A febrile, last-day-of-school mood filled the air of adjournment debate, writes Toby Manhire from parliament.
Among the incentives for Chris Hipkins as he sets about seeking the return of a Labour government is the knowledge that, should he fail, the final words he’ll have spoken as prime minister at the Beehive podium will have been “why not?”, in response to the question, as put to him in Monday’s post-cabinet press conference, of his willingness to appear on camera with Christopher Luxon saying, “Up the Wahs!”, were the Warriors to make the NRL grand final.
Hipkins’ departing words in the House of Representatives yesterday, in what could very well be his last parliamentary speech as PM, were similarly anti-climactic. “I look forward to meeting the members opposite on the campaign trail,” he said. Unable to resist a provocation from the benches opposite, he added: “And I wave goodbye to Michael Woodhouse, too, because he’s guaranteed not to be here after the election.” And then he was gone, in a mist of underwhelm. Up the Wahs, down the Woodhouse.
A mixture of fatigue, irritability and animus has filled much of the final three-week sitting block in parliament. At least, yesterday, it was leavened with the last-day-of-school energy that adjournment debates dependably deliver. The febrile, demob mood started in question time. Luxon came in beaming, but before long fluffled a line, describing New Zealand as a “company” to animal roars from across the dispatch box.
Rawiri Waititi, who was earlier this week suspended from the chamber for a day (a day he happened not to be at parliament) for an ill-judged interference in judicial processes, strained to wind up his parliamentary neighbour, the leader of Act. “Is the prime minister happy, as David Seymour is, to see me back in the house today; if not, why not?”
Seymour objected, and the speaker sighed and eventually said to the co-leader of Te Pāti Māori, “Please, Rawiri Waititi, don’t do another one.” He could have meant another point of order, or another question, or anything really.
In the unruly end-of-term classroom, Adrian Rurawhe was as much schoolmaster as speaker. “Oh by golly,” he said to Peeni Henare, as the MP tried his patience a second time. “Don’t make me send you out on the last day – no more chances!”
Ginny Anderson was chastised by the speaker, too, after an exchange that followed a patsy question by fellow Labour MP Arena Williams, who asked her: “Does she stand by her statement, ‘It is my view that New Zealanders feel safer’; if so, why?” The joke, for those who have better things to do than watch parliament every day, is that exactly that question has been asked of the minister of police by Mark Mitchell. Sixteen times. “I should have taken the shovel off you when I had the opportunity,” Principal Rurawhe sighed as Anderson attempted an impertinent point of order.
Rurawhe had a different sort of intervention to deal with a moment later, as a group of Greenpeace protesters rose in the public gallery, hollered “too many cows”, and unfurled into the chamber banners demanding a “climate election”. The bright pink drapes – and this is not the most important thing, I’ll give you that – really set off the salmon tone of Waititi’s blazer across the hall.
The real parliamentary battle these last months has not been the Chris-off, but the exchanges between Nicola Willis and Grant Robertson, and so it was yesterday. “Confidence is rising, spring is coming – the member should cheer up,” said the finance minister in response to a foreboding probe from his counterpart.
“Will he,” Willis asked, “once the dust is cleared and the election campaign is over, join me as the founding members of the Johnsonville amateur dramatic society, with a successful local performance of the 1998 young adult novel Holes?”
Robertson shuffled through his papers and brandished a printout of a cartoon which depicted Willis peering into a hole as Robertson set about toppling her in. “I don’t want to be in an amateur dramatic society. But I do think we could certainly re-enact this moment from Sharon Murdoch in the Dominion Post yesterday.”
“Is this really the lasting impression that this minister of finance wishes to give, that in the end, he had to resort to putting up cartoons and calling people names because he had left the economy in such a mess?”
“No. I look forward to being back here facing my eighth National Party finance spokesperson, delivering from here more of the professional, dramatic performances.”
Adjournment debates have hosted across the years some of the most extended and distended metaphors you’ll ever hear. This was, I am sorry to report, less than a vintage year, but there were at least a few efforts. Luxon took us to the Dakar Rally, where Labour was a bus that had gone from a shiny coach to an “unrecognisable wreck”, the Greens “on their e-bikes” and TPM in a rocky waka. There was even a cautious joke aimed at Luxon’s likely future coalition partner. “They’re off in their pink van, and it’s been wonderful. They’re travelling the countryside, and David’s reading Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which is a good read, as you well know.”
As for National, “We are sorted, we are united, we have the talent, we have the energy,” said Luxon, and then, quietly, as if he hoped the words would hide inside each other, “and the diversity …” “Diversity!” scoffed Henare across the way, to peals of laughter. “What an amateur!”
“Thank god this is the last sitting day,” said Carmel Sepuloni, before touring the multiplex of politics, likening National’s tax plan to “something out of the film Indiana Jones”, promising “this election will be our Avengers moment”, then lurching into “an iconic scene from The Lord of the Rings”. Barbie got a mention, somehow. So did Mary Poppins. She promised plot twists to come, saying, “to quote the words of Shrek –”
Henare, again: ”Up the Wahs!”
Sepuloni: “No, not ‘Up the Wahs!’, Mr Henare, but ‘Onions have layers, ogres have layers.’” And so, she said, does the National Party.
Robertson, meanwhile, just about made it to the end of his speech before throwing out an analogy. Then he cracked. He was Goldilocks, PM Chippy was Papa Bear. Sepuloni was Mama Bear. And there was a hole in the metaphor. Disappointingly, none of his rivals thought to ask why he’d ram-raided his furry colleagues house and eaten their porridge, and we were left only to imagine Robertson sprinting away down the garden path. He did at least say, at the top of his address: “Up the Wahs!”
“I just wanted to say,” said Waititi, when it was his turn to speak, “as I heard the story about Goldilocks, Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear. I tell you, it’s been very difficult to sit next to a polar bear” – pointing at the empty seat normally filled by Seymour – “and a gummy bear” – gesturing across to Luxon’s seat – “and it’s been quite hard to contain the grizzly bear in me.”
Seymour was in serious mood, railing at Robertson’s “smart-arse routine” and “a government which has taken a divisive approach to almost every single issue”. He said: “We’ll cut waste, we’ll end racial division, and we’ll get the politics out of the classroom.”
James Shaw followed “that contribution from the leader of ‘New New Zealand First’.” He said: “Mr Seymour must be feeling quite grumpy right now, because last term he worked so hard to get rid of Winston Peters so that this term he could become Winston Peters, and now Winston Peters is calling and he wants his Horcrux back because that blackened shard of a soul can only animate the body of one populist authoritarian at once.”
Shaw, who unlike most of the MPs who took to their feet, looked like he was genuinely having a happy last assembly. Among his tributes: “I want to acknowledge our colleagues in Te Pāti Māori. When you called on me to resign, it took me right back home to a Green Party AGM. Thanks, I think.”
Todd Muller did not speak in the adjournment debate – he’d said his piece in a widely lauded, admirably honest, affectingly poignant valedictory address – but he was very much there. The man who very briefly became National leader was singled out by Robertson, who praised his “friend of 30-odd years”, for “your bravery and your courage, over this term of parliament, in speaking up about issues to do with mental health and wellbeing”. Muller touched his hand on his heart. National MP Tama Potaka invoked Muller’s speech and its warning against toxicity. Shaw gave him a shout-out, too, of sorts. National always reverted to pro-pollution policy, “except for Todd Muller”, said Shaw of the man he spend dozens of hours with working through the Zero Carbon bill. “Go Todd!”
Muller was one of just a few that stuck the whole thing out in the chamber. At one point he was urged by colleagues forward from the backbench to the second bench, where he remained, suddenly and strikingly alone, for the final 90 minutes or so. He was visibly breathing it in – his last moments as a member of parliament in that strange and special room.
But a room of bathos, too. The final word went to the speaker. Rurawhe, who had been praised by pretty well everyone across the afternoon, and genuinely, too, rolled off a list of credits, acknowledging the many hundreds of people that keep parliament ticking. The last thank you was to “the number one Warriors fan in parliament, and he’s up there in that sound booth. His name is Colin Pearce.” Concluding the debate, and so the business of the House of Representatives in this the 53rd New Zealand parliament, before throwing to a waiata, the speaker said: “So, mister sound man: Up the Wahs!”