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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The New Zealand Observer, Wednesday, March 31, 1932. p. 4. — "Fire Alarms Gone Crazy" — A Pen-Picture from Parliament

The New Zealand Observer, Wednesday, March 31, 1932. p. 4.
"Fire Alarms Gone Crazy" — A Pen-Picture from Parliament

"Mr. Speaker, you may as well appeal to a frozen sheep!"590

"Order, order. The honourable gentlemen must withdraw."

The passionately protesting gentleman in the spotted magenta tie is Mr. "Bob" Semple, Wellington East's Labour member. The orderly gentleman needs no introduction. A little thinner, a little more deeply lined, the face beneath the flowing grey wig is as calmly alert as ever. Mr. Speaker is probably the only man in the House of Representatives who has never once, this session, shown outward and visible signs of having lost his temper.

And the frozen sheep? Mr. Semple is referring, of course, to the Prime Minister.591 The Prime Minister minds not at all. During the past few weeks, he has been called so many things that "frozen sheep" must sound almost flattering. As he crosses the floor of the House for a word in the ear of Mr. Speaker, one has a glimpse of a square-shouldered, grizzled little man who might have been carved from wood. He is the personification of a Kipling line—"Slow-stolid, that's him."592

On the question of amendments to the Arbitration Act, some of the most important and contentious legislation of a generation has been introduced.593 Opposition members have put much thought and more energy into a series of appeals, each a little more ardent than the last. Two members have been suspended594—and suspension is almost history in the New Zealand House of Representatives, especially since rebellious spirits have had Sir Charles Statham to hold them with his glittering eye.595

Cracks have appeared in the Coalition Government flanks. Mr. Atmore is in open eruption—a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of flame by night. There are trickles of steam in other directions. Night after night, the public gallery is packed with particularly unemployed, and excessively dissatisfied-looking individuals. Strangely incongruous the unshaven faces of some of them look, contrasted with the wives, daughters and in-laws of Members, who still click the same old knitting needles in the front row of the ladies' gallery.

A Glacial Wall.

Against all this is pitted the Government's rather majestic inflexibility. It moves forward slowly, like a glacial wall. A thirty-year-old Act, honoured by all countries and apparently an immutable part of the New Zealand constitution, is menaced. Labour members dance and wave their arms out in front of the wall. They address passionate pieces of oratory to it. But the wall moves inexorably on, and the Act crumbles.

The House goes into committee. Mr. Speaker, perhaps with a secret sigh of thankfulness, retires to haunts of his own. Mr. S. G. Smith, one-time Labour enthusiast, more recently Minister of Labour, and now Chairman of Committees, takes his place at the head of the long table in front of the Speaker's chair.

A ten-minute limit is placed on speeches made whilst the House is in committee, but the same member may leap to his feet a dozen times in the course of a debate. This is where the closure, more popularly known as "George Forbes' little hatchet," comes in. At least a dozen times in the course of the session it has lopped a debate asunder—and its application, incidentally, was responsible for the outburst of eloquence which resulted in the suspension of Messrs. Lee and P. Fraser.

One observes the rather astonishing spectacle of W. ("Big Bill") Parry making a quiet, well-reasoned and touching appeal on behalf of the women workers whose awards will be affected when the foundations of the Arbitration Court have been swept away.596 These are finer weapons than came to the Parry hand in the old days.

The House rises—debate is resumed at 7.30 in the evening. Over the stately stone parapets and their disreputable neighbour, the old wooden part of the building, sparkle the three little lights—Faith, Hope, and Charity—which tell Wellington that the House is sitting.597

Warmly lamp-lit, the House seems at night to have regained a little of its old serene atmosphere—cigar-smoke and self-importance. The same orderlies who haunted the corridors and entrances ten years ago are there to usher visitors to the Galleries. Certainly, the corridors seemed to be manned with a superfluity of tall, placid young policemen, but the explanation for them is that a deputation of Communists is waiting to see the Prime Minister.

In the gallery reserved for members of the Legislative Council, just one thin, grey-haired visitor sits like a ghost returned to the scene of his former crimes. He is the apostle of Daylight Saving, Sir Thomas Sidey, one of the very few dignitaries of the Upper House who ever listens in to a debate in the House of Representatives. But one can picture the empty seats around him peopled by a bearded, bewhiskered, highly critical company. Thirty years ago, under a Prime Minister dead and gone, legislation was passed, and the Arbitration Court stood four-square. In 1932, with courage oozing out of empty pockets, we set to work to destroy our few claims to progressiveness. Ghosts—that little empty gallery is full of them: and no wonder.

The 46 Divisions.

During the one debate alone, the House divided 46 times—a perfect example of the clumsiness of Parliamentary procedure.598 Over the building, from cellar to ceiling, bells jangle like fire-alarms gone crazy, and out of their secluded retreats members and Ministers appear like rabbits from their burrows. The long, limp tail of the Government (which, since it is there to wag, not to bark, takes practically no part in debates) streams in behind the stout black line of Cabinet.

"Lock the doors," shouts a Parliamentary voice. "Lock the doors," comes back a faint echo from outside. Presumably the doors are locked. "A division is called? The Ayes have it," states the Chairman of Committees, without optimism. "The Noes have it," retort the Opposition, without conviction. "Tellers for the Ayes, Mr. Bodkin and Mr. Bitchener.599 Tellers for the Noes, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Howard."

The Whips marshal600 their forces. Members pass out through the little gold-lettered doors. The Leader of the Opposition601—small, saturnine, white-haired—walks out with the slight, jerky limp which is a relic of an illness that kept him on crutches for years. He has developed a gnome-like chuckle and rapier-like wit, this little black-coated man who once belonged to the Salvation Army. Upright and immaculate as ever, the Hon. J. G. Coates, Minister for Public Works and Unemployment (or does Unemployment come first just now?), struts through the "Ayes" doorway. Plucky, bearded, dour old R. A. Wright, who several times registered his vote with the Opposition, stalks across with hunched shoulders. Agriculture goes sideways through the door. And, of course, everybody knew beforehand just what the results of the division would be; for barring illness or Act of God, there are no surprises in Parliamentary divisions.

Midnight—and all is far from well. Another all-night sitting is on the cards.602 Tired members look more in anger than in sorrow at the red leather bench where the Prime Minister would be—were he not engaged elsewhere. Doubled up on their benches, several members frankly make a dormitory of the House, and those who stay awake grow more morose in their outlook. The Marathon knitters in the Ladies' Gallery retire. But there is always somebody in the public gallery—there for shelter, for curiosity, for Heaven knows what: always an intent face listening to the particular brand of oratory available at the moment.

Downstairs, in the main corridor, a portrait of Mr. Forbes has taken its place in company with a long shadowy line of bygone Prime Ministers. The photographer has done a good job of work: life-size, heavy-jowled and not unimpressive, the Prime Minister stares soberly across at Sir Julius Vogel. And all along the corridor, haughty old men with Dundreary whiskers and enormous collars stare unwinkingly back at him.603

590 There is no record of this remark in Hansard.

591 i.e. Forbes.

592 Cf. Rudyard Kipling, "The Beginning of the Armadilloes," from Just So Stories (1900).

"Can't curl, but can swim-
Stickly-Prickly, that's him!
Curls up, but can't swim-
Slow-Solid, that's him!"

The Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling, vol. 12 (New York: Ams Press, 1970).

593 Debate on the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Bill took place throughout February, March and April 1932.

594 Lee and Fraser; see Hansard 231: 534.

595 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 17 September 1925.

596 See Hansard 231: 535.

597 The original Observer article was accompanied by a photograph showing the three lights.

598 There were actually 55 divisions during this debate; see Hansard 231: 517-74.

599 Hansard records that Murdoch and Bitchener were the tellers for the Ayes during these divisons; see for example Hansard 231: 546.

600 Observer: marshall.

602 The House eventually adjourned at 2:03 a.m.

603 Dundreary whiskers are long whiskers worn without a beard (Oxford English Dictionary).