My question is to all MPs & asks: Is there something wrong with your inside voice?



Last Tuesday, during a visit to our nation’s capital to help install a painting show, I stopped by Parliament to see our lawmakers in action. I’m a self-confessed politics nerd and I’ve wanted to do this for about 20 years. I was given a guided tour by then-Invercargill MP Mark Peck on a high school trip once, but it was during Youth Parliament, a disappointment only trumped by the despondent teenage rage at being considered ‘too young’ to apply (a theme that continued well into my political life).  Stand out memories of that trip include: finding the echoing acoustic sweet spot in the middle of each floor, getting told off by security for trying to leave Nandor Tanczos a note and, weirdly, a painted depiction of The Battle Of Chunuk Bair.

Between the gates to the grounds and the Beehive itself, there were three separate protests going on this November 5th; some kind of Guy Fawkes/Anonymous/TICS Bill group, what looked like a bunch of people protesting against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and the latest installment of the Greens campaign against the Government’s pokies for convention centre deal with SkyCity. Is Wellington always so up in arms, or had it saved it up for me? Apologies, reader, for being so vague (and to the protestors themselves, to whom I ordinarily would have stopped to talk to), but it was almost two o’clock and I had a bunfight to watch.

At 2pm, on any day Parliament is sitting, my soon-to-be-ex office braves the University’s notoriously poor internet infrastructure to watch Questions for Oral Answer or, more colloquially, Question Time. Before you say it, yes, I know that this is often largely gotcha-baiting and Prime Ministerial punchlines, and that the real legislative process is based in the less sexy Select Committee, but when this is what feeds the news cycle (for better or worse) it is worth paying attention to. And we do. Screens are yelled at and hair is pulled. It has been asked whether it was even worth watching before Twitter, whose #nzqt hashtag is a thorough, often informed and occasionally hilarious live dissection of the events as they unfold.

As a live spectator, you have none of those things. You can’t tweet, heckle, laugh, applaud or lean on the balustrade. Present were various transient tour groups (schools and international holidaymakers), and a meager handful of casual observers giving up their stunning spring afternoon. A model family cheered enthusiastically at the end of a John Key set-piece, before receiving a stern talking to by a thickset gentleman in an official looking suit. I once couldn’t contain my disdain, letting out a laugh of disbelief, before receiving a stern talking to from my less excitable (but no less horrified) partner. Demanding decorum from the peasants in attendance would be all well and good, if those we had come to observe didn’t put on such a base and obnoxious spectacle.

While Parliament TV may capture the essence of the ‘robust political debate’, it doesn’t pick up as much of the heckling and barracking as you get on the radio broadcast (the first country in the world to introduce such a thing, incidentally), and nothing compares to the all encompassing cacophony of seeing and hearing it in the flesh. Our two largest and oldest parties spend the entire time plodding through their well-rehearsed parochial barrage, yelling over the top of each other and applauding wildly whenever they think their boss has told a funny. Each caucus is as bad as the other, and it is a funny kind of conundrum seeing people you respect personally and professionally make you start to question all of that all at once. At the other end, the ones you have no respect for are even more loathsome in the flesh. Watching Maggie Barry heckle Jan Logie for talking about safer judicial alternatives for sexual assault victims was truly sickening.

I understand that this is the game we inherited when our colonial forebears brought their Westminster Style over with them.  It is telling, then, that only the parties from our pre-MMP electoral past insist on persisting with it. The Greens, New Zealand First (Winston prefers to frame his interruptions as Points of Order, generally), and the Government’s coalition partners were all well behaved, thankyou very much, and it made me proud to be a member, and representative, of the first of these. It isn’t just the politics of the Green Party that drew me in, but also the way we do politics.

Seeing politics at its rowdiest and most counter-productive made my nerdy nine year old self really sad. Even my 20 years more cynical self was surprised. We have a serious problem with a disenfranchised electorate, particularly among younger voters, and the way our House of Representatives go about their business in Parliamentary Prime Time is as good a contributing factor as any as to why. How many great potential leaders were present in the school groups in the gallery that day, and how many were discouraged from wanting to be enter politics because they want nothing to do with the loud, macho, chest thumping, brow beating culture that comes with it? Hell, if we could address that we might start to do away with the need for all sorts of quotas, not least the ones encouraging greater numbers of women in Parliament. If MPs are serious about increasing civic participation and voter turnout in this country, as opposed to just talking about it in platitudes from time to time, they really need to look in the mirror, pull their heads in, and start from there.  Until it is obvious that they’re taking the job seriously, why should they expect anyone to take them seriously?

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  1. It’s even worse at night; coming up for 9:45 and the mindless, tedious drivel of some back-bencher filling in the time before they are mercifully released into the night. Barely a quorum. The echo-y quality of the chamber showing how empty it must be.

    What a farce. What an over-priced joke.

  2. The only time I was ever in Parliament Buildings I inadvertently bumped in to Bill Birch . I was with my mother at the time and we were there with my father to try to get sense from a privy council meeting re a Bank swindle that eventually spelled doom to our farm and ultimately , my mum and dads life .
    He was a short , rat like creature with beady eyes and greasy black hair and he faked interest as he presented his flappy hand paddle to me to take and presumably shake . I refused , saying I didn’t want to catch what he clearly had . He never missed a beat , well used to having people be rude to him .
    His inside voice spoke clearly to me . It said ” I am not human . I am here to devour all . ”

    He sold off our stuff , he crippled our Unions and he is a swindling little shit and I’m so proud of my telling him , in effect , to fuck off in front of my mum .

    • It always escaped me how he ever got the “Mr Fixit” moniker, as he habitually smashed to bits anything that came his way…. ACC, the health system, and do you shudder, like me when you remember “Think Big”?

    • Great, wonderful description of Bill Birch! I too walked in there with the late Rod Donald and said I don’t want to shake hands with these people as Jonathan Hunt and others emerged from the lift that had the strong smell of alcohol.

  3. How ironic; yesterday I was at the latest ‘Meet Your MP’ session at the Green Party office in Auckland with Gareth Hughes and I was talking with him and another spectator about the seeming lack of courtesy and ceremony around Question Time in Parliament.

    I’m so glad that I’m not the only one to recognise this as a problem and a barrier to constructive dialogue in our countries Legislature. I hope the review of Parliamentary procedure (the official name escapes me) that Gareth will take place in as a member of the review committee will address this and make appropriate changes.

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