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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Wednesday, July 8, 1925. p. 10. — Peeps at Parliament: The Froth and "Babble" of Life — "Aristos. to the Lamp-Post"

The Dominion, Wednesday, July 8, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: The Froth and "Babble" of Life — "Aristos. to the Lamp-Post"

Yesterday afternoon I made a solemn vow, not the first, by any means, not yet the last, but none the less perfectly solemn. It was this: never again (solemn vows always begin like that, don't they?) to start a discussion by making remarks, charitable or otherwise, about the weather. It seems, at first, almost too outrageously unconventional to enter into polite conversation without drawing attention to the fineness or brutal and blustering coarseness of the day. Nevertheless, I said I would, so here goes.

Just one lonesome little patch of sunshine found itself, quite by accident, in the House of Representatives. The orderlies walked round it, inspected it, gathered together in solemn consultation about it, and finally drew down a blind, and shut it out, while one by one members assembled in their places, all ready "to do such dreadful business as the day would fear to look on."79

To tell you the truth, the whole truth, and almost nothing but the truth, the above-mentioned business was, in the main, rather unexciting. I'll explain why later on. But during the transaction of the mere ordinary affairs of the day, an amusing little incident cropped up which served to demonstrate the great gulf fixed between M.P.'s and mere mortals. It appears that while members are allowed to cross the lobbies with their hats in place, and to test the truth of the time-worn old theory that cigarette ash is good for crimson carpets, strangers within the Parliamentary gates are liable at any moment to be accosted and commanded, in no uncertain tone, to "Take off that hat!"

The consequence is that the public, which comes to wonder and admire, goes away with a cold in its head and angry passions rising in its heart. Mr. Holland and Mr. Fraser—those two true and much-tried comrades at arms—arose and pleaded the cause of the public with almost tragic earnestness.80 But it was all in vain. Mr. Speaker—I think, for short, we'll call him He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed81—rose in his seat, held Mr. Holland and Mr. Fraser with one glittering eye82 apiece, and announced that it was not consistent with Parliamentary dignity that the public should be allowed to stroll all over the place with its hat on its head, its hands in its pockets, and—perish the thought—its clay pipe in its mouth.83

Now, my remedy is this (if Mr. Holland was really a man of ingenuity he would have thought of it himself): Let all the public who have come to see the sights (and they are many) of Parliament, and departed therefrom with all the preliminary symptoms of whooping-cough, assemble in the galleries on a certain night, and, at a given signal, sneeze, and keep on sneezing. In time they would wear down the stoutest opposition.

By the way, as most of you really ought to know, the procedure when a question of importance (or unimportance) is put to the House is for every member to orally proclaim himself either a sheep or a goat—or, in Parliamentary terms, an "Aye" or a "No." When first I came to the House, I expected to hear every question put by the Speaker responded to with a hearty "Aye, aye, Sir." To my surprise and disappointment, the Speaker merely put his question and announced, "The Ayes have it," without any apparent sign of assent or dissent from the benches. Since then, I have been watching very carefully to see whether I could discover just exactly how members let the Speaker into the secret of their inmost ideas on the question he puts, and I think I've found them out. If a member means "Aye" he strokes his beard, fingers his moustache, or—if he has neither of those convenient appendages—twirls his scalplock. If, on the other hand, he means "No," he dangles his watch chain. The watch chain maketh the politician.84 Among those who sat in state on the Labour benches, I noticed only two whose waistcoats didn't blossom like the rose with big, fat, opulent gold watch chains—the sort that babies play with at election time. And the two total abstainers looked very young, and quite unversed in the ways of the world.

This is really too much of a bad thing. I must, without further delay, explain to you why I sit here talking nonsense, instead of explaining the important and interesting affairs of state with which Parliament didn't occupy itself this afternoon. You must know that, on the occasion of the debate on the Address-in-Reply (yes, they are still slogging away at that poor old Address-in-Reply), every member is granted the privilege of talking for a whole hour upon any subject which happens to occur to him: and every Labour member does—to the bitter end. Mr. Monteith did so this afternoon.85 He has changed my mind for me on just one point. The other day, I told you that life, as interpreted by the Labour Party, is mostly froth and bubble; as interpreted by Mr. Monteith, it is entirely froth and babble.

There are three sizes in Parliamentarians—great men, large men, and very little men indeed—Mr. Monteith is a large man;

"And most amazingly immense
Is his complete self-confidence—
Which some might call conceit."86

Before the horrified spectators could lift a hand—or a voice—to stop him, he had plunged neck-deep into an argument about whether human nature can or cannot be changed.87 Mr. Wright thinks that it can't be done by Act of Parliament.88 Mr. Monteith doesn't know about that, but is sure that it can be done by the talk of the Labour Party; whether the change would be for better or for worse he didn't think it necessary to say.

Once fairly—or unfairly—started, there was no stopping Mr. Monteith. I, personally, tried auto-suggestion, telepathy and hypnotism, but without any apparent success.89 In an "Aristos to the lamp-post"90 sort of voice, he enumerated our political ancestors, as such dyed-in-the-wool Tories as Atkinson, Fitzherbert and Rolleston — and demanded that we stand or fall by their doctrines, even if the world does happen to have changed a little since their day. Curiously enough while tremendously anxious that we should not disown our "ancestors," he seemed rather averse to recognising the Labour Party's lineal descendants—the Reds.91 Later Mr. Monteith directed his offensive on the innocent and unsuspecting members of the Legislative Council. His trouble there appeared to be that members of that august assembly have beaten him at his own game, and, by reducing the go-slow policy to a really fine art, having succeeded in producing something like a one-hour working day, with time off for afternoon tea.92 Coming from one of the Labour-Socialist Party, the protestations were rather amusing. I thought that party's ideal was a maximum of pay and a minimum of work.

You know, I think nearly everyone is sorry for the Liberal Party of to-day. They have so much to talk about, and nothing whatever to say. Mr. Thomson, member for Wallace, made a really fine speech all about Southland, and Milford Sound, and beauty spots (geographical ones, I mean), and so forth[.]93

"I thought," I said to a lady who sat at my right hand and kept the bridge with me,94 "that this discussion was supposed to be about the Address-in-Reply? What has Milford Sound got to do with it? Why doesn't he talk fusion, or confusion, like the others?"

She shook a sagacious head. "There are such things as general elections," she said. "Oh, I see," I replied, "and such people as constituents who like to see their old home town mentioned in the paper?" "Exactly," she said, and with a disdainful sweep of her gown, arose, and left the Gallery. After a moment, I decided to follow her; Mr. Monteith had a look in his eye (the larboard one), which betokened worse to come—possibly another speech.

79 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act III, scene ii, lines 379-81.

Hamlet: Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005).

80 Fraser queried "the orders issued in regard to visitors to the lobbies of the House. I understand, though I do not know from whom the orders emanated, that this year, as last session, when visitors come to the House to see members of Parliament, they are generally informed, sometimes in a peremptory manner, that they must remove their hats. I submit that the average resident of the Dominion approaches the House in the light that it is a public building. He has no thought—in fact, none of us have—about the propriety or etiquette of removing hats" (Hansard 206: 245). Holland commented that an MP "can go through the lobbies with his hat on, and no objection is taken. If any rule is to apply, I submit it ought to apply to everybody" (Hansard 206: 245).

81 Cf. H. Ryder Haggard, She. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is the name given to Ayesha, the ancient queen of a lost African city.

She, electronic resource (Boulder, CO: NetLibrary, 199-), p. 51. See also Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), p.18.

82 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 3 September 1925, 17 September 1925 and 31 March 1932.

83 The Speaker ruled that "if we are to conserve the privileges and dignity of our House we have the right to expect that visitors shall observe ordinary courtesy when they come into the Parliamentary Buildings" (Hansard 206: 245).

84 Cf. the proverbial "clothes make the man" (Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).

85 See Hansard 206: 247-53.

86 Cf. C. J. Dennis, "The Swanks of Gosh," lines 33-37.

His brain is dull, and his mind is dense,
And his lack of saving wit complete;
But most amazingly immense
Is his inane self-confidence
And his inate conceit.

The Glugs of Gosh (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1917).

87 Monteith said he intended "to give a little attention to whether or not we can change human nature-whether it is possible to change human nature for the better" (Hansard 206: 247).

88 Wright objected to Monteith's characterisation of his position and stated that "[w]hat I said was that human nature could not be changed by Act of Parliament" (Hansard 206: 253).

89 Autosuggestion involved training the unconcious mind in order to influence one's behaviour. It was a theory proposed by Emile Coué, author of Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922). See also the columns for 22 July 1925, 23 July 1925 and 7 August 1925.

90 Cf. Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution.

On the 12th of December, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the two Jacobin clubs fraternise, and pass in long procession before the place of meeting, 'where some of the members, a few officers of the Lyons regiment and other individuals, are quietly engaged at play or seeing others play.' The crowd hoot, but they remain quiet. The procession passes by again, and they hoot and shout, "Down with the aristocrats! To the lantern with them!"

The French Revolution, vol. 1, trans. John Durand, intro. Mona Ozouf (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), p. 283.

91 Monteith pointed out that "it was only two sessions ago that the late Prime Minister (Right Hon. Mr. Massey) got up in this House and said he was proud to be a lineal descendant of the Atkinsons, the Rollestons, the Fitzherberts, and the Russells. Yet, the member for Wellington Suburbs [i.e. Wright] came into this House, and has continued in it as a member of the Reform party of New Zealand, and we have him repudiating his own political birth" (Hansard 206: 247).

92 Monteith calculated that the "whole total for [the Legislative Council's] August sittings was five hours forty-three minutes. They sat eight days for an average of forty-three minutes a day. And to keep that going the country mulcted [sic] in £350 a year for forty-two members, at a total cost of £14,700" (Hansard 206: 251).

93 Thomson commented "I had been over the district previously, but on this occasion I saw parts that I had never seen before, and I unhesitatingly say that we have scenery there that is unequalled in any part of the world" (Hansard 206: 260).

94 Cf. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius,” lines 245-48.

And out spake strong Herminius;
Of Titian blood was he:
“I will abide on thy left side,
And keep the bridge with thee.”

The Lays of Ancient Rome and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems, intro. G. M. Trevelyan (London: J. M. Dent, 1910).

Herminius’s name had been invoked in a parliamentary context elsewhere: Banjo Paterson’s “The Dauntless Three” (1906) draws on the Macaulay poem to satirise the political manoeuvrings of Sir Albert John Gould (a former senator and “Horatius” in Paterson’s poem), James Thomas Walker (a senator in the first Commonwealth Parliament who was also a relative of Paterson’s) and Edward Davis Millen, another senator in the first Commonwealth Parliament, who is dubbed “Herminius” in Paterson’s poem about the Liberals’ attempt to defend themselves against the Labor Party. Interestingly, the tag “bold Herminius” which Hyde uses appears in the Paterson poem, not the Macaulay one, although she is clearly familiar with the latter. See also the columns for 17 July 1925 and 22 July 1925.