Jane Clifton: Words fail him

by Jane Clifton / 31 January, 2013
Parliament’s new Speaker is conspicuously unecstatic about the job.
Cartoon by Chris Slane

With apologies to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Parliament’s first chore of the year is always nasty, brutish and hideously long. While Wellington is bunking off in the glorious weather, and dressing up like animals, cartoon characters and Elvises for the Sevens, MPs are scowling indoors – not perfecting some ripping new law reform, but having a marathon set-piece slagfest.

The debate on the Prime Minister’s statement is 15 hours of alternating platitude and bile, at the end of which precisely nothing has been agreed, elucidated or left untrivialised. It has the single virtue of being an equal-opportunity waste of time; every MP gets a go.

Mercifully, the Opposition has mixed things up this year, with its concurrent inquiry into the plight of manufacturing: at least 15 hours of garment-rending at the end of which … well, not to put too fine a point on it, the Opposition will have to devise a way to wrestle the entire global currency system to the ground, or look a bit silly.

So far, all the manufacturers to testify have agreed on the problem: the dollar is too high for their businesses to thrive or, in some cases, survive. No mystery there. But they all seem to think that the Government can do something to get the dollar down, against persistent evidence of failure by all the other countries with the same problem – not least the United States, whose dollar has rather more heft than ours in the great scheme of things.

This inquiry is actually a public dress rehearsal for the next Labour-led government – a chance for Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First to show voters that they can work constructively and collegially on a serious problem and agree on a series of measures to fix it.

They may soon be wishing they’d started with something less ambitious, like time travel or the meaning of life. Not even Gareth Morgan knows a foolproof and lasting way of getting the currency down, for all his expertise on predator ecology, motorcycle maintenance and how to coach, administer and play professional football.

The Greens’ co-leader Russel Norman may at least have a chance – in the spirit of consensus, you understand – to back off his ill-judged advocacy of quantitative easing. Similarly, Winston Peters is unlikely to reprise his view that the dollar can be simply ordered down by Government fiat and that, were it not for a conspiracy of National’s rich mates, that would have happened long ago. It’s likely the three parties will instead offer to fire myriad little darts into the problem, by way of extending the levers and target ranges specified in the Reserve Bank Act.

Whether this would work at all, or without causing concomitant mischief elsewhere in the economy, can then be happily debated for the rest of the term. The Opposition will hope that would leave the overriding impression that at least it is offering a solution.


The Government’s resolute donothing stance, while realistic, has plainly infuriated manufacturers and by extension job seekers. Sometimes in politics it’s important to at least look as though you empathise, even when a “there, there!” is all you can offer. National’s senior ministers seem perversely to be out to portray the strong dollar as

David Carter

some sort of Kiplingesque character test for business, as though companies should rejoice in this bracing challenge.

This is the kind of brave face David Carter has been trying to put on his election as Speaker. The hitherto-uncontroversial gentleman farmer from Governors Bay has given the impression he would sooner enter a beauty contest wearing a tigerprint onesie than become one of the country’s most powerful and, indeed, fawned-over public officials.

It’s not a job that suits everyone. Parliament is like country and western music: if you can’t take to it and relish its conceits and arcane fetishes, it’s pure and visceral torture. Of even seasoned MPs, most can take only so much of it at a time.

As the Opposition has fairly pointed out, Carter is definitely not one of those who thrills to the pinhead-dancing and gamesmanship of the debating chamber. On the contrary, he was having a terrific time as Primary Industries Minister and was under the impression that the Government’s rhetoric about a more thrusting and intensive agriculture sector was sincerely meant.

To be replaced in that job by the junior and not noticeably thrusting Nathan Guy, and to be sentenced to the wig and gown not because you’re the best and keenest person for the job, but because you’re considered the handiest person to expend in order to make room for new and retread ministers in the Cabinet is no great vote of thanks. The implicit guarantee of a knighthood – though only if he  can get on the big list before the next Labour lot abolishes all that stuff again – is probably little consolation.

The best person for the job is generally acknowledged to have been Maurice Williamson. He has a sense of fun and theatre, and just as usefully, he bears enough grudges against various colleagues to be functionally impartial in the chair. However, he’s a mere minister outside Cabinet, so his relocation would not have solved John Key’s promotion issues. And Williamson is unlikely to have been forgiven for his public head-kicking of former leader Bill English. It was 10 years ago, but it was such a vicious attack, he’s actually lucky to have made it off the back bench ever again. Labour would have expelled an MP for less disloyalty.


In a broader sense, the ungainly manner of Carter’s installation underlines how indifferent Key and his kitchen Cabinet are to the niceties of Parliament. In a brute sense, they can afford to be cavalier. They have the majority; they will always win votes in the House; the rest is just verbiage. But the chamber is a crucible of morale, even for the perpetual victor. An unduly snotty Opposition can make life very unpleasant.

It’s not only manners but common sense to shoot for a good-natured consensus on posts like the Speakership. Speakers who prove ill-suited to the job cause disproportionate obstructiveness for governments with legislative timetable challenges. Rule changes under the generally well-liked Lockwood Smith, who made a point of smacking his colleagues around, have defused much of the aggro that became automatic under the reign of the flinty and shrill Margaret Wilson, who was widely perceived as still partisan.

Carter may not have a mean bone in his body, and has rather humbly vowed to suppress his lifelong Tory bias from now on. But if he struggles in the job in terms of sure-footedness, judgment or consistency, the Opposition will regularly have him on toast. It only takes a few TV news clips of the Opposition overmastering Parliament to influence voter perceptions of who’s up and who’s down.


It’s hard not to sympathise with Tau Henare, who auditioned for the Speakership as if in a spirited semifinal of New Zealand’s Got Talent. Only partially reformed as a hoon, despite strenuous efforts at self-improvement, Tau was never going to win, but at least he – unlike his leaders – treated the job as though it had mana.

As a consolation, Lockwood might consider lending Tau his old wig and gown ensemble to wear to the Sevens this weekend.
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