The House that we built, Colin James

The House: New Zealand’s House of Representatives 1854-2004
John E Martin
Dunmore Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0864694636

Parliament is a brutal place. Only the idealistic, the ideological, the hard-nosed and the ruthless gather there. No person is inviolate, no secret safe, no alliance ironclad in the parliamentary wars.

Yet it is a club with a long waiting list. In Parliament great things can be done in the name of the nation or humanity or progress. Parliament can expropriate, rescue, elevate, penalise. It is the place where the popular will is given voice to and sanctioned with the force of law. It is an elevator and a reliever of tensions. It is a creator and destroyer.

To be an MP is to risk peace of mind for the reward of reputation. An MP’s prime asset is ego. Boost an MP’s ego and you are a friend; puncture it and you are an enemy. Ego is a fragile foundation of personality and its possessor must always be on guard.

So Parliament is too often a petty place. Question time is a triumph of the trivial over the titanic, a bear pit – in a word, ignoble. But Parliament is also a noble arena of lofty combat, grand designs and daring reforms. It defends the weak and rights wrongs and it does that much more often than it oppresses the weak and wrongs the righteous. The members of the club are our representatives in need and aspiration.

They are not the only representatives. The media provide a canal for popular expression and pressure. Pressure and interest groups, from big business to small charities, morals campaigners to champions of liberty, are representatives, too. But Parliament is where those specious interests are made into something resembling a national agreement, imperfect, of course, but the best we have. In doing that, it is at the centre of the constitution. When it works well, so does our constitution. When it works badly, so does the nation.

So a history of its first 150 years is a worthy enterprise. We need to know about this institution and its discharge of its national remit, how its performance of that duty has changed – and it has changed greatly. “The House of Representatives is no longer recognisable as that of the nineteenth century, or even of the mid to twentieth century,” John Martin says in his official history.

Martin takes us on an exhaustive chronological tour. We see the House’s evolution from the early swirling factionalism through the rise of the party to the point where their tight discipline made the executive dominant and finally to the loosening of the executive’s grip under MMP and the development of an effective committee system. We are regaled with multitudinous stories of late-night sittings of mind-numbing stupidity, a habit now largely abandoned. The evolution of Bellamys through many stages is faithfully recorded. (I recall in 1970 struggling to get my assistant, the second woman to be a press gallery reporter, admitted to the bar.) We wonder at the capacity (and incapacitation) of the early members for alcohol in an era when politics was the hobby of pretentious and/or amiable and/or bumbling amateurs and trace the descent into the sobriety of today’s buttoned-down professionals. The tawdry story of MPs’ pay and assistance, usually inadequate yet begrudged by the electorate, is traced. The hotchpotch of buildings in which Parliament has been housed and their fires, earthquakes, additions and refurbishments are all recorded. Plus, as they say in the ads, much, much more, heaps of the trivial and the triumphant, the grubby and the grand, the mundane and the magnificent. This is a veritable compendium which everyone with an interest in our political history should have on the shelves.

Martin’s storehouse of anecdote and data is not just a useful reference work. His narrative is also a fascinating prism through which we can scan the history of the politics of a young nation lurching through adolescence to near-maturity. But his strictly chronological approach chops the topics into bite-sized chunks which are sometimes difficult to thread together. It would help if there were tables of, for example, sitting hours and bills passed, MPs’ occupations and changes in parties’ seats and percentages, the sorts of tables which might have been expected in a reference work and other aids to a 150-year scan. At least we might have expected a list of members, their party allegiances and electorates.

Martin says in his final sentence that “understanding the House of Representatives – the representative forum for the people of New Zealand – and its complex evolution is integral to ensuring full and proper representation itself.” True. But Martin’s book hints rather than explains, provides descriptions in great and valuable detail but not a framework within which to understand that detail. As the work of an historian, not a political scientist or constitutionalist, it is a history of an institution, not of the polity it serves (or rules, depending on your point of view about parliamentary sovereignty). And it is a history narrowly of the House only; the unlamented long-dead Legislative Council has only a shadowy place in the story. The view of politics through Martin’s prism is akin to the view one gets of the economy through the increasingly fashionable commissioned company histories.

So we don’t get the sort of analysis of the role of Parliament in the wider democratic frame which would contribute to the discussion looming sometime in the next generation – and maybe quite soon – of how we will reframe our constitution. If, for example, you want pointers on the role of the Treaty of Waitangi in such a constitution and in Parliament you find not much more than scraps. The Treaty rates just five mentions in the index, including one of the 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act but not of its much more important 1985 amendment. Yet the Treaty, whether appropriately or not, has become central to our national, and therefore political, life and is the single largest difficulty in redrafting the constitution.

Nor is there much comparative information on other colonial institutions, especially those in Australia (all of which, incidentally, our Parliament predated as a representative assembly to which the Executive had to answer – so-called “responsible government”). If this is, as is so often asserted, one of the oldest continuous Parliaments, it would be logical to have some chapter, or at least verse, in this history.

But does Martin’s product match his subject? Certainly. It faithfully reproduces the high life and low life of this best and worst of institutions, the feet of clay of its inmates that mostly characterises it and the occasional soaring moment that redeems it.

Just how rare those redeeming moments are was illustrated by omission in the special 150th anniversary debate on 24 May. National’s Gerry Brownlee bemoaned a lack of pageantry but that would not have veiled a debate which – deposed National leader Bill English’s call for Parliament to redefine citizenship in this uneasy nation excepted – miserably belied the occasion and was most noted for an ill-tempered attack on judges led by Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen. It will be interesting to see whether standards have lifted when the 200th commemorative history comes to be written.


Colin James is a political journalist and life member of the parliamentary press gallery, which he joined in 1969. 


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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