Full of Sound and Fury

 We live in a disconnected age and nowhere is this disconnection more prevalent than in New Zealand’s Parliament. Over the past several weeks I have been subjected to watching parliamentary debates.  I say, subjected, because a friend and I watch Shortland Street (my guilty little secret) and he has taken to recording Parliament TV prior to us watching the recorded episode of ‘Shorties’.

Parliament TV reveals that National is, simply, arrogant. Its election victory and its continuing high ratings in the polls have led to it treating the business of the House with, what verges on, open distain. Watching John Key in action is like watching the stereotypical smarmy used car salesman at work. Key, who gives the impression that he is generally out of his depth, nonetheless answers questions with real arrogance and glibness. This attitude is more than matched by other National MPs, who following the behaviour provided by their leader, openly mock the Opposition.

However, if the National Government is arrogant and smarmy, then the Labour (Liberal) Opposition is generally loud and ineffectual. L(iberal) MPs appear to be the parliamentary version of possums caught in headlights – in short, parliamentary road kill. The L(iberal) Party has not adapted to its role of parliamentary opposition well. It appears to spend a lot of its time in meaningless points of order, asking (often ineffectual) questions that National effortlessly bats away or bizarrely pointing out the deficiencies of existing policy and statues. The problem with this line of questioning is that, as National points out, Labour had 9 years to rectify the very issues that it is now raising as problems.

If evidence is needed of the inane attitude of parliamentary debates then it was ambly provided for me on March 4 with questions from L(iberal) leader, Phil Goff to John Key about the outcomes of the Job Summit. Key was arrogant and mocked Goff, who subsequently tied parliamentary proceedings up with points of order and supplementary questions that led nowhere. Another was the bumbling attempt, provided last week by Progressive MP,  Jim Anderton (who is essentially a defacto L(iberal) MP), to discredit National in relation to the reintroduction of the royal honour system.

People need to be aware of the debates and discussions that occur in parliament. Indeed, it was this principle that led the first Labour Government to broadcast parliament on the radio. Michael Joseph Savage felt that people should be able to listen in and have the ability to discuss that legislation debated by their parliamentary representatives. He felt that such broadcasts would actually improve the level of democratic discussion both within and without the House.  Unfortunately, parliamentary speaking and debate appear to have actually got worse over the intervening decades. As part of my thesis, I have had to read parliamentary debates from the 1920s and 30s and a comparison of the standard of debate and discussions from that period presents a group of people who were (for the most part) well read, well informed and exceedingly literate. Whereas, modern parliamentary debate and discussion is best summed up by Rodney Hide comparing Points of Order to limbs of trees.

No longer is parliament the place for ideas or wider discussion. Instead, it has become increasing disconnected from the wider world, becoming merely a place for petty point scoring. It is, to paraphrase a soliloquy from Shakespear’s ‘Macbeth’, a place full of “tale(s) told by a fool(s), full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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