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Chapter III. — The House is in Session

page 29

Chapter III.
The House is in Session

When you're in Wellington, and darkness and the mists have settled down comfortably for another evening, it is quite possible that you will be fascinated by the lights. Auckland glares more… hard red and blue of Neon, a bit like Hell… Christchurch is properly dim and religious, Dunedin is gloomy, but in Wellington the lights in the harbour water whisper “Venice” to you, and you just hold your breath. It's the only place where I ever saw a 'bus completely surrounded by thousands of floating bubbles of opal. Mist effect, seen through a frosted window. Round Oriental Bay, water lapping up black by the Parade, seagulls screaming like untamed shrews among the little half-seen boats rocking at anchor, the lights, fat mellow golden ones, are arranged in threesomes. They remind me of Alfred Noyes' bacchanal fruits… “Grapes like melons—nay, clustering suns.…”

Mast-high beneath the deep-cleft shadow of the Tinakori Hills, and above R. O. Gross's bronze War Memorial rider, the spirit of youth riding away for ever on its crusade, twinkle three frostily bright little lights. This tells you that the House is in session.

It tells you a lot of things. If relief works, unemployment, folly of laws, have crept like an ague into your bones, you probably curse the three lights, going by. If you're a fat person in a fatter motor car, you wonder how much longer they'll be able to stick it out. New Zealand politics seem, at the moment, to be acting on different types either as an page 30 emetic, a bromide, or a hypnotic… which is all very odd.

But the House itself, dating back to old days, when either muddles weren't so bad or we, being completely without education instead of half-educated, thought more of our chances of getting past them, has an interest deeper than the animosities of the moment. In some ways, it's as old as Magna Carta. Looked at from a strictly Colonial viewpoint, its history begins with the days when Auckland papers contemptuously wanted to know why the Capital and seat of Parliament should be placed in “a contemptible little fishing-village.”

Once Government House occupied part of the large and sprawling territory now covered by the Parliamentary Buildings. There is one great bare-looking room which was once on a day lustrous with the light of chandeliers, and crinolines spread there petal-wise, as the debutantes danced with the handsomely-uniformed blades of two generations ago.

You can see the sharp transition in period as you pass from one part to another of the House. Left (underneath the reared mast that displays the three little lights of Session) are such rambling obscure territories as the Law Drafting Department; sly little stairways lead you up to official rooms. There's a shadow of the old-time gay hospitality there still, the all-white reception room, in which Ministers' wives hold their official tea-drinking Marathons. There too is Bellamy's, which was forbidden territory to every petticoat whatsoever until Mrs. Elizabeth McCombs, relict of the late “Jimmie,” Labour Party adding-machine, and for many years Member for Lyttelton, was inconsiderate enough to get herself elected in her husband's place. (There is a rumour that a Cabinet Minister on one highly festive occasion transgressed this law and allowed a pair of high-heeled shoes in the Holy of Holies. Further rumour stated that he was quite suitably chastened over his “break” page 31 later on.) New Zealand was the first country in the British Empire—and far ahead, too, of America—in securing votes for women. Elizabeth McCombs, in 1932, was the first New Zealand woman to be elected to Parliament, years after women M's.P. had become the recognised thing in England; which shows once again how very much “more English than the English” we so unfortunately are, and what a trifle man's inhumanity to man must be, compared with woman's blatant indifference to woman.

However, Elizabeth being elected, they took the “No Women Permitted” notice down. History made all over again.…

The centre of the Parliamentary Buildings is where all the talk and all the legislative fun goes on. It is a rather fine structure—white marble, simple and stately in construction, as beheld from without, within beautifully polished, the grey streaks and markings of New Zealand marble showing like clouds and seas in the fitted blocks. Granite columns, gilt-topped, for the “Lords”: polished wooden shields, engraved with the names of the engagements in which New Zealand forces took part during the war, looking down on the red-carpeted floor of the Lower House.

The right wing is old, stair-wayed, lined with the many faded, scowling, bewhiskered portraits of Members long dead and gone. Upstairs the library: a little hall in which captured flags, torn and fading, show their black eagles against once blood-red fabric: the little glass case and Massey's Treaty of Versailles pen: the section of the library which is for M's.P. only, and through the mazes of which you proceed by the queerest little curling staircases of galvanised iron… down, down down.

There's another such curling iron ladder to the roof of the Parliamentary Buildings. Members go up to “take a breather” and watch the stars from a properly respectful distance. Their friends aren't supposed to, but do. They are summoned back to page 32 divisions by electric bells which ring madly right through the House… ring for five minutes, persistently enough to wake the dead. Then the stentorian call in the Lower House: “Lock the doors…”

“The doors are locked.”

All so solemn, but you get to like it. There has been more than one suicide from the roof of the Parliamentary Buildings, by the way. Also more than one little fire in the maze of old corridors below… . . rather timid little fires, but incendiarism dimly suspected during the past tempestuous three years.

An elderly Government Whip, returning from Australia, where he had been part of a British Empire delegation, once said to me that he was sorry for the Members who grew old and were thrown out. Inevitable, of course… . but their lives got so utterly bound up in caucus, in a ringing of division bells, in absurd solemnities.

“I dreamed that I dwelt in marble halls,” he quoted, and laughed rather sadly.

He was thrown out himself next election, with the general Coates debacle. Nor has he returned to his marble halls. He used to look very solemn and portentous, though, leading the Government flock over the red sea of carpet to the lobby, where the “Noes” — being in overwhelming majority — so invariably “had it.”

The press gallery proper is rather comfortable, equipped with swing chairs, special telephones, a decent view of the House. The women's press gallery (so-called) is a damnably uncomfortable and narrow little bench in front of a public gallery to which all women are admitted—overflow from the main ladies' galler—and in which a consistent hiss of chatter is kept up as you strive to get the sense (if any) of what is being said down in the chamber below. If you want to know for certain that you belong to an inferior, yes, a most inferior sex, spend an all-night sitting cramped in the women's press page 33 gallery. If your sex weren't inferior, and you just as inferior as the rest of it, why, naturally you would write so many indignant articles, so many “Pro Bono Publico” letters, that the case would be altered. You might even go so far as a bomb. However, we leave it all in the gentle hands of Mr. Speaker, which is sweet of us, isn't it?

Members of Parliament are the most awful liars. That is well known, but they are even more awful liars than you would expect. I was eighteen when I went to the women's press gallery first. Only the circumspection of a ware and wily sub-editor saved the Dominion from a plain statement in its next morning's columns that prior to the Opening of the House, a thorough search was made in the cellars, this custom having been brought out with the sailing-ships, a relic of Parliamentary procedure since the Gunpowder Plot.

Well, it was so convincingly told. There's a living for any M.P. who survives two elections as a confidence man, should the third election catch him napping. However, few actually do take to this. They still go on in optimism about “come-backs,” like boxers.

All the same, politics and their interpreters become of almost dramatic interest, like white mice in a schoolboy's locker, where would the fun of life be without them?

And there's a lot of kindliness in the House. I remember, there was one reporter in the women's press gallery who walked on crutches. One night, after the House had risen and the little group of Members was beginning to drift away, a voice hailed her from below: “Miss Novitia; Miss Novitia.”

She waited, and presently a message was sent around to say that on occasions when she had to stay late at the House, a car and chauffeur were at her service.

The voice belonged to the then Prime Minister, page 34 the Rt. Hon. J. G. Coates. Mr. Coates is a consistently unlucky politician. I remember whilst Railways was included among his several portfolios that he made one pointed speech on our sluggish trains. “I'm going to speed 'em up,” he declared. Half an hour later the House was agog with news of the most serious Main Trunk crash in ten years.

There's a little tearoom in the left wing. It's distinguished mainly by the fact that its waitresses seem to have been there always, are invariably smiling and courteous. A notice says it's intended strictly for the wives and families of M's.P.—if such is the case in actual fact, it's odd to think how many bigamists we've elected to Parliament, and how astonishingly prolific they have all proved.

That's where you are taken to tea.

Early days in the little cramped gallery, I remember a very pleasant woman who leaned over from a gallery alongside. (By the way, segregation of the sexes is rigorously carried out in all galleries, even the Lords, poor old dears, sit alone in masculine solemnity in their own little niche. For interjecting from a gallery you are merely thrown out. A second offence disqualifies you for good.)

“Come along to tea,” said the very pleasant lady. Right willingly I followed her: but was alarmed when she sought to enter the door of the above-mentioned little tearoom. I warned her that only the elite and elected might take their womenfolk there. She laughed.

“That's all right,” she said. And the waitress called her “Lady Parr.” She is dead now, after so long and so quietly-borne an illness. I don't think I have ever heard that she was unkindly to anyone.

Sir James Parr, who hates his own first name (“Christopher”) likes to think that the great New Zealand public think of him as “Jimmie,” which they don't (he is too intelligent to be popular), was Minister of Education then. He has replaced “Tommy” Wilford as High Commissioner, page 35 so once again Guild Banquets in London may have a New Zealander to crack after-dinner jokes with them and drink from the huge loving-cups.

I saw him last in the lavender-carpeted offices allotted to the Leader of the Upper House. He tried to stress the importance of the “Lords,” but so many a time in old days, just for a rest, I'd gone round to the gallery of their granite-columned abode and watched ancient gentlemen with beards, incredibly aged gentlemen who even displayed the remains of whiskers, asleep in their high, red-plush armchairs. Sir James was one of the few New Zealand parliamentarians to go in, well and truly, for radio talking. He had brought back with him, after his first reign as High Commissioner in England, a very great deal that he wanted to say. He wasn't encouraged to say it. Everyone knows, of course, that round about Auckland, a by-election cropping up rather opportunely, he was urged by many optimists to stand in the interests of a new party.…

The years put a period to enthusiasm about mushrooms.

The Upper House has its one great day, of course: the Opening of Parliament. Black Rod, blue-lapelled ushers, clank of swords, the flamingo-coloured plumes of military headgear, the Governor-General entering in state, Her Excellency smiling and be-flowered, in company with the little knot of distinguished guests “on the floor of the House,” as it's rather quaintly expressed. The red carpets laid down in the House cost £7,000.

It's nicer to watch, up in the gallery, the strange resurrection of old bonnets, old ostrich plumes, old lace, which existed long, long before the deluge of modernity. Just for the one afternoon of long-winded speeches and rather childish picturesquerie it comes back.

They called Sir Joseph Ward “our only statesman.” He was a shadow when he came back after page 36 the 1928 election, in which, on his name and the Truth slogan “Seventy million sovereigns can't be wrong,” they finished the Reform Party's little hour of not very glorious life, and began that era of unexampled prosperity during which we have known definitely that there isn't any money to spend, there is likely to be less, and nobody much wants to lend us the wherewithal. For pawnbrokers we seem to have done rather badly.

Of the shadow, some say “Dulce et decorum est.” Others, that Caesar was ambitious—without having the qualities of a Caesar. However, “the oysters were eaten and put down in the bill.”

Sir Joseph made a rather good speech in the House once after his dramatic “come-back”: earnest, clearly-worded, and he looked better as a shadow than as the heavy-jowled person of old Dominion cartoons: more like the last of the Liberals, and that used to be such a good word. It was associated with the story, I believe a perfectly true one, about “Dick” Seddon and his knee-breeches. The Seddon hatred of dress clothes, still more of “fancy dress,” was notorious. Consequence, he put his most princely garb on so seldom that nobody had ascertained, until immediately before his audience with the Pope in the Vatican, that he had grown considerably too stout for said knee-breeches. He managed to get them on… but his retreat had to be carefully guarded, after the gallant obeisance required of him, the “breeks” having split with a sound of thunder. It was also told, with an air of conviction, that on one occasion, forgetting the stockings necessary for his “fancy dress,” he borrowed a pair from his wife. Both stories are probably fairytales, but rather amusing.

The first time you hear Sir Thomas Wilford make a speech, it's almost enough to make you cry. He has a touching eloquence—probably would have if discussing the price of turnips. The second time, for some unknown reason, it doesn't act so well. page 37 Nobody seems to have been really surprised that during his High Commissionership in England, his most publicised action was the wearing of a pair of striped trousers, which were purchased very cheap from some foreign concern and donned as a solemn warning to the clothiers of Great Britain.

The most dramatic incident in re Wilford that I can recall as having witnessed in the House was the historic moment when he practically offered the ghastly remains of the old Liberal party, “Lock, stock and barrel,” to Coates triumphans. A very sick man was Wilford at the time, it was said, but Coates declined to coalesce then.

At the Dominion, a little man with twinkling eyes recalled a somewhat similar incident during “Tommy's” Mayoralty.

“Every time,” said he, rather vulgarly, “that things get really stiff, Thomas does a wilt.”

In the women's press gallery, such as it was, what surprised me was the quite extraordinary interest in the number of illegitimate children one Member was supposed to possess. (“Eight, my dear, not counting those among the Maoris!”) If true, he would cut something of a dash in Soviet Russia, in that if in no other respect.

All-night sitting… . supper adjournment at 10 o'clock, Ministerial benches usually almost empty, Labour benches usually putting up at least a decent show. It's Labour members, of course, who talk at least nine-tenths of the session's shining hours away. The Government emulates Brer Rabbit—lies low and says nuffin'. I have heard the most impassioned oratorial efforts delivered whilst the Minister whose department they directly concerned was out of the House—probably asleep, somewhere. Sometimes, as the hours and the speeches wore on, the comatose didn't bother to leave the House. The late Sir Maui Pomare (“Pom”) was notorious for his snore, and his portly frame, supine on one of the benches, was not page 38 unimpressive. Up in the room used by the Labour Whips and others, usually somebody would be studying something… . that at the very least should be said for the Labour veterans, they did study, even if it were only the works of Mr. Upton Sinclair. They were rather proud of “Jimmy” McCombs' little black notebook, bloated with figures which were both correct and likely to prove a nuisance, sometime, to the other side. “Jimmy” had two unholy passions: one for figures and the other for Prohibition.

By the way, though the Labour Party provided at least 90 per cent. of the speeches and almost all the dramatic incidents of the long night watches, one wasn't, in writing flippancies about the House, supposed to mention them, no matter how unkindly. They were to be ignored. I was finally requested, point-blank, to omit all mention of the Labour Party from my daily column. Replied that one might as well ask for a snappy scenario about Adam and Eve leaving out any reference to the Serpent.

The Labour Party, some of it, wasn't so bigoted. I remember one evening of a racking headache, sort of headache that makes you keenly anxious for instant death, headache that makes it utterly impossible to listen to a Parliamentary debate, leave alone writing funnyisms or even truisms about it.… . There was a cup of tea that did cheer a bit, yes. What cheered still more was the fact that, on that night alone in the entire history of the excellent Reform journal for which I worked, every word of the next morning's column was written by a member of the Labour Party. A fair amount of it was a savage onslaught on himself, beginning with mannerisms and ending with mentality. I had to type it out later, but I still think it was one of the best columns that the paper in question has ever displayed.

The House used to be rather happy about its bathrooms, in which, as the night hours grew darker page 39 and drearier, sprays and showers and all the latest gadgets could ginger up the outer man. I often wonder what the position is, now that there's a woman M.P. in the game. A specially constructed bathroom for “Ladies Only”? Hours during which no man is allowed to gambol porpoise-like in the hot water? or… . a whiff of feminine bath-salts in the air, a hairpin on the bath-mat, and outside a locked door, a meek masculine voice quoting

“You're cleaner, I hope.… .
After you with the soap.”

There are some stately rooms here and there, lost in the maze of corridors. (Yes, and you can get lost there, though in the dear old doggy days, a Cabinet Minister could usually be tracked by sleuths by the little blue trail of cigar smoke that floated after him.) The Native Affairs Room is one of the best… executed in the dark woods and pawa shell glinting of Maori tradition, beautifully carved as a Maori meeting-house of that nation's great days might have been. Maori members make either hopeless or magnificent speakers. The late “Pom” had his flashes of wit (wasn't one of the few House “incidents,” other than those obligingly provided by the Labour Party, started when he christened the present Prime Minister, then just Mr. Forbes, “snivelling George”?) Sir Aripana Ngata I have heard speak like an orator over the death of a brother M.P.: “The canoe of Death, hollowed from the tree of Sorrow, must visit every house.” On the other hand, watching the stoutish Member for So-and-So ease himself sideways on through a door, one wonders how long the people of New Zealand will continue to prefer such infernally bad circuses to bread.

The House has arisen… Mr. Speaker, who has sat calm as a painting in his tall carven, blue-upholstered chair, and with something of a good painting's ever-watchful look, has swished from the page 40 chamber. There's a stateliness about his wig, gown, lace—even if an impertinent young scribe did once call him “That Tempestuous Petticoat,” and get away with it. The sleek shining Ministerial cars slide out down the drive, past that motionless bronze rider whose arm, lifted in salute, seems to carry an unseen banner. The liftmen (nearly all the House orderlies are ex-service) is not too tired to smile as he lands you in the little rubber-floored lobby, where you step over a colourful lion and unicorn device as you make your way to outer darkness, to the cool scents of flowers planted here.

“Vox populi, vox dei.” You won't hear it at the Talking Shop, though.