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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Mirror, August 1, 1928. p. 49 and 51 — From the Gallery

The Mirror, August 1, 1928. p. 49 and 51
From the Gallery

If there's one time more than another in which mere man manages to demonstrate that, given a fair chance, he can outshine woman, it's when he has just girded on the clanking sword that gives such a martial touch to his uniform. Opening Day in the House was simply a blaze of buttons, and Solomon in all his glory531 would have cowered before the splendours of the red-coated, gold braided dignitaries who attended His Excellency.532

But lackaday! a week later, with most of the pretty ladies and all the dazzling gentlemen far fled from the Galleries, nobody would ever believe that Parliament had ever seemed picturesque: particularly after watching our members roll like water-logged ships in the seas of a No-Confidence debate.533

I wonder if these No-Confidence debates are really inevitable nuisances. One or more happens along every session, blithely opened by the Opposition, who, when the Government moves "that this House present a respectful address-in-reply to the speech from the Throne," promptly produces some snaky little amendment, deleting all the words after "that," and instead informing His Excellency, but in more Parliamentary terms, "that this Government is the bunk."534 Upon this motion, members may discourse for a full hour, instead of their customary half. And do they? The member for Eden, Mr. Mason, caused as much consternation as an earthquake when he sat down ten minutes before his legal time was up.535

A formal and rather interesting feature of the first day's session's doings is the holding of a sort of tangi, at which departed members and friends are duly honoured by the House, and the "regrets" later transferred to widows or relatives likely to appreciate them.536 Needless to say, the ceremonies have been, as far as possible, stereotyped, but there still remains a touch of romance and more than a touch of pathos. The Prime Minister arises and delivers himself of little biographies, dealing with each departed comrade's life and works. One learns, more or less with amazement, how such and such an august member of the Legislative Council once helped hew the trackless wilderness into a better frame of mind:537 how another was a boy on the pioneers' ships,538 and still another a guiding star in the first little Road Board to rise up and challenge his district's forests and mountains.539

But this is no more than one short afternoon's halt in the long (if rather directionless) march of the session. Let us return to the No-Confidence debate, and glean there-from such wit and wisdom as is not above feminine heads.

In the first place, waves of depression appear to be running mountains high. Parliament usually has something to growl about, but the season's unemployment has brought a deeper bass note into the growl than was heard before. Unemployment was the main excuse for Mr. Holland's no-confidence amendment to the Address-in-Reply, the member for Buller asking, if the Government wasn't responsible for the parlous state of the country, who was?540 And the Government, while vehemently denying all charges within sight, admitting frankly that it didn't know.

However, let's be cheerful. Unemployment is by no means our only trouble. Some very interesting figures on the housing question (it seems, nowadays, that life is made up of questions, all unanswered) were cited recently by Mr. Sullivan, member for Avon.541 As one of our Ministers cautiously pointed out, figures can't lie, but they can be surprisingly well corsetted:542 but, as these were taken from Government statistics, we are probably fairly safe from friction over fractions. So let's read, mark, learn and endeavour inwardly to digest.

In 1919, a Housing Commission, having inspected many dwellings, decided that one and a-half persons to one room was quite enough for purposes of comfort and health: but that more than half of the people who had come under this survey didn't find two, or even three, a crowd. The net result of their commission was the information that we were then 20,000 houses short. Since 1919, the population, exclusive of Maoris, has increased from 1,218,913 to 1,373,746 persons. At a rough estimate, 36,260 houses were required to accommodate the increase. 35,434 houses have actually been built, leaving an additional shortage of 826. 61,619 marriages have taken place between 1919 and 1927, each potentially a reason for a new home.543 But, judging by figures, one can only assume that the flat habit has taken a firm grip of young New Zealand's coat collar. Incidentally, it would be interesting to know just how many garages have grown up in the same period. It would be hard, indeed, if babies found it more difficult to get house-room in this Dominion than Baby Austins.

But from all this one would think, mesdames, that the woman who would take an interest in politics must indeed be grim of mind, blue of stocking, and tortoiseshell of spectacles! Not at all: there's a lighter side to politics, as when Mr. Lysnar, making beautiful and eloquent gestures, declaims "You're no good—you're not one iota of good!" and Mr. Speaker, leaning forward from his senatorial seat, enquires in pained tone, "Are you speaking to the Chair, Mr. Lysnar?"544 For it is a convention of Parliamentary procedure that all remarks whatsoever must be addressed to the Speaker, thus making it a little awkward, though by no means impossible, for members to insult one another over the floor of the House.

Mr. J. A. Lee, the Labour Party's star comedian—or one should say, the best performer of the troupe—gave an interesting item when he declaimed:

"Chick chick, chick, chick, chicken,
"Lay a little egg for me!".545

to the startled Prime Minister who had, it seemed, failed to produce a policy sufficient for Mr. Lee's grasp. Adding insult to injury, he protested against the lightsome touch introduced into politics by the Minister for Justice, who, whilst entertaining the members of the Junior Reform League at a local cabaret, varied the programme of foxtrots and "Reform Blues" by a little lecture on the virtues of the Borstal Institute.546

"Men are but angry boys with beards," as Cressida remarked some thousands of years ago:547 and there's no manner of doubt whatever that every member's greatest immediate ambition is to administer to the beard of his opponent a long pull and a strong pull. Entertaining this may be, but occasionally one reflects what havoc any member of the beardless sex, armed with woman's practical and quick mind, would make with all this lugubrious or heavily-humorous play. 'Tisn't that women don't take an almost morbid interest in politics. In the afternoon, to be sure, the galleries are empty save for a few very unemployed-looking gentlemen548 and very superfluous looking ladies, but when the shades of night fall and the dinner-dishes are washed, the stodgiest debate can be sure of an adequate, and perhaps admiring, feminine audience. It passes belief that almost any woman, having once listened to the House at play, should not at once be filled with the conviction that she could do as well, if not far better herself. That only one woman candidate has been, as yet, announced for the forthcoming elections is absolutely inexplicable, unless on the grounds of the annoying diffidence of our sex.

531 Cf. Matthew 6 v. 29.

And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

532 Opening Day was 28 June, 1928.

533 The No-Confidence debate occurred on 5-13 July. The whole debate can be found in Hansard 217: 141-92, 210-455.

534 H. E. Holland, now leader of the opposition, proposed That the following words be added to the Address in Reply: 'But we deem it our duty to represent to Your Excellency that Your Excellency's Advisers do not possess the confidence of the people of the country, for, among others, the following reasons: They have failed to provide adequate financial assistance for farmers and home-builders, and they have permitted their policy relating to the Post Office Savings-bank and the State Advances Department to be influenced by the privately-owned financial institutions, to the detriment of the whole Dominion (Hansard 217: 142).

535 Mason's speech can be found in Hansard 217: 182-91. If Hyde did indeed hear the end of it, as her remark implies, then she probably stayed until the adjournment at 11:30pm.

536 See the column for 26 July 1925 for the same Opening Day ceremonies that year. In 1928, this formality actually took place some days later, on 3 July.

537 Major Benjamin Harris, who "took up a block of 400 acres of land at Pukekohe, most of which was native bush," and later became a member of the Legislative Council (Hansard 217: 90-91).

538 John Fisher, who, "[a]t the age of nineteen years…sailed with his parents for New Zealand, arriving at Auckland by the ship 'Lord Burleigh'" (Hansard 217: 92).

539 John Edie, a civil engineer. In Coates's eulogy he noted that "[t]he bush country from Tawanui to the end of Catlin's River was surveyed by him years before the railway was constructed" (Hansard 217: 89).

540 In fact, the question of unemployment did not feature overtly in Holland's speech (Hansard 217: 142-51), although it was an important aspect of the debate which followed; see for example Sullivan's address (Hansard 217: 276-77).

541 The speech Hyde is referring to was delivered during the No-Confidence debate on 10 July; see Hansard 217: 279-81.

542 Cf. Hawken's query to Sullivan: "Where is the honourable gentleman getting his total number of houses from?" (Hansard 217: 281).

543 Hyde's figures all tally with those included in Sullivan's speech (Hansard 217: 279-81). It is possible, given her personal connection with Sullivan, that she checked them with him before publishing.

544 There is no record of this exchange in Hansard for July 1928.

545 Lee's remark came during his speech on 12 July: "The Reform Party, bankrupt and bereft of a policy, with nothing to commend it, decided to engage in a process of public incubation. So it got two or three thousand people to gaze upon the Minister of Education, who was about to speak, and to attempt a little mental suggestion. This is what they did as they gazed upon the self-confessed Reform joker: They looked at him, and they sang:—

Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me.
Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, I want one for my tea.
I have not had an egg since Easter, and now it is half past three.
Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me.
Cock-a-doodle-do, lay a little egg for me." (Hansard 217: 371)

The song he was referring to was "Chick Chick Chicken," a 1925 song by Thomas McGhee, Fred Holt and Irving King. See The Great Song Thesaurus, ed. Roger Lax and Frederick Smith, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 210.

546 During the same speech, Lee commented: "Let us again see how the Reform party has changed its heart. Yesterday it was wont to tour the country condemning the Labour party. To-day it is holding dances for the young Reformers-dances for the junior Reformers, the very junior Reformers. A dance at the Adelphi! I have nothing against dancing. Dancing is healthful. A little cabaret party at St. Francis' Hall-nothing wrong with that. But, lo and behold, so bereft are Reformers of a sense of humour that to one of these dance parties along goes the Minister of Justice and he delivers a small lecturette to those boys and girls on the Borstal Institutions" (Hansard 217: 371).

547 Walter de la Mare, "Henry Brocken."

Criseyde asks Brocken, "Tell me, Voyager, is it not so?-that men are merely angry boys with beards; and women-repeat not, ye who know!"

Henry Brocken: His Travels and Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance (London: Faber and Faber, 1942), p. 191.

548 Mirror: gentleman.