QUESTION TIME IN PARLIAMENT this afternoon was a useful reminder of what Jacinda and her government are up against. In theory, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are supposed to impress the Visitor’s Gallery as a government-in-waiting: sagacious, witty and (to use a favourite parliamentary term) honourable. In practice, Simon Bridges’ National Party Opposition comes across as ignorant, boorish and disturbingly truculent.
Bridges’ people put one in mind of a hitherto unbeatable rugby team which has unaccountably lost the season’s most important game to a rag-tag bunch of scrawny and inexperienced ring-ins. “It shouldn’t have happened!”, has slowly-but-surely morphed into “It didn’t happen!” National appears convinced that if everyone had played by the rules they could not have lost the game. In their minds, Labour, NZ First and the Greens were only able to claim victory by cheating outrageously.
And so, they sit there on the Opposition’s side of the House, forced to swallow the bitter bile of defeat every time they lift their eyes to the mocking gaze of Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and James Shaw.
The person who makes them retch most violently, however, is the Speaker, Labour’s Trevor Mallard. There’s an insouciance about Mallard’s management of the House; a barely suppressed glee; that is quite clearly driving National’s MPs crazy.
Mallard positively twinkles in the Speaker’s Chair. His many years in the Chamber have armed him against every trick in the Opposition play-book. Hardly surprising, since Mallard has, at one time or another, played every one of them. Knowing exactly what to expect, this parliamentary poacher-turned-gamekeeper lies in wait for the lumbering Nats and daily spoils their fun by dispensing a judicious measure of galling intellectual acuity and dead-eyed malice. He isn’t the least bit scared of Gerry Brownlee, Paula Bennett, Jamie-Lee Ross or David Bennett. They know it – and he knows they know it.
And still they come at him: proud Tory Samurai whose traditional swords and arrows are utterly unequal to Mallard’s pearl-handled Colt 45. He shoots them down for sport.
It will be interesting to observe how long Bridges is prepared to let this unequal contest go on. He must know that a battle with the Speaker, if it is not to end in the Opposition’s complete humiliation, must be escalated to the point where the normal operation of Parliament becomes impossible.
The problem is that the raising of spurious points-of-order and refusing to withdraw and apologise for unparliamentary conduct is an extremely risky strategy. Open defiance of the Chair, leading to the naming of members, interventions by the Sergeant-at-Arms, mass walkouts and point-blank refusals to re-join Government members in the Chamber will certainly bring the business of the House to a standstill. Unfortunately, it may also send the National Party’s public support into free-fall. New Zealanders don’t tend to have much time for players who argue with the ref.
But, even if National’s 44 percent support-base stays solid behind their wronged heroes; and even if Labour, NZ First and the Greens buckle in the face of such reckless political hatred; New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy would be irreparably damaged. The country would have reached the point so terrifyingly described in William Golding’s dystopian novel, Lord of the Flies, when Jack and his fellow savages overthrow the schoolboys’ brave attempt at self-government – symbolised by the beautiful conch-shell which guarantees whoever holds it a fair hearing.
“By him stood Piggy still holding out the talisman, the fragile shining beauty of the shell. The storm of sound beat at them, an incantation of hatred. High overhead, Roger, with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever […..] The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time even for a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red.”
Democracy, too, is a fragile thing and the rocks used to destroy it take many forms.