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PoliticsJuly 7, 2023

Aotearoa’s greatest parliamentary insults

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Gabi Lardies digs into the Hansard indexes to bring you the best phrases of ‘unparliamentary language’ that time forgot.

I was just a wee lass when I made the lethal mistake of saying “what” instead of “pardon” to my year two teacher. I was fresh off a Boeing 747 and unaware that this was almost as rude as a square word and those are, in fact, swear words. For this indiscretion, I was sentenced to litter duty. I still consider “pardon” to be snooty, old-fashioned and British, and have since adopted other unsightly phrases like “bloody hell”, “what the hell” and “for fuck’s sake.” Mrs Peters is probably turning in her grave.

As in my primary school class, the lexicon allowed in New Zealand parliament’s debating chamber is tightly controlled. From 1933 to 1980, a list of phrases banned by being ruled “unparliamentary” by the speaker was kept. Its maintenance was abandoned as it was eventually decided it should be about about context and menace, not particular words. All “unbecoming” language, insults and accusations of dishonesty are banned. The speaker will deem anything seen to besmirch a member’s honour as unparliamentary.

Still, politicians are nothing if not battling wordsmiths. Recently zingers like “arrogant prick” and “OK Boomer” have grabbed headlines, but many more great insults have been lost to time and the meticulous, but boring, parliamentary archives. I’ve dug around in 90-ish years of debating chamber transcriptions to bring you my top 10, which us civilians can use freely without having to pick up litter afterwards (not that it isn’t a totally cool and fun thing to do.)

‘Hypnotized rabbits’ (1949)

On September 1, 1949, Frederick Doidge of the National Party was getting worked up about the price of gold. In his crusade against the finance minister’s budget, Labour Party members became “half a dozen hypnotized rabbits on the other side”. Unparliamentary!

‘Cheap little twerp’ (1966)

This dagger was directed at Arthur Faulkner, the Labour member for Mt Roskill, who was at the time in opposition. It came from Dean Eyre, the National member for the North Shore on June 29, 1966. Faulkner had been asking why the percentage of GDP set aside for defence had been diminishing and Eyre did not appreciate the line of questioning. Eyre went on to become a much-cited example of former politicians milking the public purse – after his retirement he used rebates to cover $10,000 trips every year and a half, so one might call him a cheap little scab.

Norman Jones, a quacking drake. 

‘The talking duck that keeps on quacking’ (1979)

By 1979, Labour’s Bob Tizard had lost much of his wavy swoop, and what was left was greyed. As deputy leader of the opposition, he was vehemently against a bill at its third reading on July 5, and delivering a soliloquy on “the interests of all the members of the Public Service Investment society”. [Interruption] recorded the Hansard – it was Norman Jones of the National Party with his thick moustache and wild eyebrows. Tizard was vexed, calling him “the talking duck that keeps on quacking”.

“I object to being called a quacking duck,” said Jones, holding onto his masculinity. “I prefer to be called a quacking drake.”

‘Quigley wiggly’ (1980)

On September 16, 1980, Mike Moore, then Labour’s representative for Papanui, had asked Derek Quigley, the National Party minister of housing who sported big, square, wire-rimmed glasses, if he could confirm mortgagee sales had quadrupled during his time as housing minister. Quigley evaded the question, and was promptly called “Quigley wiggly” by Moore.

In his own wiggle against the speaker, Moore said, “I called him a last name.” This did not fly.

‘Such an arrogant prick’ (2022)

Not the most creative insult – and something of a prickly national tradition among our politicians – but gains a place in the top 10 by virtue of coming out of Dame Jacinda’s mouth. In mid December last year, David Seymour asked then prime minister Jacinda Ardern to give an example of “making a mistake, apologising for it properly, and fixing it”. Once done with her reply, she resumed her seat, turned to Grant Robertson, and had a microphone, and the Hansard transcriber, pick up on her insult. 

‘Angry Smurf’ (2010)

A meanie from none other than Paula Bennett. Back in 2010, she brought out “angry Smurf” after a Labour MP questioned the then National government’s “easy approach to managing conflicts of interest”. Just minutes after Smurf-gate, she went on to call Phil Goff an “‘SPM’: a stale, pale male”. A truly quotable woman.

‘Junior weedeater’ (2018)

Winnie Peters, when challenged in 2018 by Chris Penk, a National MP who had been in parliament barely a year, said “nobody gives a rat’s derrière about what you think”, and followed it up with “junior weedeater”. In just a few turns of phrase he served up ample charisma, tying together a fancy European reference and your annoying neighbour on a Sunday morning.

‘Orange roughy’ (2010)

This is the name for a beautifully blushed and rather flat fish in the slimehead family. In March 2010, however, it was used four times in the debating chamber to describe then National MP Sandra Goudie, who did at the time have a feathered orange do. Today, we could broaden it to name anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and contestants on The Masked Singer NZ.

The modern orange roughy on The Masked Singer NZ

‘Rusty Myrtle’ (2017)

In a nation of bush lovers, insults don’t come much harsher than a fungal disease, without known cure, which attacks native trees. This ecological missile was launched at then minister of conservation Maggie Barry by NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell, who was sick of her claiming increased spending in conservation. “What a crock of nonsense!” he started with on June 1, 2017. “‘Rusty Myrtle’ herself, stood up there.”

‘Slug’ (2017)

Sometimes simple is most vicious. Slugs, possibly the most feared and disliked bugs after spiders, are disgusting. Formless and slimy, they come and eat your cabbages under the cloak of darkness. This insult is similarly mysterious in the Hansard records, transcribed as [Interruption] on November 29, 2017. But after a kerfuffle between MPs and the assistant speaker, Iain Lees-Galloway asked, “Could we just clarify to the house that the word ‘slug’ is now unparliamentary?” The sticky insult had been uttered by Ruth Dyson, who, incidentally, was once outed for having smoked illicit cabbage

Special mentions:

“Settle petal”, “a transparent piece of insincerity”, “fungus farmer”, “Mr Wobblyman”, “playing with dentures”, “bring back the brylcreem”, “plonker”, “idle vapourings of a mind diseased”, “silly old moo”, “pipsqueak”, “ridiculous mouse”, and “his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides”. 

If we’ve learned anything here, it is that the debating chamber is truly a beautiful place for insults, if you can manage to listen through worthy monologues and much formality. And, if you’re met with resistance, try “quacking drake” instead. 

Keep going!