While school children come to watch MPs goofing around in parliament, the real business of governing takes place outside the debating chamber

"New Zealanders don't want stand-up comedy – they want someone to stand up for them". David Shearer rhetorically let forth with those words in his recent speech to the opening of this year's parliament, and I suppose anyone thinking about it would immediately see that to be true. Governing is a serious matter.  And it wasn’t a bad juxtaposition of “stand up” either.

Trouble is that nothing particularly serious will come from what is said on the floor of the debating chamber – it is an arena where form hugely trumps substance. The MPs hardly take it seriously. It all begins with a solemn prayer "humbly beseeching" the Lord to give his guidance to members on all matters (including presumable atheists) and the immediately descends into a highly partisan noisy free-for-all. Like it or not, Parliament is mostly theatre.

The one side presents itself as the authors of all success while characterising the other as instigators of all failure. It's all a something of a game in the "bear pit", a forum of hyperbolic, over-the-top, exaggerated statements, a stream of "points of order" (often no more than dressed up debating points), frequent shouting matches masquerading as "interjections" (which Speaker's frequently note are supposed to be rare and witty and are usually neither), and a fair amount of general goofing around.

I recall a primary school student, after watching question time as part of a school visit, telling me that if they were to behave like that at school they would be in big trouble with their teacher.

Life is really more complicated than that what happens there. And positions taken as part of the day-to-day game of politics are usually to serve the game rather than the long-term future, or even an underlying ideology.

It's my opinion that whoever was sitting on the Treasury benches would, for example, have worked assiduously to have the Hobbit made in New Zealand; the non-governing will attack the compromise whatever it was, but had they been governing themselves, some compromise to have the movie made here would have emerged. Oppositions can promise never to do something, but then, they don’t have to.  That is the luxury of opposition.

"Debates" in Parliament only really become something approaching genuine "debates" when discussing so called conscience issues or when we see those universal resolutions upon which all solemnly agree. On the conscience matters (abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and [generally] alcohol matters), MPs express their individual opinion, and they are often surprisingly interesting – sometimes unpredictable. Apart from that, the debates are governed by the party line and the Whip and the need to stay "on message" to make progress up the ladder.

David Shearer's plaintiff plea to the side, the reality is that in this type of forum the comedian often does best. I can remember the House full and listening attentively to the more entertaining of our speakers. David Lange for example, could pull them – listeners came less in hope of hearing the next policy gem, but rather for the next classic one liner. And it was not just the members, but the entire press gallery that was transfixed when he was on his feet.

Most of what really matters emerging from our seat of government happens somewhere other than on the floor of Parliament.  It'd be nice to think something could be done about it, but that’s one leopard that isn’t going to change it spots.

Comments (1)

by stuart munro on February 10, 2013
stuart munro

There is a reliable historical precedent for decimation.

Drop MP numbers by 10%, pour encourager les autres, and the clever ones will learn discretion.

There may yet be one or two clever ones in parliament, appearances to the contrary.

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