Speaker Trevor Mallard is facing MPs’ questions over spending $330,000 of taxpayer money settling a defamation case against him.
Mallard was sued last year after wrongly alleging a man accused of rape was working at Parliament.
After settling the case 18 months later, Mallard last week personally apologised to the man and revealed the legal costs included a $158,000 payout to the plaintiff and more than $175,000 in lawyers fees.
Mallard said this afternoon he was appearing before the committee because he cares “deeply” about Parliamentary accountability and transparency and that he called chair Barbara Kuriger to advise he wanted to appear.
He started the meeting by restating the apology to the plaintiff and then extended it to the House and all New Zealanders.
Mallard said his understanding of “rape” was incorrect at the time.
“I made a mistake and for that I unreservedly apologise to the House and to New Zealanders.”
Mallard said when he became Speaker there was a widespread culture of bullying and covering it up and changes needed to be made to make Parliament a safe place to work.
Mallard said the Francis Review was “shocking but not surprising” and referred to the part in the report which states there were 14 accounts of sexual assaults and that three were particularly concerning.
Mallard said his error had taken attention away from the work which had occurred since the review and he regretted that.
On the timing of the media statement, Mallard said he wanted to release it on the first sitting day after being signed at 5pm on December, Thursday 3.
Due to that sitting day being the same day as the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s findings into the Christchurch mosque attacks were released, and wanting to respect the families, he waited until journalists were out of the lock-up and released it that afternoon.
Mallard said National MP Gerry Brownlee chaired the group to expand the rules for MPs to include settlement costs – this was not the process followed by Mallard as he is a Minister.
In September, Mallard said he formally removed himself from the settlement process and did not discuss the process with Deputy Speaker at the time Anne Tolley, who approved the process.
Mallard said it was always his intention to be transparent and carved out a clause in the agreement so he could participate in Parliamentary processes but he was not able to reveal elements of the case.
Questions from MPs
Shadow leader of the House Chris Bishop has asked why Mallard refused to make a comment about the case in the House when asked last week.
Mallard said if he’d been given some notice he would have been “better prepared” and he could have come to an arrangement consistent with the agreement and the carve-out clause.
Bishop said he thought MPs assumed there would be a statement in the House by Mallard but the Speaker refuted that – they should know not to assume anything in the House.
Mallard said he had made an apology to the House through the committee in response to a question about whether he will apologise in February when the House resumes.
The settlement came out of a mediation meeting and Mallard said he got the first copy of the agreement “in early December” and he didn’t see earlier drafts of it.
Mallard said there was an order by the courts for Mallard or his counsel to approach the plaintiffs but it was his understanding that counsel from each side met and both parties were convinced that instead of spending hundreds of thousands more on the case, they settled.
Mallard said he did not have further insight into the incident at the centre of the case beyond the Francis Review.
Mallard said the change to Speaker’s ‘directions’ which expanded the rules on court costs were unanimously agreed to by all parties but he’d excused himself from that meeting because there was a clear personal interest in it.
On establishing the process for Mallard’s case and legal costs, the Speaker said he believed having someone of Anne Tolley’s integrity acting on the advice from the Solicitor General was the right thing to do and said he was concerned about the perception of partisanship if the decision went to Cabinet.
“I obviously made a bad mistake at the beginning but I worked really hard not to compound that moving forward.”
Mallard said he realised he’d made a mistake within 24 hours of making the statements but didn’t apologise immediately “because there was an employment process” which was ongoing.
“I don’t interfere in employment matters.”
There is still an open claim by the man against Parliamentary Services.
National MP Michael Woodhouse asked whether more public money was spent on that second claim on top of the legal costs associated with Mallard’s case.
Chief executive of Parliamentary Service Rafael Gonzalez-Montero said he hadn’t seen Mallard’s response to the written questions in which he revealed the costs of his case but he believed it didn’t include the other costs.
Gonzalez-Montero, who recommended the deputy speaker sign off on the settlement, said Crown Law advised it was more “economical” to settle the case.
Asked by Labour MP Kieran McAnulty about what he would have done differently, Mallard said “clearly I made an error” and he wanted to “get on with fixing it as quickly as possible”.
“My key regret is essentially a confusion of the law which led to this.”
Mallard said he interpreted misconduct as rape “which it did not amount to rape”.
“That’s the confusion that I had and I regret that.”
Mallard said it was his responsibility to work as hard and as quickly as possible to respond to the serious allegation and put protections in place.
Mallard said he has had no indication from the Prime Minister that she didn’t have confidence in him.
Mallard said his apology was to the taxpayer for the amount the case had cost.
“It is a lot of money that could have been better spent.”
So far the legal costs around the Employment Relations Authority claim made by the man against Parliamentary Services is estimated to have cost about $37,000.
The Taxpayers’ Union pig, which had been sitting in on the meeting, was removed before MPs’ questions began.
In the apology last week, Mallard said it was “incorrect” of him to suggest the man had been accused of rape “as that term is defined in the Crimes Act 1961”.
Opposition parties said they had lost confidence in Mallard and at the weekend he agreed to appear before the Governance and Administration Select Committee to answer questions.
National leader Judith Collins has called for Mallard to apologise and offer his resignation.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she still has confidence in Mallard and that he was still the right person for the job, pointing to his work on making Parliament a better workplace.
Mallard ensured he was able to be accountable to Parliamentary processes, like written questions and select committees, by including a clause in his agreement with the man.
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