The Dominion, Saturday, August 22, 1925. p. 8.
Peeps at Parliament: "Won't Go Home Till Morning" — The Nightmare of the Estimates
Mr. Isitt (dubiously): "We won't go home till morning—"
Mr. Holland (grimly determined): "You shan't go home till morning!"
All together (crescendo): "We can't go home till morning, before the break of day."354
That, ladies and gentlemen, is just exactly what happened not last night but the night before, when the House held an all-night sitting on Mr. Isitt's Bill.355 Who was the absolutely inexperienced and inaccurate person who christened the hours between midnight and daylight "the wee356 sma' hours"? Whoever it was, I'm quite sure that he had never had occasion to sit up in the Press Gallery to an altogether unearthly hour in the morning, and return home, in a state of mental and physical collapse, with the milk. The hours between 12 and 7 o'clock are longer than the rest of the day and night put together. This is not really a surprising statement, considering that no less than seventeen—yes, 'pon our word of honour, seventeen Labour-Socialist members, not to mention a few scattered Wilford-Nationalists and an occasional bored Reformer—spoke during that period. Towards the end of the sitting, even the most placid and even-tempered members seemed just a bit frayed at the edges.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Mr. Speaker!" Why this startling—no—yes—startling outburst, for three successive "Thank you, Mr. Speakers!" betokened such an excessive outbreak of politeness that we positively refused to believe it, even though we heard it with our own two reasonably competent ears. But sure enough, we were perfectly right, for there, as we leaned over the balustrade at the imminent risk of precipitating ourselves in a most undignified fashion on the heads of the excessively dignified legislators beneath, was Mr. Witty, still bowing and bobbing, and, with frigid politeness, repeating his "Thank you, Mr. Speaker!" as we, with some effort, regained our equilibrium and sought to extract from the inquiring eye of Mr. Speaker some explanation of this unprecedented Parliamentary courtesy — unprecedented, that is, in the whole of our very long six weeks' experience. But we derived some satisfaction from the obvious equal bewilderment of Mr. Speaker, who gazed sternly, searchingly, sceptically at Mr. Witty, with an "Order! Order!" trembling on his lips. Then, slowly but surely the light of truth dawned upon us. Mr. Witty, certain that he, at least, could, like a modern Cicero, dispel the clouds of unreason that darkened the souls of his fellow-Senators, had risen to speak, but Mr. Speaker, apparently unaware of the honour that was being accorded the House, had called upon Mr. Atmore to arise from his seat in No Man's Land—beg pardon, I mean the Wilford—or is it Forbes?—National benches–and expound his views on the subject of Mr. Isitt's dear little Bill.357
For let us from the deep well of our experience make it known unto the uninitiated that Mr. Speaker will not, if he can by any means avoid it, listen to two members of one party in succession. The reason for this is perceptible even to the naked eye. To give ear unto Mr. Fraser directly after Mr. Holland has—for the moment—finished speaking, would be altogether a quite too—well, overpowering, wouldn't it? Mr. Witty, aggrieved that the House, desiring to listen to him, should have to wait while Mr. Speaker indulged his eccentric passion for impartiality, fired off his successive "Thank yous!" with the force and rapidity of a machine gun. We regret to confess that while Mr. Witty's lips said "Thank you!" his eye didn't look it. Is the honourable member aware that the occupants of the Ladies' Gallery are expert mind readers? (N.B.—They need to be.) To return to our point[,] we are wicked enough to regret that Mr. Witty didn't say what he looked, for what on earth is the use of having a perfectly good and undeniably impressive Sergeant-at-Arms all to ourselves, if we never have a chance to use him?
We have read somewhere that Mr. McCombs—bantam-weight champion of the Labour-Socialists, as we not unfittingly christened him—has concealed about his person a mysterious little penny arithmetic book. By the aid of this little book, when it can be found—for without it his muse is silent—he does all sorts of sums in addition and subtraction—usually subtraction, particularly where the Government's merits are concerned. Mr. McCombs, without his Book of Black Magic, feels and looks as lost as a witch without her broomstick. But what I really want to know is this: I am in sore trouble concerning a matter of arithmetical calculation, and feel quite sure that if some kind-hearted person would beg, borrow, or, preferably, steal Mr. McCombs' little Lightning Calculator, I should find in it the formula which I seek as a solvent for the problem at present occupying my mind. The night before last Parliament held an all-night sitting, and if it is really true that Parliament in session costs one whole good English pound per minute, how much did the country pay for the Labour-Socialist eloquence so wastefully expended on Mr. Isitt's Bible-in-Schools Bill? We do not know much about the science of two-and-two-makes-four (or, in Parliament, five or three, just according to where you happen to sit), but subject to correction by Mr. McCombs we have worked it out this way. There are seventeen Labour members, and at half-an-hour each, that makes eight and a half hours, equal, if we haven't forgotten our twice-times tables, to 510 minutes. This, at £1 per minute, runs us into £510, which you and I, dear tax-payer,358 will of course feel only too proud, pleased, and privileged to pay. Won't we just?
Now, here is a question to put on the Order Paper, or, by the consent of the House, we will put it without notice. The country will pay £510 for eight and a half hours of Labour-Socialist eloquence. Will the Minister of Finance place a sum of £1000 on the Estimates as compensation to the victims who listened from the Ladies' Press Gallery? We think we are letting the country off cheap at the price.
Much as I would like to discuss Mr. Isitt's inoffensive little Bill (I know that the infant was perfectly inoffensive, because Mr. Isitt said so),359 and much, likewise, as I might enjoy reporting to you the conversation of our seventeen sea-green (or is it pale pink?) incorruptibles,360 I won't, for the very good and sufficient reason that the world as a whole, and Parliament in particular, doesn't stand still just because Mr. Isitt's Bill failed to make harbour. We are at present engaged upon Estimates. In case you, not having the bad luck to occupy the positions of the various Ministers who look after different branches of the Estimates, don't quite understand the trials and tribulations of those who have to sit, stand, and, in many instances, lie through an afternoon on this truly important subject, I'll try to give you some idea of the above-mentioned trials and tribulations.
Imagine, just for the sake of argument, that you have partaken of a choice little supper of lobster, salmon mayonnaise, mince pies, Stilton cheese, and oyster patties. Very good. Having imagined all that, you will next proceed to imagine that you have retired to your attic and are reclining in the arms of Morpheus. (It's perfectly all right; Morpheus is only an ancient and superannuated Greek god, whose job, like that of certain M.P.'s we could mention, was to put people to sleep.) But instead of finding yourself drowsily and dreamily contented, you are troubled with a really horrible succession of nightmares. In the first one, you are chased up your bedroom wall by a pink wallaby with purple spots, and in the last—horror upon horror—you see yourself as the Minister of Internal Affairs. You are sitting in the House on pins and needles, and everybody within sight or hearing is arguing as to whether your carefully-prepared estimates are the work of a criminal lunatic, or just of somebody who is a little—how shall we put it?—"saft."361 All around you are members; they have come—you're sure you don't know why—from every hole and corner in New Zealand, and every one of them is passionately demanding money for the refurnishing of his own particular hole.362
Somebody has, in a moment of temporary mental aberration, introduced an opossum into your native land. A Parliamentary authority upon opossums immediately rises to show you just what an undesirable immigrant this seemingly inoffensive and respectable-living opossum is, and how vitally necessary it is that you should immediately, and without further puerile discussion of the matter, produce a grant for the prevention and cure of opossums.363 Another wants you to present him with a museum.364 You gaze at him with a speculative eye, and think to yourself that if you could only persuade the hon. member to stay in his museum—a very proper place for him, too—when once he had it, be hanged if you wouldn't risk it. You may think that I exaggerate. Well, consult Mr. Bollard, who, towards the end of yesterday afternoon, was frankly perspiring, upon the matter. He, I am sure, will be only too glad to inform you that being Minister of Internal, or, as he must quite often call them, Infernal Affairs, is not just all strawberry jam.
354 Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers.
We won't go home 'till morning,
We won't go home 'till morning,
We won't go home 'till morning,
'Till day-light doth appear.
The Pickwick Papers, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 108. See also the column for 30 June 1925.
355 The House adjourned its 20 August sitting at 7a.m. on the 21st after a long debate on Isitt's Religious Exercises in Schools Bill.
356 Dominion: we.
357 This exchange is not recorded in Hansard but presumably occurred when Atmore rose to speak; see Hansard 207: 514.
358 Dominion: tax-paper.
359 Isitt referred to the main point of contention in his Bill as "that innocent conscience clause of mine" (Hansard 207: 502).
360 Cf. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution.
Perhaps we may say, the most terrified man in Paris or France is—who thinks the reader?—seagreen Robespierre. Double paleness, with the shadow of gibbets and halters, overcasts the seagreen features: it is too clear to him that there is to be "a Saint-Bartholomew of Patriots," that in four-and-twenty hours he will not be in life. These horrid anticipations of the soul he is heard uttering at Pétion's; by a notable witness. By Madame Roland, namely; her whom we saw, last year, radiant at the Lyons Federation. These four months, the Rolands have been in Paris; arranging with Assembly Committees the Municipal affairs of Lyons, affairs all sunk in debt;-communing, the while, as was most natural, with the best Patriots to be found here, with our Brissots, Pétions, Buzots, Robespierres: who were wont to come to us, says the fair Hostess, four evenings in the week. They, running about, busier than ever this day, would fain have comforted the seagreen man: spake of Achille du Châtelet's Placard; of a Journal to be called The Republican; of preparing men's minds for a Republic. "A Republic?" said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, "What is that?" O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!
The Works of Thomas Carlyle in Thirty Volumes, vol. 3 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1898), pp. 2: 167–68. See also the column for 9 September 1925 and Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), p. 50.
362 The debate on August 21 was taken up with the estimates and supply for the Department of Internal Affairs; see Hansard 207: 574-98.
363 In fact Field supported protection for opossums on the grounds that their fur generated export revenue; see Hansard 207: 581.
364 Sidey asked for a subsidy for the Otago Museum; see Hansard 207: 583.