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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Thursday, September 17, 1925. p. 10. — Peeps at Parliament: Figures of Speech and Figures that Talk

The Dominion, Thursday, September 17, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: Figures of Speech and Figures that Talk







Can it be—no, surely!— that we actually find ourselves in the sober and dignified company of the legislators of this heaven-endowed country? Is it even remotely possible that they, the pillars of the State, the fathers, we might almost say, the great-grandpapas of the people, should, under any provocation whatsoever, descend to the level of—of—naughty recrimination. Glancing, with pained surprise, around the chamber of the House of Representatives, we immediately discern the twofold reason for this most unparliamentary behaviour on the part of our usually sedate Parliamentarians. The first, and, doubtless, the most potent cause of this thusness is that Mr. Speaker is away.464 It was hardly to be expected that proceedings should proceed with the same stateliness, the same smooth and unruffled flow, as is usual when Mr. Speaker holds the House with his glittering eye.465 When the cat's away the kittens will play. No, on second thoughts, we will withdraw that expression. To accuse our staid Parliamentarians of being, of all things, kittenish, savours of irreverence—sacrilege, almost.

Some time ago, if we remember aright, we indicated that there was yet another reason for the confusion prevailing upon the floor of the House. Our legislators had allowed themselves to be beguiled into a discussion on economics.466 Attend and listen. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Nosworthy, Mr. Hanan, Mr. Hockly, Mr. Forbes, Mr. Savage, Mr. Rolleston, Sir James Parr, Mr. Parry, the Minister of Lands, and, yes, we might as well tell you the worst, Mr. McCombs, all stood up and gave us their views on the financial status of this

  • (1) fortunate;
  • (2) totally misguided;
  • (3) blessed-among-all-other-nations; and
  • (4) misgoverned country of ours.

The qualifying adjectives may be used discreetly according to one's political opinions.

And now do you wonder that we find ourselves to be in urgent need of smelling salts and sympathy? The trouble originated, you must know, through an indiscreet action on the part of the Minister of Finance. Mr. Nosworthy tried to bring in a Bill. He might have known that the Labour-Socialists wouldn't like it. Let sleeping Labour-Socialists lie.

But we have, by dint of much perseverance, come to a decision concerning these long lists of figures which mathematically-minded Parliamentarians are perpetually preparing for the benefit (per-haps!) of a somewhat bewildered public. There is a well-known axiom that figures can't lie. An axiom is something that sounds like gospel if you say it quick and are careful not to think it over. Figures may not, if you insist, be able to lie, but they can be stuffed and enamelled, or maybe subject to just a leetle mite of tight-lacing. When Mr. McCombs gets into figures—which is a frequent and perfectly bewildering occurrence—he—well, he somewhat reminds us of a certain rather funny story. An old Scottish couple, rigid church-goers, were listening one Sunday to the rhetorical efforts of a young candidate for "the meenistry." The flowers of oratory fell thick and fast—just like Mr. McCombs's figures—but of real meat there was very little. At last, the old lady leaned over to her husband and whispered:

"What's his ground, John, what's his ground?"

"Humph," grunted her dissatisfied lord, "he's got no ground—he's swimmin'."

"Elephants are always drawn smaller than life, but a flea is drawn larger."467 As, night after weary night, we gaze down from our point—we suppose we'd better call it vantage—we have pondered until our head positively aches upon the correct application of this quotation from the stored-up wisdom of Dean Swift, the witty Irishman whose fountain pen (if, in those good old days, such instruments of barbaric torture existed) distilled sulphuric acid rather than milk of human kindness. Not, indeed, that we dream for one single instant of imputing to our legislators characteristics either elephantine or insectivorous. We simply wouldn't dare. The problem that really occupies our mind (Nature, you know, abhors a vacuum)468 is this: Do the great newspaper-consuming public of this Dominion look upon their representatives (that, we believe, is the expression) as beings who, veiled in Olympian splendour, walk aloof and unapproachable, or do they, on the other hand, bundle all members of Parliament unceremoniously together under the heading of "Mere Politicians"? Do they, in short, draw their Parliamentarians smaller or larger than life? We sometimes wonder—and the fruit of this wholesome and salutary mental exercise in that we have decided to make some attempt to classify our Parliamentarians.

Usually, when a member of the Mere Public so much as attempts to pigeon-hole a Parliamentarian, he simply says: "This gentleman is a stalwart Reformer," "This poor soul is a Forbes-Nationalist," or "This misguided man is an Extreme Revolutionary Socialist," and leaves it at that. But, my dear innocents, there are in Parliament divisions, subdivisions, and yet more subdivisions, bewildering to the inexperienced eye but distinct in nature and importance to the Parliamentary mind. For instance, in the matter of seniority alone there are four distinct and unmistakable divisions.

First of all (youth will be served, gentlemen) come those comparatively green and callow members who are still in or about the thirties. These (there are perhaps three of them) are looked upon as the infant phenomena469 of Parliament, and treated with smiling indulgence. Even the stern face of our very own Speaker softens as he listens, with a dreamy look in his eyes, to their playful prattle. It is true that on occasion he has cause to remind them,

"Now, children, you should never let
Your angry passions rise—
Your little hands were never meant
To tear each other's eyes." 470

But he does it with the air of one who pats his turbulent but well-beloved offspring on the head. After all, you know, boys will be boys.

And what a pity it is that they do have to grow up! Next in order of youth and innocence come what we might characterise as The Roaring Forties; and my word, don't they! Sometimes (as, for example, when the honourable member for Wellington East gets going), you can hear them half-way down the corridor. It would be fair to assume that fully half of the House hovers more or less wistfully about the boundary line between afore-mentioned Roaring Forties and the still sunlit but somewhat quieter slopes of the Fifties—the time when a Parliamentarian looks anxiously in the glass, and tells himself that it will soon be time for him to think about procuring a portfolio, and settling down to the undeniably sober and respectable life of a Minister of the Crown. But the true salt—and, to be frank, the true cayenne pepper, of Parliament, is found among the Old Stagers. They are a varied lot, these seasoned (as we have already intimated, sometimes highly seasoned) campaigners. Some of them affect the bald spot, the beard, and the gentle yet dignified rotundity of the man of affairs. Others (let us but whisper it), have recourse to wigs, and—dare we say it?—possibly even to stays. And every one of them is full to overflowing of great tales of the days when the world was young and Parliament was something—if not much—like a Parliament. Every now and again, one of the Old Stagers drops quietly and unobtrusively from his place, and the golden days of Massey and Seddon become—a little farther relegated to the pages of Ancient History. But Parliament, be it admitted, looks up to and, if it isn't wrong to accuse an M.P. of sentiment, loves those who are left—and even the frivolous occupants of the Ladies' Gallery know that the House wouldn't be the same without them.

463 These remarks are not found in Hansard, but other journalists heard something similar; see “Legislature in Session,” New Zealand Times, 16 September 1925, p. 6.

464 The Deputy Speaker controlled the debate on 15 September; see for example Hansard 208: 333.

465 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," lines 13-16.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The wedding guest stood still,
And listens like a three year's child;
The Mariner hath his will.

Poetical Works, ed. J. C. C. Mays, vol. 1.2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). See also the columns for 8 July 1925, 3 September 1925 and 31 March 1932.

466 The debate was on the Repayment of the Public Debt Bill; see Hansard 208: 319-50.

467 Swift's exact remark was that "Elephants are always drawn smaller than life, but a flea always larger." The Works of Jonathan Swift, Containing Letters, Tracts, and Poems, ed. Sir Walter Scott, vol. 9 (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1824), p. 242.

468 Cf. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel.

"Natura abhorret vacuum".

Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Sir Thomas Urquhart and Pierre Le Motteux (London: David Campbell Publishers, 1994), p. 36.

469 The "infant phenomenon" was a name given to a young girl in Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby. See also the column for 31 July 1925.

470 Isaac Watts, "Against Quarrelling and Fighting," lines 5-8.

But, children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other's eyes.

Selected Poems, ed. Gordon Jackson (Manchester: Fyfield Books, 1999).