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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Thursday, July 9, 1925. p. 10. — Peeps at Parliament: An Hour with the "Elder Statesmen" — Mr. Jordan Draws it Mild

The Dominion, Thursday, July 9, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: An Hour with the "Elder Statesmen" — Mr. Jordan Draws it Mild

Really, such a number of totally unprecedented things happened yesterday that I hardly know where to begin, and certainly won't know when to leave off. To begin with, a sword-of-Damoclesish95 sort of premonition that's been hanging over me since first I crossed the Parliamentary portals came down to earth. I did get lost in those corridors, and for fully ten minutes wandered in a labyrinth surrounded by doors marked "Strictly private" (meaning "keep out!"), praying for some male Ariadne96 to come forth and guide me. But to explain how I came to wander so far from the beaten carpet:—

On a previous occasion, as perhaps you'll remember, our old friend Mr. Monteith made charges against the Legislative Council amounting in substance to the alarming statement that this country, in paying for the board and keep of its Legislative Councillors, is simply supporting a coterie of modernised Rip Van Winkles, in fairly well-gilded idleness. So yesterday afternoon I went up to the Legislative Council with the sole aim of seeing, if I could, whether things were quite so awfully bad as all that. My opinion—I stand subject to correction, as Mr. Holland so often rightly says—is that the Legislative Council is more efficient, if less noisy, than the House of Representatives.

Let's take a glance at the Council so much in question, as they sit taking their ease (and perhaps an occasional after-dinner nap) in their necessarily capacious red plush chairs. One's first impression is that Mr. Monteith's statement, for once, was all too true. The Legislative Council seems, at a cursory glance, to be a Parliamentary backwater in which gallant old ships, too ancient for active service and too honourable for the scrap-heap, ride securely at anchor—dreaming, perhaps, of their wild life on the Parliamentary ocean wave. This, as I said before, is merely a first impression.

What the Legislative Council really represents is a quarantine station for new Bills, which are there detained in durance vile97 as a necessary precaution, before being sent out as fit for enforcement in this Dominion. The statement that members get over their work and settle down to friendly chatting too quickly is explainable in this way: There is no Labour-Socialist Party in the Legislative Council. Therefore the members, when they have work to do, can do it at once, instead of sitting about and arguing on matters relevant and irrelevant from all points of the compass.

The atmosphere of the two Houses is entirely different. In one—the Upper House—the members talk and act together like old cronies; they treat each other's little weaknesses with tolerant sympathy. One might almost term them a Mutual Admiration Society. In the House of Representatives, members—particularly members of a certain well-known party—spend about one-third of their time working, and the remainder in endeavouring—colloquially speaking—to "do each other in the eye." If the Legislative Council would adopt this charmingly reasonable policy, they could no doubt look quite as busy as the House of Representatives.

But one must admit that the Legislative Council harbours many quaint old customs, and not a few quaint old customers, if I may so irreverently term them. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, was the occasion of the election of the Chairman of Committees—a most important personage who sees that the members behave themselves when the House goes into committee, and the Speaker into—well, I don't just know where.98 Possibly the Land of Nod.99 To my surprise, and to the resigned disgust of older and more experienced onlookers, the election of the aforesaid important personage was transacted behind tightly closed doors. There we (the spectators, I mean) stood shivering in the cold, cold corridor, while down in the cosy and cushioned Council Chamber proceedings proceeded with all the secrecy of a second Gunpowder Plot.

Once—just for a moment—something (we'll call it the wind) opened the door just the teeniest fraction of an inch and—well, I couldn't help seeing inside, could I? Do you want to know what I saw? Well, come closer, and I'll tell you. I saw a dignified old gentleman with a pointed beard (only one member was, so far as I could see, totally devoid of what rude little boys call "beaver"), lying back in his red plush chair, perfectly at amity with the world—which means, in plain English, that he was dozing. Nevertheless the Council successfully put through the business of its day, which is usually more that the Lower House can claim.

It was while finding my way back to the House of Representatives that I lost myself, and would probably have been there still, too proud to scream for help and too scared to knock at one of the Bluebeard's chamber-doors, if a little lady with knitting-needles hadn't discovered me and helped me to track down an orderly who had known his way about the House before we were born. When at last I reached my destination, Mr. O'Brien, the hon. member for West Coast, was in the act of descending upon the Government like a wolf on the fold.100 I was a little surprised at Mr. O'Brien. He looks such a kind-hearted gentleman—with his spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, and his benevolent-looking white mustachios. Even when the lady next to me muttered "Dangerous man!" I didn't believe her. Mr. O'Brien doesn't look a dangerous politician. But, alas! he and his white mustachios are a delusion and a snare.

I'm not going to tell you all he said. From the most interesting part of his speech, which dealt with hardship among the pioneers of the West Coast—a subject no true New Zealander could fail to take some interest in—he suddenly switched off on to the well-worn trail of the fusion discussion.101 The Labour Party is still making desperate efforts to ascertain whether Liberals are courting or caught. Liberals to-day are in a peculiar position. Nobody seems to love them, but everyone wants them as paying guests. How are the mighty fallen from their seats!102

Well, we'll leave Mr. O'Brien to his fusion, and proceed with the next speaker, Mr. Harris, of the Reform benches. He made what one might term a reasonable speech—that is, he appeared willing to reason quietly and sanely with the Opposition, instead of spending his crowded hour throwing and receiving bricks, and getting, in general, no forrader.103 In places where he really thought a little mild correction was necessary, he found fault with the Government's administration, but claimed, nevertheless, that many more were satisfied with the Government than were dissatisfied with it—as witness the recent election.104 In short, he did his best to persuade the sceptical Labour benches that the Government wasn't omnipotent, and, therefore, couldn't straighten the affairs of the country all at once. Discussing the State Advances Department, he pointed out that every would-be home builder could secure a loan at the rate of 4½ per cent. interest.105

Plaintive voice from the Labour-Socialist benches: If 'e lives long enough to get it!106

I think I've told you about the little bell that, at a given signal, tinkles a reminder to members that they have gone on just as far and as long as the Speaker is prepared to let thm? You should have heard Mr. Harris quicken his speech when that bothering little tinkle rang in his ears. He had to crowd an appeal for help for the Auckland commercial travellers, in their endeavour to buy blankets for five thousand needy people, into the space of five minutes. He did his best.107

Mr. Jordan of the Labour Party, took up the tale where Mr. Harris had been forced to leave it. To me, at least, Mr. Jordan was the pleasant surprise of the evening. Before ten minutes of his appointed time had elapsed, Mr. Holland was gazing at Mr. Fraser with a "can you see what I can see?" look in his face. Below are just a few of the things that Mr. Jordan, alone of his party, said. (N.B.—From his own benches, at least, there was very little of that loud acclamation customary when a Labour member addresses the shrinking House.)

"If we can find fault with men, at least let us find something good to say about them."108 (What does Mr. Monteith think of that?). "The workers are not doing their best. I think that no one of us is doing his best."109 (Hear, hear, sir!). "While we may find fault with things as they are, we are not going to be entirely destructive."110 (Has that Mr. Holland's official seal?)

"The interests of Capital and Labour are general."111 Which is just exactly what we have been trying to tell the Labour Party all along.

Well, it's nice to find that at least one of them agrees with us, and still more pleasant to find that he will risk his party's displeasure by saying so. Peace upon earth and good-will to all men,112 including the poor despised capitalist. It's not a bad note to close upon, is it?

95 The expression "the sword of Damocles" comes from classical mythology. In order to point out the precariousness of life and status, Dionysus suspended a sword, hanging by a single hair, above Damocles's head. The phrase is used to indicate a threat that is always present.

96 In Greek mythology Ariadne helped Theseus to defeat the Minatour by guiding him in the labyrinth.

97 Imprisonment or confinement (Oxford English Dictionary).

98 See Hansard 206: 290-91.

99 Genesis 4 v. 16.

And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

100 Cf. Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Semnacherib," (1815), line 1.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.

The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann, vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). See also the columns for 24 July 1925, 31 July 1925 and 1 October 1928.

101 In the early part of his address O'Brien told the Minister for Mines "I will introduce him to some old-age pensioners who have been since the early 'sixties' on the West Coast, and who are not satisfied with the conditions that the Government has placed upon them; I could also introduce him to some widows, and show him some cases of extreme hardship that for very many years has been foreign to my district…" (Hansard 206: 321).

102 II Samuel 1 v. 19ff.

"The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!"

103 Further forward. "Forrader" is a jocular dialect form (Oxford English Dictionary).

104 Harris testified that "you will find a great many more people in the country to-day who are decidedly satisfied with the Government as compared with the number who are dissatisfied" (Hansard 206: 329).

105 See Hansard 206: 334.

106 Hyde might have noted an interjection that was not recorded in Hansard; the comment that is recorded there is "[t]o the favoured few," by Smith (Hansard 206: 334).

107 See Hansard 206: 336-37.

108 Hyde generalises here from a specific statement Jordan made about employees of the Glen Afton mine: "If…we find fault with the men, let us put on record that they have some good points" (Hansard 206: 340).

109 Jordan said that a colleague had "complained that the workers are not doing their best. Well, I think we can quite agree with that, and, having agreed, I would ask, What body of men are doing their best, if we come to get right down to it?" (Hansard 206: 340).

110 Jordan remarked that "[w]e do not want to be destructive critics only" (Hansard 206: 340).

111 Jordan related a story about meeting an American businessman who "informed me that in the United States there is a very decided attempt being made to bring capital and labour together. They are regarded as having similar interests" (Hansard 206: 342).

112 Cf. Luke 2 v. 14.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.