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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Thursday, July 23, 1925. p. 10. — Peeps at Parliament: From the Ladies' Gallery — Interrogation Day Again

The Dominion, Thursday, July 23, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: From the Ladies' Gallery — Interrogation Day Again

I should hate to deceive you—yes, really I should—and so must, without further shilly-shallying, inform you that to-day was another of those dreadful examination days which swoop down on the stricken House every week or so. Once upon a time, in the days of our extreme youth and innocence, we used to go to Sunday School, and therein were catechised from little pink books, containing all manner of highly personal questions and their true and correct replies—which last we, being sober and industrious infants, knew by heart—er—didn't we? Something of the same nature happens during question time, only in this case the questions, instead of being merely difficult, are, in the main, unanswerable. And, what's more, the people who propound the questions in question know it. They submit a really difficult poser to some most unhappy Minister with an expression that says right out loud, "There's a nut for you to crack, my lad!"

One rather amusing and altogether praiseworthy feature of the day's work is that each member is allowed to explain the reasons for his unreasonable demands for exactly five minutes—thus far and no farther. Mr. Witty, of the Reform benches, was a pathetic case in point. He had ever so many things on his mind: first of all there were the attendants in mental hospitals.209 It appears that, after some twenty years of attending, the attendants become so perfectly attuned to their surroundings that an unbiased outsider, seeing them in company with their patients, might find it a little difficult to tell "who's which and which is t'other."210 Mr. Witty suggests that a short but sweet spell in prison (not as a bona fide inmate, but as a warder), might tend to relieve the drab monotony of the asylum attendant's life.211 Well, well, it's all a matter of taste, isn't it?

Then, seeing the Speaker's eye fastened upon him with all the forceful tenacity of a grappling-iron, Mr. Witty, breaking forth into a profuse perspiration, proceeded to his next topic—free school books for children.212 Well, seriously speaking, I think that's quite a nice idea, don't you? We've introduced free libraries, free dental clinics, and free sports instruction. Now, keeping on with the good work, we might bring in free books, free-for-all lunches, free fights and—and so forth. But somehow the Minister of Education doesn't seem to think that we will.213

The School Journal was another very dry bone of contention. One member of the Labour-Socialist party solemnly informed us that it wasn't nearly dry enough. He wanted more informative and instructive articles—you know the kind of thing, don't you?—and less Ber-ludd and Thunder.214 Dear, dear! It's a terribly long time since some of us used to smuggle the lives and letters of Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill into our desks, and read them when the teacher wasn't looking.

It was Mr. Corrigan, of the Wilford Nationalist (fine-sounding word, that) Party, who finally, with pained surprise, pointed out to a shocked and sympathetic House that while members in general were thinking out new questions to spring upon unsuspecting Ministers, the Ministers, being wise in their generation,215 had silently stolen away, leaving Sir James Parr to hold the fort.216 Sir James, with infinite tact and kindliness, pointed out to Mr. Corrigan that his honoured colleagues were probably comparing answers to questions over a much-needed cup of tea.217 After all, a Minister's life might be worse—if our Labour-Socialists had the handling of it. Nowadays, it appears, a Minister may quite legitimately say to himself and his next-door neighbour,

"This speech is dry
And so am I,"218

and quietly disappear through the convenient little door—to return, in due season, wiping his whiskers. "Sure, and who'd blame him?" I murmured, as, with one last lingering glance at the Wilford Nationalist Party (I'm afraid to let it out of my sight, in case it should dissolve into hot air while my back is turned), I took a reluctant farewell of the Gallery.

Everything's altogether different by night, isn't it? The old House by day has the solid and worldly-looking dignity of an English country mansion and becomes a place "full of whispers and of shadows."219 I could have sworn that I saw a gargoyle, with a nasty, sarcastic look in its eye, surveying me from under that medieval-looking archway. On investigation it proved, however, to be merely my morbid imagination. As I entered in at the revolving door in the wing I heard a gentle and strangely familiar sound: it proceeded from an orderly who, with eyes shut and mouth open, was lying back in his chair, apparently doing deep-breathing exercises. I took this as an omen, and wasn't far wrong. Up in the Council Chamber members in dozens were performing similar exercises: seems to be a cult among them—some new form of Coueism, perhaps.220 But there are nearly always sultanas in the suet pudding. The Shearers' Accommodation Amendment Bill provided the House with a suitable amount of simple and wholesome entertainment.221 I won't say that Mr. Langstone's Bill was as good as a play; it was as bad as a comic film—the kind where everyone puts his feet on the mantelpiece and throws custard pie at his wife. Mr. Langstone, while not laying stress upon these particular privileges for his proteges, the sheep-shearers, makes demands quite as inconvenient.222

For whereas the small farmer of the backblocks, whose burden already is greater than he can bear, might stand an occasional custard pie, it would, in a manner of speaking, be just a little difficult for him to provide a hot and cold water-service for his shearers; separate sleeping apartments, with flowers in the vases, and hand-embroidered pillow-shams; concrete killing pens, three hundred yards removed from the aristocratic noses of above-mentioned shearers; and just a few similar little trifles, all strictly unnecessary.223

Poor Mr. Monteith was perfectly horrified at the idea that just because the installation of a hot water service might ruin a small farmer, the shearers should be allowed, like the farmer's wife and children, to content themselves with cold water for the week or so during which they are employed at the shearing station. The sheep-owners' alternatives, according to the Labour Party, are these: Get hot water or—get into it.224 If you were a sheep-owner, wouldn't you be shaking in your ill-gotten shoes?

But I've thought out a suitable solution for the sleeping accommodation question, and Mr. Langstone can have it all to himself. If he likes, he can make it part—the better part—of his Bill. Let him propose legislation commanding the sheep-owner, his wife, and such children as he may have been extravagant enough to have, to erect a little tent somewhere in the farm-yard, and leave the bedrooms free for the use of the shearers. I'm sure that the greater majority of small farmers would prefer even this to going to the expense of erecting and furnishing new bedrooms to be used for two weeks in the year by their shearers.

209 See Hansard 206: 691 and 206: 701.

210 I have been unable to trace this allusion.

211 Witty proposed that "some system of exchange could be established by, say, transfer to the Prisons Department. These people certainly needed a change. Imagine any one being an attendant for thirty-five or forty years. Would any sane person say that by that time such people would not be affected by their surroundings?" (206: 701).

212 See Hansard 206: 688 and 206: 701.

213 Parr, the Minister for Education, replied that the Education Department already had measures in place to reduce costs and "[b]eyond this the Department is not prepared to recommend the Government to go" (Hansard 206: 688).

214 Lee proposed that "[i]f items of importance were dealt with from time to time in the Journal it could be made not only a first-class reader but a really informative newspaper from the viewpoint of the child…Some of the articles … were very interesting…. But there was a good deal of material of the blood-and-thunder type. With a little less of that and a little more of the material he had indicated…the School Journal would make an altogether admirable reader" (206: 701-02).

215 Cf. Luke 16 v. 8.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

See also the column for 1 September 1925.

216 Corrigan "was sorry to notice that at a time when important questions were under discussion only two Ministers of the Crown found it worth while to remain in the chamber to give information that the people of the country were looking for" (206: 711).

217 Parr said that "[t]he Minister of Finance has every minute of his time occupied just now with the preparation of the Budget, and the Minister of Lands was putting the final touches to his annual report, while the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet were no doubt engaged on public business in various ways" (206: 711).

218 Various sources suggest that this might be an allusion to a song although there is no definitive version. Hyde has presumably inserted the word "speech" into the original phrase.

219 Cf. Stephen Phillips, "Marpessa," line 138.

And thou art full of whispers and shadows.

Poems (London: John Lane, 1904).

220 A reference to Emile Coué, author of Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922). Autosuggestion involved training the unconscious mind in order to influence one's behaviour. See also the column for 8 July 1925, 22 July 1925 and 7 August 1925.

221 See Hansard 206: 717-27.

222 See Hansard 206: 717-18.

223 Langstone read a report from the shearers' union that specified these details (Hansard 206: 717-18).

224 Monteith stated "I do not think that the farmers of New Zealand will cavil at having to provide hot and cold water for their employees. I am certain that they would rather have clean citizens round them than dirty ones. I cannot see any reason why a small minority who will not provide decent and adequate facilities for their employees should not be made to do so" (Hansard 206: 723).