23 Jul 2017

Cowards, liars and great apes - Parliament's zingers

From The House, 7:32 am on 23 July 2017

To some, it’s the dissolution of decorum, immaturity that would be misplaced at a kindergarten. To others, it’s a compendium of democracy’s sickest burns — the great zingers of politics.

No caption

Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Parliament’s chamber, with its rimu walls, shiny mace and thick green carpets, is meant to be a forum of honour and prestige, with intellectual debate a centrepiece of Aotearoa’s democracy.

However, particularly at question time, things can combust, and wicked tongues can flare to say vile things.

Sometimes, the line is crossed — what is officially known as unparliamentary language.

Tui Head is a Hansard editor, whose job is to record what is said in the House —including the bad stuff — for perpetuity.

“If it’s said in the House and the Speaker has a call [then] absolutely it goes into Hansard,” she said, before rattling off some examples from 150 years on Hansard. (An MP with the 'call' is the one meant to be on their feet speaking).

no caption

Play nice - MPs are expected to treat each other with respect in the House.  Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

“Supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies,” was one. “I’m not here to shag spiders,” was another. Or there’s the more roundabout— the parliamentarian’s favourite kind: “The notion of him and energy is a mathematical impossibility.”

“There are certain things that you absolutely can’t say, a lot of them have to do with besmirching a member’s honour,” she said. “So that’s why you can’t call a member a liar; you can’t call them a hypocrite; or a coward because that’s seen as an attack on a member’s honour.”

Hansard editor Tui Head

Hansard editor Tui Head Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Until 1980, Parliament maintained a list of phrases uttered in the House and subsequently banned after being ruled unparliamentary by the Speaker.This included: “The idle vapourings of a mind diseased” and the sinister, yet mannerly, “I would cut the honourable gentleman’s throat if I had the chance.”

Then there’s the more creative, such as Labour MP Frank Langstone’s 1949 sledge towards Remuera MP Ronald Algie, when he said: “his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides.” 

Or in 1974, when Labour MP and future prime minister for two months Mike Moore said then-opposition leader Rob Muldoon was the only person he knew who “could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in.” 

No caption

Photo: New Zealand Parliament

Then, there’s the bizarre. Such as in 1966 when Bob Tizard yelled: “shut up yourself, you great ape” in a heated exchange with Tom Shand, a minister in the Holyoake government. The Speaker at the time? Ronald Algie.

But the list – available on Parliament’s website – abruptly stops in 1980. David Bagnall, from the Office of the Clerk, said that’s because Parliament’s loosened up a little.

“Well it did evolve back in the ‘70s, I think, Speakers started saying that it really depends on the situation and then in about 2000, Eric Roy, former Deputy Speaker, he gave a really sort of pithy good ruling that really sums it up: it’s about the menace about the way in which things are spoken,” he said.

No caption

David Bagnall from the Office of the Clerk. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

“So there are some things that are clearly offensive or unparliamentary, you know, swear words I guess – although those have changed over time as well. There are some phrases that quite clearly would have been regarded as offensive a few decades ago that aren’t now.

“Words like ‘bloody’, for example. Nobody bats an eyelid. Previously that would have been regarded as unparliamentary, so it does change with the times.”

With the absence of hard-and-fast rules, it’s down to the Speaker to decide on the spot in the fast-paced fiery cauldron of question time. So how do they decide?

“For me, it depends on the tone in which the word is said, the atmosphere of the House at the time; how hot the temperature is,” said David Carter, the current Speaker. “Are members really at each other and the whole thing needs settling down?”

No caption

The Speaker of the House David Carter. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

“I think some words used in some contexts, you’ve got to accept. There’s been a bit of quite bad language that’s been used by some – swear words, etc. If a member wants to stoop to that level to say something … I think it’s for the public to judge how suitable that person is as a politician. He should be responsible, not me as the Speaker for the words that leave his lips.”

But while the list has been gone for more than 30 years, and while Mr Carter tends towards letting words flow, a ruling of unparliamentary language today isn’t exactly uncommon.

In just the last couple of years there’s been: “battle of wits with unarmed opponent,” which rears itself regularly. “As a species the member is not covered”, “the member for outrageous lies,” and “the rather obscure, cat-weasel.”

“One thing that assists me in judging is the reaction from other members. To leave it there and let it fester will create more disorder,” Mr Carter said, adding that straight insults would always be ruled unparliamentary. “You don’t have time to stop proceedings and go to the TMO and have another look at the replay – you’ve got to make an instant decision.”

If something is deemed unparliamentary, Mr Carter said, the Speaker has several weapons at their disposal. This includes asking a member to withdraw the comment; withdraw and apologise (“it’s a little more embarrassing,” Mr Carter said); or withdraw, apologise and leave the chamber. The ultimate sanction, one which Mr Carter hasn’t used, is to “name the member.”

“That is a vote of the House where they either agree with the Speaker or not, and having the member then named he leaves the chamber and his pay is docked for a period of time,” Mr Carter said.

While not exactly a glimmering reflection, David Bagnall said Hansard’s collection of unparliamentary language, in a way, offered a rough-cut oral history of New Zealand, and the evolution of language.

Things like phrases intended to convey cowardice at the time of the World Wars, or the use of “Communist” and other red-related slurs during the Cold War. “Ayatollah,” in 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution, or the “Member for Pretoria,” also in 1980, at the height of apartheid in South Africa and tensions over relations with New Zealand.

“There are some words that now would be regarded as fine,” said Mr Bagnall. “Accusing a member, say, of being a communist would not be necessarily a problem these days. A member might feel a bit affronted by that but it’s not the same as it would have been, say, 50 years ago.”    

“There are some phrases that might have derived from World War II. I recall a member objecting to being called a ‘quisling.’ Most people wouldn’t know what that term meant but, you know, in the context of World War II it was quite a strong phrase to use.”

(Quisling is named after Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, and is used to describe someone as a traitor).

Both Mr Bagnall and Mr Carter said unparliamentary language was not an everyday occurrence, but it wasn’t infrequent either, and with the election drawing near, Mr Carter said the heat was likely to be turned up in coming sitting weeks.

“We are now within four weeks of parliamentary sitting time before the election, this is going to be a close election in my opinion, so the temperature is rising. The frustration of the opposition as they try and clamour to the other side of the House, the desperation of the government to hold on, etc., means that the temperature will increase between now and the election.

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to The House

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)