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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Wednesday, July 1, 1925. p. 10. — Peeps at Parliament: From the Ladies' Gallery — About the address-In-Reply

The Dominion, Wednesday, July 1, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: From the Ladies' Gallery — About the address-In-Reply

I felt in my bones last night, as I climbed those now familiar marble steps, that everything was going to be—just exactly as everything was. Orderlies—mere ghosts of their usual dignified selves—flitted wearily about, with hardly enough strength left to present arms and ask unauthorised visitors for the countersign. Cabinet Ministers draped themselves negligently on those stern and upright-looking couches, wishing that their dignity would suffer them to snatch an occasional forty, or even fifty, winks. Even the Speaker looked as if he saw hitherto undreamed of advantages in the career of the late Rip Van Winkle. Only the Labour Party came up smiling—a peculiarly sardonic, businesslike sort of a smile. But as far as the rest of the House was concerned—well, when the Speaker arose to pronounce a benediction over the Assembly, most of the members looked as if they really believed that they could do with a little divine assistance.

You know, as I've frequently had just occasion to remark, we women are a shamelessly frivolous sex. We understand—most of us—how to bake a cake, and possibly how to cook a goose—our own or someone else's. But politics are a game we do not understand, which is, perhaps, just as well for politicians. Notwithstanding this, there's no really valid reason why we should take it for granted that nobody without a beard and a bald spot can grasp the less abstruse and unfathomable details of Politics. (Please note the capital letter.)

Take the question of the Address-in-Reply. If you are all as hopelessly unversed in political science as I am, and, I'm afraid32, ever will be, and if, by some chance, your husbands condescended to mention the matter in your presence, you would probably respond, "Reply to what, dear? Those dreadful Labour people again?" and go calmly on with your knitting. And yet we women pretend to take an active, not to say an embarrassing, interest in politics. The whole truth of the matter is this: The Address-in-Reply is merely the polite retort of the Government to the King's Representative's Speech, delivered33 at the opening of Parliament.34 It says what things shall be done, and what shall be left undone, Providence and the Opposition permitting.

At first blush, the Address-in-Reply seems to proceed smoothly enough. The vast machine of Government is set in motion by the member last elected: this is a great, if somewhat alarming night for him.35 He is to make his maiden speech to the benches and his bow to the world in general. Curtseying to the Queen is, by comparison, a mere bagatelle. As he arises, trying very hard to look at ease, he is greeted with the friendly applause that brings a blush to the cheek and a cold perspiration to his brow. At first his maiden speech is—well, maidenly, modest, shy, and retiring in the extreme. But as time goes on, he forgets to feel too small for his shoes, and begins to remember one or two of the things that he really meant to say. A warm burst of applause greets him when at last he relapses into his seat, with a look in his eye which means "Thank goodness, I've done my duty."

All through the evening the Labour benches have been almost uncannily good—so good that one might suppose, at first glance, that they were all asleep. Oddly enough, the orderly and well-behaved benches seem tame after the tumultuous House of yesterday evening. Listening to Labour members talk is quite a pleasant occupation—so long as one pays no attention whatever to anything they say. However, just when Cabinet Ministers are beginning to rub their eyes, and look at Mr. Holland as if wondering whether he is some new species of optical illusion, the fun of the evening begins. An unwary member makes some well-meaning remark in depreciation of the well and unfavourably known "ca' canny" policy, and Mr. Holland becomes very wide awake indeed.36 "May I ask the hon. member," he begins, in a tone which intimates that he will ask, whether he may or not, "in what labour institution a go-slow policy takes place?"37 Well, as an uninitiated outsider, may I suggest that the spectacle of Labour members reclining easily on their couches, some immersed in newspapers and others whispering soft, if not sweet nothings into their neighbours' ears, seems to suggest that the Labour benches themselves are a very fair example. "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us—"38

By the way, a stranger to our customs might, on first entering the House, imagine himself an intruder into an early Victorian idyll. There, and nowhere else, are the legitimate descendants of the old horsehair sofas upon which our great grandpapas sat when conducting their courtships. There are the members, sitting, at first, very far apart; then a little closer together in deed; sometimes one even sees them spring apart when they feel the Speaker's eye upon them. As I39 said before, certain aspects of Parliament bring one very close to the good old days.

But to come back to the Address-in-Reply, which, when last we heard of it, was undergoing a process of cold criticism from the Labour benches. You might think—as I did in the days of my youth and ignorance—that in one night its fate would be sealed. Not in the least.40 I was informed by one who knows (or says he does) that occasionally, such Replies take three weeks to pass. And yet some people decline to believe that a reformer's life is not a happy one. Personally, I'm glad—at the moment, anyhow—that I'm a mere inconsequential female. Politics are much too much like hard work.

32 Dominion: afraidw.

33 Dominion: delidered.

34 See Hansard 206: 68-77 for the House of Representatives' debate on this matter.

35 In this case, Ewan McLennan, who had been sworn in on Opening Day as Mp for Franklin. See Hansard 206: 68-71 for his speech.

36 A "ca' canny" policy refers to the practice of "going slow" at work (Oxford English Dictionary).

37 Richard Hudson, who had spoken for some time, appealed "to the workers and to all who have any influence with the workers to show them the dangerous policy which they are now following. Let them show the workers that the policy of "go slow" is injurious to them." Henry Holland, the Labour Mp, then interrupted to ask "What body of workers is doing that at present?" (Hansard 206: 76).

38 Robert Burns, "To a Louse," lines 43-44.

Oh wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968).

39 Dominion: a.

40 The debate was adjourned at 9:09pm.