Within the corridors of power
Politicians enjoy the limelight of public attention for a season or two and are then forgotten—apart from a few, such as premier John Ballance, immortalised in stone outside the Parliamentary Library. But Parliament, the theatre in which they strut, endures. Imposing, sometimes grand, it is more than just these buildings in downtown Wellington. It is an institution governed by rules and traditions rooted in 17th-century England and populated by an army of civil servants who facilitate the business of governing a nation.
On the southern tip of the North Island, sheltered by hills, is one of New Zealand’s most famous villages. Its population is just 1200—hardly more than that of Waiouru or Arrowtown—but it has two top-class restaurants, its own police station and post office and its own library. It even generates its own electricity. It is home to a wide mix of people, though most don’t live there all year round. What goes on in its precincts touches the lives of all of us. Its inhabitants are frequently the butts of our jokes, but in times of crisis we look to them for leadership. You may have heard of this village. It is called Parliament.
It is just after 10.30 A.M. on Tuesday, November 12, 2002, and, although most New Zealanders don’t know it, a new prime minister has just been elected. His name is Jamie, and shortly after his appointment we learn—oh no!—he’s Australian. But the nation need not worry. This sandy-haired boy is not eligible to vote, and the Yellow Party he leads is not registered with the Electoral Commission, so the election has no legal status. Jamie is a year-eight student at Christchurch’s Kirkwood Intermediate School. He is one of about 17,000 students who visited Parliament in 2002 on tours organised by the Parliamentary Service’s Education Office.
Up to six tours of Parliament are squeezed into each day. Students come from throughout New Zealand—even from the smallest rural schools. Kirkwood’s students are hosted by the effervescent Veronica Allum, a former television weather presenter, radio broadcaster and producer of Correspondence School programmes, who, from 1997 to 2003, was Parliament’s education officer.
Over a period of 90 minutes, Allum leads her charges through the most important institution in New Zealand. The students vote in mock elections and form coalitions. They learn that the act of buying lollies makes them taxpayers. They debate whether schools should have classes on Saturdays, and whether smacking should be banned. (Not surprisingly, Kirkwood Intermediate votes “no” and “yes” respectively).
And Jamie gets to stand behind the lectern where Prime Minister Helen Clark addresses her weekly press conference. A natural showman, he shadow-boxes for a few seconds, then announces that the New Zealand flag on the stage beside him is lacking a star.
Along the way, Allum provides her young charges with a couple of succinct summaries of what Parliament does.“Parliament,” she says, “is all about making laws and getting money to pay for things like health and education.” And, more pointedly: “Just because people in Parliament have different ideas, it doesn’t mean they don’t work together.”
The word “parliament” is an anglicisation of the French word parlement, which itself comes from parler, to talk. With tens of thousands of other French-derived words—including “government,” “court,” “minister,” “statute”and “tax”—it entered the English lexicon following the Norman Conquest.
In constitutional terms, “Parliament” refers to all of the people needed to pass legislation—that is, both the 120 members of the House of Representatives (known as Members of Parliament, or MPs) and the Sovereign (the British monarch, represented in New Zealand by the Governor-General). Parliament is not the same as the Government, however, which consists of only the 25–30 MPs who hold executive positions—from the prime minister to the lowliest under-secretary.
“Parliament” also refers to a physical place: most specifically the debating chamber where MPs meet, also the building that contains the chamber, and more generally still this building and the several others in which MPs have their offices. This complex consists of four buildings: the Parliamentary Library, Parliament House, the Beehive and a 22-storey high-rise called Bowen House. All except Bowen House are clustered on a mound—no Wellingtonian would call it a hill—between the city’s main shopping street, Lambton Quay, and the upmarket inner-city suburb of Thorndon. Over time, a civic district has grown up in this area, with the Court of Appeal, High Court, National Library, Reserve Bank and key public service headquarters all nearby.
Together, the four buildings of the parliamentary complex house some 1200 people, from Cabinet ministers to cleaners. Like a medieval centre in a modern metropolis they provide a focus for the city around them.
Parliament has its own culture and rules of engagement, its own pecking orders and bureaucracies. It is a place where every radio is tuned to the debating chamber, for what is said and done there is of universal concern to parliamentarians. It is home to some of New Zealand’s most unique jobs; where else could your title be “Serjeant-at-Arms” and your duties include taking part in a daily procession carrying a gilded mace?
Among Parliament’s ancillary services are a library housing half a million books, a travel office, a security service, a police office and the National Emergency Operations Centre, where emergencies such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are monitored and civil-defence activities co-ordinated.
Parliament has its own emergency diesel-powered electricity generators, and its buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes that would flatten almost every other building around them.
Parliament is where laws are passed, national budgets adopted and governments made and unmade. It is a place where Kiwi informality meets British tradition, and where democracy is preserved in the daily observance of small procedural details. It is known colloquially as “the highest court in the land” and is New Zealand’s most powerful institution.
Authority over Parliament—both its buildings and its business—is vested in the Speaker. An elected politician, the Speaker chairs all major parliamentary debates and is the technical owner of the parliamentary complex. When protesters wish to gather in the grounds of Parliament, they need his permission, and when Parliament is sitting the police cannot arrest an MP inside the complex unless the Speaker gives the nod.
The most recent of 26 MPs to hold the position is 64-year-old Auckland University-trained historian Jonathan Hunt. Now a list MP, Hunt entered Parliament in November 1966 as the member for New Lynn, and holds the informal title “Father of the House” because his 36-year tenure is by far the longest of any sitting MP. Helen Clark, Minister of Finance Michael Cullen and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters are all relative pups, with 21 years’ experience each.
Like many parliamentarians, Hunt begins his day at about 6.30 A.M., and if the House is “in urgency” (meaning its sitting hours have been extended) he may still be at his post at midnight. In his office he works at a century-old oak desk which was once Premier Richard Seddon’s Cabinet table; it has enough room to seat seven ministers, about a third of the number who sit around its modern equivalent.
As a young MP, Hunt didn’t include becoming Speaker on his list of ambitions. “I wanted most of all to be a Cabinet minister. Most MPs do.”It was only later, after serving “six-and-a-half very exciting years” in the Labour Cabinets of 1984–90, that becoming Speaker began to appeal.
“It’s really been the transition to MMP [Mixed Member Proportional representation] that has kept me here,” he says. “I’d had just about every other post in Parliament—accepting I wasn’t going to be party leader—and I started to quite like the idea of adjudicating in debates and observing Parliament from this position. It’s an important role, and has become more so under MMP.” That is because of the increased role of minor parties, which means Parliament is no longer dominated by the governing party and a principal opposition party, and day-to-day business requires more co-ordination and discretion.
As chair of the House, Hunt has to maintain absolute impartiality. Though he is a Labour MP, he generally makes only a brief appearance at each week’s caucus meeting, and under the MMP system he does not have a casting vote on legislation. When he is determining who gets to speak or ask questions, the only rule he applies is that all parties must be treated fairly.
Traditionally, at the beginning of each sitting the Speaker has worn a judge’s wig, gown and tabs, but Hunt has determined that for him those days are over. While the gown remains, the wig has been discarded even for the most formal parliamentary occasion, the state opening following an election.“The wigs are uncomfortable, and when you wear them you can’t hear properly because they cover your ears. I certainly wasn’t going to waste hundreds of dollars on one of those things.”
The Speaker is so named because originally he was the person elected to speak on behalf of the British House of Commons, a role which included explaining Commons decisions to the king or queen. Given the often fraught relationship between monarchs and Parliament, it was not always a comfortable position to hold. Prior to 1560, nine Speakers or former Speakers died violently—some in battle, but others on the orders of the monarch of the day. Perhaps the most famous was Sir Thomas More, who, in 1523, became the first Speaker to petition the king to grant Parliament the absolute right to free speech. Newly elected Speakers still make this request on their first visit to the Queen (in Britain) or her representative, the Governor-General (in those Commonwealth countries that regard the Queen as head of state), and its effects are felt whenever MPs make serious allegations—such as those that led to the “Winebox” inquiry—under parliamentary privilege, which protects them from being sued.
On that first visit to the Governor-General, the Speaker also makes the quaintly worded request “that the most favourable construction may be put on all the House’s proceedings.” As Hunt explains, this means “that when Parliament passes a bill the Governor-General will assent to it and sign it into law.”
This process is a throwback to the days when British monarchs had the option of not accepting the House’s will. That prerogative has not been exercised in Britain since the 18th century, and it has never been exercised in New Zealand. Neither has New Zealand had a case like that of Australian Premier Gough Whitlam, who was removed from office by the Governor-General in 1974. To all intents and purposes, the authority of the New Zealand House of Representatives is total.
Parliament sits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for about 30 weeks a year. Each sitting day begins with a prayer—recited by the Speaker—for divine guidance in conducting the affairs of the country so as to ensure “the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, and honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace and tranquillity of New Zealand.”
This is followed by the presentation of a list of petitions from members of the public seeking Parliament’s intervention on a plethora of issues, ranging from the re-establishment of an upper house of Parliament to the use of phonics in the teaching of reading. The House is informed of any new bills which are being introduced and any new official papers, such as the annual reports of government departments, which are being presented.
Parliament then moves into one of its most high-profile activities: question time. For roughly 90 minutes, ministers are required to answer queries from Opposition MPs and their own backbenchers. A dozen prepared questions are asked, followed by 60 or so “supplementary” questions, which are shared among the parties according to their size. On a typical day in late 2002, ministers were quizzed on immigration, leaky buildings, terrorism, Air New Zealand, former Television New Zealand boss Ross Armstrong’s expense claims, and Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres’s likening of New Zealand’s colonial history to the period of Taleban rule in Afghanistan.
Opposition questions are generally designed to trip up or embarrass a minister, or at the very least to expose weaknesses in the Government’s programme, while Government questions amount to little more than invitations to a minister to deliver a pre-written paragraph of Government spin. Such questions are known as “patsies” or “Dorothy Dix” questions, after an American journalist who wrote a famously platitudinous syndicated column giving advice to the lovelorn.
Unsurprisingly, question time sees Parliament at its most rowdy and unruly. MPs insult and heckle each other, make spurious points of order, roll their eyes and generally express contempt in any way they can. Also unsurprisingly, this is when the interest of the news media in Parliament peaks. The press gallery, empty for most of the day, is packed. It follows that this is the aspect of Parliament with which New Zealanders are most familiar—and often deplore.
But, as Hunt points out, question time also plays an important role in our democracy: “It’s the one time when the Opposition can challenge the executive over its actions, and the executive can get its own questions out about good-news stories. It’s where you test whether ministers are doing their job and whether the Opposition is really targeting the right issues.”
Question time is also a vital testing ground for politicians. To survive, members must have an excellent command of their subject matter and the ability to think on their feet. Those who become flustered in this white-hot arena can find their confidence dented and their careers harmed as a result.
What follows question time varies according to the day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the House generally moves immediately into considering Government bills—law changes proposed by Government ministers. On Wednesday afternoons, an hour is set aside for a general debate, during which MPs may raise any issues they wish to speak about. Every second Wednesday evening is reserved for members’ bills—proposed law changes introduced by individual MPs. These bills frequently concern conscience issues, such as the legalisation of euthanasia, or issues on which the Government is reluctant to pass laws, such as increasing the minimum annual leave entitlement to four weeks (to cite two recent examples).
Each bill goes through up to five stages before it becomes law. In the first reading, the minister or MP sponsoring the bill makes the case for the law change. If the bill passes its first reading it is referred to a select committee—a multiparty group which hears public submissions and considers the bill in detail. On its return to the House the bill is read a second time and MPs vote on whether to support it in principle and whether to adopt any of the changes made by the select committee. The bill is then considered clause by clause in a lengthy “in committee” debate. The third reading determines whether the bill is passed into law.
The rules of engagement in Parliament’s debating chamber are many and varied. The book of standing orders is 108 pages long and contains 402 separate rules. In addition, some hundreds of Speakers’ rulings are recorded and referred to for guidance when decisions are being made about parliamentary behaviour.
Most of the rules cover practical matters such as sitting hours, length of speeches and behaviour during debates. Some are arcane: MPs must not refer to each other as “you,” as that pronoun is reserved only for the Speaker, and on entering and leaving the debating chamber MPs must nod to acknowledge the Speaker.
MPs must also confine their speeches to the question before the House. If a bill about telecommunications is being debated, they cannot start giving a speech about the war in Iraq. They can speak from any seat in the debating chamber, but cannot move around after being called. In a tradition borrowed from the House of Commons, the Opposition and Government front benches face each other and are exactly two-and-a-half sword-lengths apart.
Speakers’ rulings also cover what insults are per-missible. No MP may describe a colleague as a “liar,” “hypocrite” or “racist.” Euphemistic equivalents, such as describing a member as being “liberal with the facts” or as “a word that begins with H and means doing one thing while saying another,” are also generally ruled out of order.“All members are considered honourable,” explains Hunt. “You cannot accuse a member of deliberately not telling the truth. If a member does tell a lie, then he is guilty of contempt of Parliament and can be forced to resign.”
During the most recent parliamentary term, MPs were required to apologise for using the following terms to refer to fellow members: idiot, weed, bully, gangster, buffoon, weasel, fraudster, mad, bigoted, red-necked, gutless, two-faced, cowardly, dishonest, lazy, crappy, reckless with the truth and missing a few brain cells.
Green MP Rod Donald was forced to apologise for an unparliamentary description of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, but only after some confusion had been cleared up about what he had actually said. Acting Speaker Jill Pettis initially informed the House: “I have reached for the Collins Concise Dictionary, and a demigod is a being who is part mortal, part god. I am sure the member would not be offended by that description.” Once it was clarified that Donald had called Peters a “demagogue,” not a “demigod,” the word was ruled out of order.
Although outsiders tend to think of Parliament as a place where rhetorical sparks sconstantly fly, much of the debate is, in fact, relatively sedate and humdrum. Many of the laws passed by Parliament are routine or technical matters on which there is little or no disagreement. Because they are uncontroversial the public rarely hears about them. Anyone tuning in to a debate about, say, the Statutes Amendment Bill, would more probably be lulled to sleep than disgusted by MPs’ behaviour.
The job of recording the 4.5 million words uttered in Parliament each year falls to the office of Hansard, where staff record and edit MPs’ speeches and circulate them for correction and publication.
Until just a few years ago, Hansard reporters took every word down in shorthand at speeds of up to 180 words per minute. Now, speeches are recorded digitally and then transcribed, shorthand being used only to record interjections and anything else that may not be picked up by microphone.
Hansard takes its name from the Hansard family, which ran one of many private-sector companies producing reports on House of Commons debates in the early 19th century. At the time, no official record was kept of what was said in debates, only of decisions made. Where the Hansards made their name was by producing their reports more quickly than their competitors did. Hansard reporters took 10-minute turns in the debating chamber before coming out to transcribe what they had recorded—a system which still operates today.
The Hansard record is not a verbatim one. Poor grammar is edited, and meaningless fillers such as “ah” and “um” are removed. Transcripts are then referred back to MPs for checking—and it is not unknown for members to attempt to change what they said. In 2002, Winston Peters tried to have his statement “Half of all refugees are carrying HIV” amended to “Half of all refugees are carrying Third World diseases.” He failed.
Peters was involved in another incident when the Hansard record came under scrutiny. On November 7, 2002, he asked an unusually lengthy question of Minister of Immigration Lianne Dalziel. Running on for well over a minute, and some 140 words, the question contained a series of allegations concerning a Moroccan refugee—possession of a false passport, drug-trafficking, rape and links to “fundamentalist Islamic groups.”
Before Peters had finished, Hunt intervened on the grounds that the question was too long and asked him to wind it up. A grumpy exchange followed, with Peters raising a series of points of order in an attempt to convince Hunt he should be allowed to continue with the question.
Hansard records the following exchange. Mr SPEAKER: Please be seated! Rt Hon. Winston Peters: No, I am not going to finish; I am going to—Mr SPEAKER: Be seated, or the member leaves the Chamber. Rt Hon. Winston Peters:—put my case. I am entitled to put my case. Mr SPEAKER: The member will now leave the Chamber. [Interruption] Rt Hon. Winston Peters withdrew from the Chamber.
What the record omits, as was drawn to the House’s attention later, is that as Peters was preparing to leave he muttered—audibly enough for most in the chamber to hear, but not for the words to reach Hunt—“Well, if you want a cover-up that’s fine by me.”
Hunt was informed of the comment a few moments later by ACT leader Richard Prebble, and when Peters next appeared in the House he was required to apologise. Initially, Peters sought to avoid this humiliation on the grounds that the offending words were not recorded in Hansard. Hunt, who had listened to a tape confirming what Peters had said, still required the apology but also launched an investigation into the Hansard record.
The explanation, Hunt later informed the House, lay in the Hansard policy of recording interjections only if the MP who is addressing the House replies—a policy which has been implemented to prevent the official record becoming inundated with irrelevant or unparliamentary remarks. The same policy applies when an MP interjects while the Speaker is making a ruling: the interjection is recorded only if the Speaker replies. In this case, Hunt didn’t hear Peters’ comment and so didn’t reply—hence the comment was not recorded. A select committee is considering whether Hansard’s approach is the best one.
Hunter says that during his 36 years in Parliament, standards of debate have remained much the same but behaviour has generally improved.“Parliament used to meet for only four months a year, and it used to meet for long hours—sometimes all night. People got very bad-tempered. There are fewer marathon sessions now. There are also more women and more MPs with young families. There’s less excessively blokish behaviour.”
In the 19th century, being an MP was essentially an amateur occupation. Wealthy merchants and farmers left their businesses for three or four months, lived in Wellington and passed the year’s laws before returning in time for lambing. Although it wasn’t long before politics became a professional activity, the truncated sitting year was retained right up until the 1980s.
Complicating matters, MPs had to cast their votes in person by filing into the ayes or noes lobby on either side of the debating chamber. If Parliament sat all night, MPs were on call all night. (Since 1996, MPs have not had to cast their votes in person; in most cases, party whips cast them on their behalf.) Typically, politicians in those pre-proxy days whiled away the hours between votes in the 27 m-long Grand Hall, immediately adjacent to the debating chamber, which served as a members’ lounge. Here they could watch TV, play billiards, read and smoke. Some MPs were known to take a tipple or two to help pass the time, reflecting George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that alcohol “enables Parliament to do things at 11 at night that no sane person would do at 11 in the morning.”
For many years, parliamentary caterer Bellamy’s (named after its 230-year-old counterpart in the British House of Commons) provided the only premises in Wellington licensed to serve liquor late into the night, adding to what many perceived as a private-club atmosphere. It was a very male club, too. Although universal suffrage had been introduced in 1893, Parliament’s membership was dominated by men—white ones at that—until the 1990s.
The first female MP, Elizabeth McCombs, was elected in a by-election in 1933 but died two years later. For almost four decades from 1935, most elections returned just one new female MP. Then, in 1972, an unprecedented two arrived at once. Though the number of women in Parliament increased steadily during the 1980s, it wasn’t until the advent of MMP in 1996 that women were elected in significant numbers. In that year, there were 21 new female MPs, along with an equal number of new male MPs.
Even now, though, only 34 of Parliament’s 120 members are women. In the 2002 election, the proportion of women members actually fell, from 30.8 per cent to 28.3 per cent. This may still be the fourth highest of any national parliament in the world, but it remains far from representative of the general population.
Similarly, Maori representation was for many years confined to four Maori-only seats instituted as a temporary measure in 1867 but still in existence. While a hand‑ful of Maori have been elected in general seats, it was only with the advent of MMP that Maori entered the House in numbers commensurate with their share of the population. There are now 19 Maori members.
MMP also boosted the number of Pacific Islander MPs and brought the first Asian, transgender, Muslim and Rastafarian MPs into Parliament. MPs can still play billiards if they want to, but these days most members—even those of the middle-aged male variety—would rather sip pinot gris at one of Lambton Quay’s trendy bistros than puff on a cigar in the members’ lounge. And though liquor is still consumed, it is no longer the inevitable part of Parliament’s social or professional life that it once was. With MPs a more diverse group than in times past and public tolerance of drunkenness less than it was, the culture has changed. Nowadays a journalist is more likely to receive a tip-off over a latte at Bellamy’s café than two floors up in the bar.
As Hunt points out, if alcohol occasionally fuels emotions in the debating chamber, unruly behaviour is far more likely to be the result of personal problems or “the passion of debate.” Disorder can range from excessive heckling and barracking to abuse of the Speaker or refusal to apologise for an outrageous comment or claim.
Hunt’s sanctions include having a quiet word with the relevant party whip—the MP responsible for maintaining order within his or her party—and suggesting the disorderly MP leave the chamber. Then there is what Hunt calls “a yellow card”—ordering an MP out for a period of time, usually the duration of the debate in progress.
If disorder continues, the Speaker has the power to “name” an MP, whereupon the House votes on whether to suspend the member from Parliament for a defined period—24 hours for a first offence. Suspension entails losing the right to vote, so it can be a serious matter for a government with a slim majority. Hunt has had to resort to this sanction only once, when Richard Prebble refused to leave the chamber.
The worst disorder Hunt can remember occurred in the 1980s, when National MP Merv Wellington was named a second time, incurring a seven-day suspension. “He was so upset he went upstairs and threw a chair out the window.”
As the culture and make-up of Parliament have changed over time, so too has the practice of lawmaking. Although Parliament is constitutionally the centre of power, throughout much of New Zealand’s history real control of the legislative agenda has resided within the majority party. Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, most governments were made up of a single party—National or Labour in recent times. In the absence of a written constitution—and, since the 1950s, an upper house—the governing party could essentially do as it pleased and have Parliament rubber-stamp its actions.
“Theoretically, Parliament can bring down a law which says you can’t vote until you turn 50—or you can vote when you turn five,” says Hunt. “If it has the necessary numbers, it can pass laws about anything and it can repeal laws about anything.”
In 1934, he points out, the Liberal–Reform coalition Government extended its life by one year, angering the Labour Opposition. In theory, such a thing remains possible: a government could pass a law extending its life by 20 years provided it had sufficient numbers to push the bill through the House. As this would be a change to electoral law, though, a 75 per cent majority would be required, and as Hunt says, “It would never pass.”
Single-party majorities certainly allowed the various excesses of the Muldoon era and the Rogernomics Ruthanasia period which followed. Assets were bought and sold and laws passed with monumental ease. In one famous example, the 1987–90 Labour Government sold a state asset by inserting a late amendment in a bill covering other matters. New Zealand at the time had what constitutional lawyer and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has called “the fastest law in the West.”
To make matters worse, governments did not always have a genuine mandate. Not only were several governments elected on promises they later failed to keep, but on two occasions the first-past-the-post electoral system installed parties in government which had received fewer votes than the Opposition.
Change has been gradual. Since the 1970s, the select-committee system has been strengthened to give the public greater input into proposed law changes. Parliament has also passed the Bill of Rights Act, which requires that all laws be checked for their impact on fundamental rights such as freedom of speech.
But the most significant change has been the transition to MMP, which effectively ensures that no single party can command a majority in Parliament. MMP has curbed the power of Cabinet ministers, ending the so-called “elected dictatorship” of the first-past-the-post years.
“For most of its history, Parliament has been a legislative sausage machine,” says Clerk of the House David McGee, who heads a department responsible for keeping records of Parliament’s votes and activities. “It is still a legislative machine, but there is a lot more scrutiny now. It’s doing a much more rounded job.”
Under first-past-the-post, it wasn’t unusual for more than 200 laws to be passed in a year. In 1997, the first full year of an MMP Parliament, the number of laws passed was 109.“Parliament is reasserting itself,” McGee adds. “Governments don’t always get their own way any more.”
The “new” Parliament may be a fairer, more representative institution than its 20th-century predecessor, but it can place severe strains on the family life of its members. Most MPs are away from home at least three nights a week, and are busy even when they are not in Wellington. If an MP has any kind of public profile, their partner or members of their family are forced to share the spotlight, whether they like it or not.
Green Party co-leader Rod Donald says the long absences from home have a detrimental impact on families. He has three daughters, aged 18, 15 and 10, and all have grown up with their father away from their Christchurch home for a portion of every week. “Nicola [Donald’s partner] bears the brunt of bringing up the kids,” he says. “To some extent, she is a solo parent.
“With one of my daughters, when I recently tried to exercise some authority, she said, ‘How would you know what’s going on? You’re never here?’ There’s that sort of issue that comes up at times.”
Donald says that when he first entered Parliament he feared his daughters would get teased at school because of his job, but that hasn’t happened. Neither are they particularly impressed with what he does; the extent of their interest is to offer advice on his “appalling dress sense.” Nicola is more involved: she is a party member, but not what Donald would describe as an activist.
“We share similar views and outlooks, though I hold stronger views. I think chaos would have reigned if we were both activists. When we came together, she was keen on a family and I was keen on politics, and we’ve managed to combine the two things, though she’s made more sacrifices than I have.”One of the reasons Donald and other MPs have argued strenuously to retain taxpayer-funded domestic air travel for MPs’ spouses is that it helps keep families together.
Donald says he plans to retire from Parliament after a fifth term, by which time his youngest daughter will be 18 and his oldest 26. Does he have any regrets? “Very few,” he says, “because this is something that I’ve wanted. The regret I have is not so much that I have done it, but that I haven’t achieved as much as I would have liked.”
To some extent, the collegial atmosphere of Parliament compensates for the loss of family life, though Donald admits there is a good and a bad side to the parliamentary “village.”“There’s backbiting and gossip and cliques, but also the most unlikely people will support you on a personal level,” he says.
Some of Parliament’s traditions and rules irk him, such as the requirement that men wear a jacket and tie in the debating chamber—something he protested against in vain. A review found that most MPs wanted the dress code to remain, so it did. As a new MP, Donald was struck by the ceremonies inherited from the House of Commons, such as the daily procession with the Serjeant-at-Arms carrying the mace. “It’s all terribly archaic, but every community has its rituals.”
It is the late evening on a Wednesday. For the past couple of hours the House has been debating the Pitcairn Trials Bill, a relatively minor piece of legislation which will allow the tiny Pacific island, population 44, to transfer criminal trials to this country.
Tonight’s debate has been the clause-by-clause committee stage of the bill, in which MPs get down to the finer detail. The few who oppose the bill have been finding inventive ways to delay its passage, if only by minutes. Green MP Keith Locke, for example, has managed to spend several minutes arguing that the bill’s title is misleading because it will lead people to believe “that it refers to trials to be held on Pitcairn Island, when that is obviously not the case.” Picking up the theme, National’s Epsom MP Richard Worth has suggested it be renamed the “Pitcairn Trials and Related Matters Bill.”
The silliness has increased with the hour. Earlier in the day, the House dealt with the Remuneration Authority (Members of Parliament) Bill, which gives a renamed Higher Salaries Commission the power to determine certain expense allowances for MPs but, controversially, keeps the power to determine other allowances with a parliamentary body.
The house has also considered the Subordinate Legislation (Validation and Confirmation) Bill, which confirms a clutch of minor law changes. A one-hour general debate has been held—the parliamentary equivalent of mud-wrestling. The energy minister has accused the National Party of hypocrisy over its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol; National MPs have claimed the Government has botched its handling of the leaky-homes crisis and taunted it over TVNZ chairman Ross Armstrong’s expense account. Winston Peters has railed against immigration, and Richard Prebble has criticised the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. All in all, it’s been a typical day for our political representatives.
The last words of the day fall to National’s Georgina te Heuheu, who criticises the Pitcairn bill’s critics. The bill allows Pitcairn trials to be held in New Zealand, she says; it doesn’t require them to be held there. “So we are providing the venue, and I trust that those who took this bill through the select committee have enough confidence to know that if the trial is indeed held in New Zealand, to the best extent possible”
And that’s it. At precisely 10 P.M., the debate is interrupted. The few MPs in attendance gather up their papers, as do a handful of officials. The Hansard reporters return to their offices and begin transcribing the last few speeches. One or two press gallery reporters, who have long since abandoned the debating chamber for the relative comfort of their offices, turn off their radios, lock their doors and head for home. The MPs file out of the building and hail taxis or walk to their apartments.
At midnight, a few lights still burn in the Beehive, where some ministerial staff are working late. The security guards are doing their rounds, making sure office doors are locked, and the cleaners are getting ready to start work. In less than six hours, a new day will begin in the life of New Zealand’s Parliament. But, for now, it’s time for the village to sleep.