Ardern.

They are probably not content with the reasons commentators have offered for Labour’s slide – pandemic fatigue, co-governance, the cost of living. These play a part but not so long ago they would have been outweighed by the ratings of a popular Prime Minister. What has happened?

I think I know. It is an advantage sometimes not to be close to the action. I see no more of Ardern than most people see. I see her only on television and during the February occupation of Parliament I saw a change in her.

Almost from the moment those people started camping on the lawn, the warm, smiling, gushing manner of relentless positivity disappeared. On TV she looked drawn and haunted, deeply shaken for the first time since coming to power.

She did not handle the challenge well. Her greatest asset, her all-embracing inclusive nature, deserted her. She made a point of shunning the protesters, dismissing them as people who deserved a hearing, even denying they were “us”. Big mistake.

Plenty of people watching on TV shared her view of the protest and probably sympathised with her dark response but they would have been surprised by it, and, I suspect, disappointed. The Jacinda they had come to know would have at least tried to reach out to the people on the lawn in some way. Her best instincts would have found a way.

Instead, she appeared to have already succumbed to that fatal pitfall of power – belief in her own myth – and deeply resented evidence of dissent in the team of five million. Two weeks into the occupation, when she announced the Cabinet was discussing the future of vaccine mandates and denied this was a response to the protest, she appeared just petty.

The last time I saw a Prime Minister so personally shaken by a political reversal was John Key after the “teagate” incident during the 2011 election campaign. I was out of the country at the time it happened and didn’t see him until months later when he was still visibly deeply disturbed by it.

He was convinced – wrongly, it turned out – that the recording of his conversation with Act’s John Banks was deliberate and it had got to him. When the subject came up his face changed. The bright-eyed, affable glow disappeared. He looked deeply shocked and personally offended that such a thing could be done.

Admittedly it was a political disaster, allowing Winston Peters back into Parliament, but Key would later admit he had let it get to him too much. He got over it and went on to win the next election. Ardern can get over it too, personally and politically.

In fact she already seemed to be over it, her personality looked to be back in full bloom for her overseas visit last month. She must have been furious with Mallard this week. How long can Labour afford to leave him in the Speaker’s chair?

He was a good minister, I thought, in the Clark government, best remembered in Auckland for the waterfront stadium proposal which, whatever your view of it, was bold and interesting. But he was always a combative character in Parliament, not an obvious choice for the chair.

The only thing more surprising than his appointment was the fact that he wanted the job. He could surely have commanded a place in a Cabinet short of ministerial experience. Labour probably imagined nobody could do much harm in the largely non-speaking role of Speaker.

The trespass notices were not just a reminder of the sniffy, vindictive attitude of all parties in Parliament to the rabble outside, the ban could have blocked the entry of a new party next year. The February protest proved a significant portion of public opinion is not currently represented.

I fervently hope Mallard’s latest bout of authoritarian amusement has not revived Peters again. The notices have been withdrawn but the damage has been done.

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