The Dominion, Thursday, September 10, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: More About Customs — The Milk of Human Kindness
Four little Labour men
Having lots of fun,
Talked to the Ministry—
And then there was none.443
When we say that there was none, dear readers, we mean that by the time the four Labour members had quite, quite finished talking, there wasn't so much as the accusing ghost of a Minister within sight. We don't, on the other hand, mean to insinuate that the Labour-Socialists in question, becoming somewhat enthusiastic over their little discussion, arose en masse, slew the Ministers, and buried their bodies under the bed—we mean under the benches. No, no! Not at all. Hard words, as somebody or other has so rightly put it, break no bones—otherwise, long ere this time our Ministers would have been reduced to the spineless condition of molluscs.
But let us, contrary to all Parliamentary procedure, make ourselves perfectly clear. As Labour member after Labour member arose in his seat with the promptitude and certainty of your favourite brand of baking powder, the Ministers simply—how shall we put it—took up their beds and walked. The consequence was that the members in question were left to waste their sweetness—or, to be more correct, their sourness—on the desert air.444 We are unable to give any information whatever as to just how the desert air liked it.
For some time past we have wondered, in a vague, bewildered sort of way, about the whys and wherefores of a certain old-established Parliamentary custom. You must know that the Hansard reporters, alone of the great New Zealand public, are permitted to sit at the very feet of the House of Representatives while aforesaid House is sitting. They (the Hansard reporters) have neat little tables and swinging chairs provided for them, and there, day in and night out, they sit scribbling away in a fashion which makes the sympathetic observer wonder just how often they have to be inoculated against writer's cramp. (N.B.—If you really want to know all about Parliamentary English as she is spoke,445 try to get hold of the proofs of Hansard before the members themselves secure them, and—ah—brighten them up, not to mention toning them down. But you won't do it.) Well, the custom that we intended, way back in the dark ages, to refer to, is this: Why is it (if Mr. Speaker will forgive our asking the question without notice—this really is a matter of urgency) that the most dignified and seemingly inflexible of members not only bow, but actually bend double as they pass behind the Hansard reporters' tables?
We can testify to the fact that we have seen Mr. Holland—yes, even Mr. Holland—duck as though some justly irate Minister had been impolite enough to aim a number nine boot at his head. But such, dear readers, cannot possibly have been the case. Not if we know our Mr. Speaker. We will, in the best Labour-Socialist manner, proceed to answer our question for ourselves. After some thought upon the matter, we have come to the conclusion that even a Hansard reporter may have his feelings, and that honourable members are well aware of this fact. Now, after having made three half-hour speeches during the course of a single afternoon, would it be safe for a member to walk boldly past the desk of the individual who has not only to listen to but to transcribe every single word—except the unparliamentary language—that aforesaid member has used? We ask you! Members, then, bend double in the undignified fashion already referred to simply because they know that if they don't they are liable at any moment to be stunned by a well-aimed ink-pot, or stabbed in the back with a fountain pen.
But we have been following a policy of active digression as regards our four little Labour-Socialist members. The trouble yesterday afternoon, as far as we could gather, which, as you so justly remark, can't have been very far, was all about income tax. Aha! you say, sitting up and taking notice, our faithful Opposition has been keeping watch and ward over us again! The cold, callous, and collected—no, we mean collective—Government has planned to spring yet another unjustifiable tax decrease on the tax rendered unto Caesar by those who, by dint of honest toil and much perspiration, have accumulated something which might figuratively be spoken of as an income.446 But our Opposition, with their customary sturdy British—or should we say Dutch?—courage, have stood by us: they have bearded the Capitalistic lions in their dens, and have returned, as usual, quite undaunted, if somewhat chewed at the corners.447 This, as we were saying, is what you will in all probability take it upon yourselves to think. But the Cold, Hard Facts of the Case, are, brother and sister taxpayers, just a trifle different. The Government, displaying indications of the possession of something approaching the milk of human kindness, wishes to make certain reductions—yes, we're telling you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—reductions in the way of income tax. And our Opposition, those stalwart champions of the poor, but honest (and all the rest of it), oppose this tooth and nail.448 Well, well, it is hard, isn't it? Fancy anyone objecting to a Government taking a little bit off the load of the unhappy taxpayer.
Sometimes we have the impertinence to feel sorry for our Prime Minister. As, for instance, when he finds himself called upon to arise, stand forth, and do sums on the blackboard for the benefit of the entire House. At the end of half-an-hour (a period well punctuated by interjections from all sides of the House) he, mentally at least, takes a firm grasp upon his hair, and murmurs faintly to himself, "Oh dear, oh dear! I suppose that two and two do make four. What did you say, Mr. McCombs? Really, Mr. Speaker, and honourable gentlemen of the House of Representatives (though sometimes it bothers me to make out just what you do represent), I think I'll have to leave you to it."449
Mr. O'Brien, member from the wild West (and no wonder it's wild—you'd be wild, too, under the circumstances) takes a turn at the handle. He talks about—guess what? "moneybugs with their maws open for every sixpence."450 We lie not. Since we are on the subject of the insect world, let us pass on to the more genteel species of the bee. We don't mean the little busy bee that used to improve each shining hour when we were a girl, but the common or garden species. Bees, the scientists have told us, don't live long. But what about the one that Mr. O'Brien has had in his bonnet for these twenty years?
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins and Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longman, 1969).
445 The phrase comes from the title of a 19th century Portugese book that was intended to act as a phrase book for tourists. The book's publication in English under the title English as she is Spoke occurred in London in 1883.
446 Cf. Luke 20 v. 25.
And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's.
447 To "beard" is to openly and resolutely, with daring or with effrontery; to set at defiance, thwart, affront. In this context the word appears especially in the phrase "to beard the lion in his den" (Oxford English Dictionary). See also Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), p.19.
448 McCombs argued that "[t]he principal proposal in the Bill will mean a reduction in income-tax as compared with last year's tax, and I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that while the total reduction is not very great—it will be about £150,000—practically the whole of it, as far as the Committee can make out, will go to the big man" (Hansard 208: 124).
449 After numerous interjections Coates said "I simply rose for the purpose of saying that the Government gave an understanding this morning that the question would be considered" (Hansard 208: 128).
450 Cf. O'Brien: "money-bugs who are ready to grasp every sixpence" (Hansard 208: 139).