David Carter never wanted to be Speaker.
“It’s not career enhancing to actually say no,” he says about the request from the then Prime Minister John Key to take on the role.
“I said ‘give me a week or two to think about it’...but frankly the more I thought about it, he’d obviously thought that I had the personality and the temperament to do it.”
The conversation pauses as a plane rumbles overhead. Out on the lawn a woman plays with a dog and people soak up some afternoon sun before heading home for the day.
“This is the balcony in front of the Speaker’s office and Speaker’s apartment,” David says leaning against a marble doric column. The narrow balcony runs along the front of the Speaker’s offices along Parliament House’s first floor and overlooks the sward that slopes down to Molesworth street.
Technically the Speaker is the landlord of Parliament’s grounds and buildings including Parliament House, the Beehive and the Parliamentary Library which may explain why his offices and apartment are in such a prime location.
“The whole of Parliament is actually prime real estate. We haven’t used it to its fullest potential with a significant area still car-park, but it is.”
As well as acting as landlord, the Speaker’s role includes being the House’s spokesperson to the sovereign and on ceremonial occasions, chairing committees and maintaining New Zealand’s relationships with other Parliaments.
But the most well-known role of the Speaker is chairing the House.
“In my mind you’ve got to find your own style as a Speaker and it comes dependent on your personality and the atmospherics of the House,” David Carter says.
“Every Speaker’s been different - So I came in in 1994, [with] Peter Tapsell, a Labour member of Parliament, [as] Speaker under a National Government, a fine gentleman.”
“And Doug Kidd,” he continues, “huge admiration for Doug Kidd because he took the Parliament through its ... transition from First Past the Post to MMP.”
The Speaker’s job in the House is to balance the interests and demands of MPs from all political parties and interpret the rules of the House impartially to maintain order.
They’re always elected from the Members of Parliament but are allowed to maintain links with their political party - something David doesn’t necessarily view as an advantage.
“If you’re going to the weekly strategy meetings of a political party and its caucus it’s pretty difficult to then argue that you’re independent and removed.”
“When I became Speaker, I made a very conscious and active decision to remove myself from significant contact with the National Party Members of Parliament,” he says, adding that he hasn’t attended a caucus since he became Speaker and only attends conferences from a social point of view.
“I’ve worked hard to be seen as an independent speaker and I think that’s actually the secret of the job.”
As a minister (most recently for primary industries and local government) David Carter remembers being able to catch up with colleagues to talk over decisions but the Speaker is more of a lone wolf.
“I used to use the word lonely when I first started, I don’t think lonely is the right word but it’s an isolated position.”
Upon taking the role David Carter couldn’t even look to his predecessor for support, as he had departed for London to be New Zealand’s Ambassador.
“We’d had in my mind a very good speaker before me,” he says. “Lockwood Smith had done a good job, he’d restored some sort of, I guess almost dignity to Question Time.”
But despite this regard, David Carter knew he had to find his own style.
“I am the referee, I’m there to make the place run and work properly, provided the members of Parliament abide by the rules. And it’s my job to decide when they are abiding by the rules and when they’re not.”
But, David Carter says generally, he’s the type of referee that let’s the game play on.
“For me it’s a political debating chamber, there should be a bit of to and froing, a bit of interjection.”
“In my mind you’ve got to let it play, you’ve got to rely on your judgement at the time and let the game keep moving.”
Twenty-nine Speakers held the job before David Carter was put forward for the role in 2013 - his appointment was slightly unusual in that the opposition wasn’t consulted over his nomination, a decision which annoyed them.
“And they should have been”, he admits. That political move from John Key made his transition all the more difficult.
“It wasn’t an easy transition to go into that Speaker’s chair and then spend time trying to get the confidence of the House...then what happened was they were testing me, and again if I was opposition I’d do the same to any new Speaker,” he says.
“If you can’t get at the Government, and there’s a guy in the middle called the Speaker who is not handling the role well, it’s good for an opposition to have Parliament in a bit of chaos so yeah, it was a rough initiation.“
MPs are certainly not afraid of testing the limits of those rules including an early exchange with the now Assistant Speaker Trevor Mallard (Labour) telling the Speaker to “sit down until I'm finished”; and a mass walk-out of MPs last year over comments made by John Key.
But despite the tough times David Carter wouldn’t hesitate to carry on in the role.
“I will stand again in the hope that National forms a Government, in which case my expectation would be to be Speaker but absolutely acknowledge that should there be a change of government, then the position of Speaker would be taken by the incoming Government’s nomination.”