The value of a backstop for an unruly Parliament

Phillip Field might yet get his come-uppance — from Parliament, the institution which stands to lose most by what he did with migrant hopefuls, if National can produce an inventive resolution to skirt Standing Orders.

Should we cheer? Of course, if justice is done — and the Ingram report suggests there is justice to be done. But can we be sure Parliament will do justice?

Parliament is a place for politics. Politics is about power, who has it and how they wield it and how those out of power can gain power.

It is a place of majorities. If a majority in a select committee whips Field by imputation and, by association, Helen Clark and the whole Labour party, a parliamentary inquiry will have done the job National wants it to do.

National’s biggest obstacle to power is Clark. So it expends much effort trying to get the public to lose its respect for her. Fit her up with Field and one more dent goes in the image. Her hard-nosed refusal of a real inquiry, out of a naked self-interest to keep her numbers tidy, is a bad look.

The Greens’ concern in backing a committee inquiry is a genuine bother about Parliament’s demeanour. The Greens don’t cavort and cackle and carry on as National does. Though they felt done over by Clark in the government formation last year they are not the sorts to run a vendetta.

Then there is the Speaker, the guardian of Parliament’s good name.

Margaret Wilson’s ruling that there is no privilege case against Field was exemplary conservative legal reasoning. Lawyers who used to rail against Sir Robin Cooke’s creative judgments would have been proud. Attorney-General Michael Cullen, who has similarly railed at judges, in fact defended her with some vigour.

Wilson ruled in effect that nothing Field did contravenes the Standing Orders which deal with Parliament’s “privilege”. Field did not directly or indirectly obstruct or impede the House in performing its functions nor did he obstruct or impede any MP or officer of the House in discharging their duties.

Standing Orders are Parliament’s rules and they have the force of law, as Television New Zealand found when the privileges committee, having mounted a particularly lofty horse, fined it for its then chair’s comments.

Wilson ruled that the allegations against Field were about a standard of conduct and Parliament’s reputation. The remedy, she suggested, lay in adopting a code of conduct, as Britain and Australia have done.

The strong point behind National’s war on Field is one of standards. A less legally rigorous Speaker might have stretched Standing Orders but that would have been murky territory. National’s motion to censure her is out of place.

Indeed, if Speakers stretch Standing Orders, who knows what might happen to citizens at Parliament’s mercy? Already any MP can say anything he or she likes about anyone who is not an MP. The “privilege”, which once was a defence against the King, is now a weapon against the public.

The point of bothering about this arcane stuff is that our constitution depends on the good behaviour of those at its apex.

Which is where the cool judgment of a Supreme Court comes in — five fine minds who can inquire into and shape the law, subject to Parliament’s majoritarian legislation but not slaves to its party agendas.

If a Prime Minister were to try to do what President George Bush is doing and not carry out laws passed by Parliament, the Supreme Court would have something magisterial to say, as the Appeal Court in fact did in Fitzgerald v Muldoon.

The court would probably also wax magisterial if Parliament attempted a law which grossly transgressed the fundamental human or civil rights of an individual or a group.

The Governor-General has a parallel role.

As head of state, the Governor-General is in a sense guardian of the constitution, with “reserve powers” that can be used if a Prime Minister runs way off the rails and, for example, refuses to resign after losing a confidence vote in the House.

A Governor-General must therefore be above politics and command public respect.

Dame Silvia Cartwright has been such a head of state. She is a person of grace and intelligence. She has represented the nation in ceremonials at home and — an innovation — also abroad.

She has also, as the role calls for, to a degree represented the nation back to itself, most notably when she chose to interpret Captain Willliam Hobson’s famous phrase at the initial signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, “he iwi tahi tatou”, not as “we are one people”, the traditional version, but with Dame Joan Metge’s more accurate “we two peoples together make a nation”.

Dame Silvia leaves office on Friday and goes off to do noble work in Cambodia. Her successor, Judge Anand Satyanand, has a high standard to maintain.

He will do that, with the humour and humility and wisdom that has marked his public and private life. So we can tolerate a rumbustious and often rum Parliament because we have a backstop we can hold in high regard.