There are so many issues facing the nation but one rises above them all. Madeleine Chapman goes on a quest to find the worst seat in the House.
Members of parliament spend a lot of time sitting in their assigned seat in the debating chamber of New Zealand’s House of Representatives. In 2018, there are 93 scheduled sitting days. For MPs low on the list, that’s 651 hours spent sitting in a seat that is, by all objective measures, pretty terrible. Imagine if your job was to watch concerts at the Town Hall every day except your seat was behind a pillar. That’s what it’s like for the low-ranking MPs on sitting days.
So whose seat is not just bad, but the actual worst? There can only be one and I was determined to find out.
First, here’s the seating plan as at 17 October 2018. It’s that recent because it had to be updated with Jami-Lee Ross’s move to the naughty corner. The easy answer would be to say that Ross has the worst seat. He’s certainly in the worst position – in every sense – of any politician this year. But I didn’t want the easy answer, I wanted the truth. They don’t call me the Acting Deputy Assistant Political Editor for nothing.
Campbell Smith is a talent manager and music promoter. He has staged festivals like Big Day Out and Auckland City Limits, as well as put on tours for the likes of Sol3 Mio. Smith knows how to price a seated arena.
I visited Smith at his office in Morningside and presented my venue. He stared at it in silence for a few moments. “So where’s the stage?”
It was a good question and one that needed answering. We deliberated and agreed that though “The Table” was the expected space for a stage, the headliners performed from the front rows.
“These ones will be taken by VIPs,” he said, circling the front benches. “They might be part of packages where you get a ticket and a meet and greet.” He was right. Of everyone in the room, those in the first row would be most likely to get face time – a meet and greet – with the prime minister or the leader of the opposition. That front row, from Peters to Woods, Bennett to Guy, that’s Gold Class. “But these ones here are unsellable because they’re behind the stage,” Smith went on, circling the six seats occupied by NZ First list MPs. “Everyone pays for their tickets but these ones were probably given for free to friends of the band.”
It was an accidental roast from Smith but I snatched it gleefully. What are the NZ First List MPs if not friends of the one man band that is Winston Peters?
“But I suppose this set up is a bit different because the stage is more -” Smith was about to change the pricing areas but I cut him off. I’d already written the NZ First joke in my head and I wasn’t going to let him ruin it.
I called Jenny Marcroft, ninth on the list at NZ First and occupying the farthest corner behind the stage, to give her the news. She had the worst seat in parliament.
She didn’t take it well.
“In the event of an earthquake I’m first out the door.”
A surprising defence from Marcroft, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And she wasn’t done.
“What is really good about my spot is the prime minister walks past me every day as she leaves the House and I always get to say hello.”
“Do you high five her?”
“We do eyebrow high fives.”
I wasn’t convinced but Marcroft was insistent and eager to point my search in another direction. “The worst seating is right at the back, opposite the speaker. That’s the wilderness.”
I set off into the wilderness, jumping over logs, ducking under gorse, entering new dimensions, before finally getting to Duncan Webb’s seat. Webb is the Labour MP for Christchurch Central and the only MP in government who sits on the same side as the Opposition. His seat is in the back row with the sergeant-at-arms on one side and two empty seats on the other. When Campbell Smith saw Webb’s seat, he was horrified.
“He’s got a shit seat. He’s on the wrong side, he’s alone, he’s got the cops sitting beside him so he can’t even have a joint while he’s watching.”
I called Webb to once again share the bad news. He had the worst seat in parliament.
“My seat is awesome for numerous reasons.”
There was a trend forming among politicians with crappy seats: denial.
“If you sit there, you’re the first person to be moved when someone’s not there. So I almost always sit up in the main block, right behind Jacinda. In fact, even though I am the lowest ranked on the Labour List who got into parliament, I get to sit way above all of the other backbenchers.”
This did admittedly sound like a good deal to me. But then I remembered when I was seven years old and my dad would let me sit in the driver’s seat with him and ‘drive’ the car. I felt pretty special compared to my teenaged siblings who weren’t allowed to drive yet but then we got home and I had to go to bed while everyone else watched a movie. Webb’s assigned seat is his own childhood bedroom, is what I’m trying to say.
“You get to listen to all the gossip from all the National Party MPs who essentially forget that you’re there. It’s a prime sitting spot.”
He was relentless in his defence. Every con I presented, he turned into a pro, like a true politician. Right at the back? No one will notice if you fall asleep. No neighbours? You can spread out and lounge. Not able to smoke a joint because you’re next to the cops? “Not being able to smoke a joint didn’t spring to mind when I first got your message but I suppose you’re right.”
He wasn’t going to admit to even having a bad seat, let alone the worst one, and was quick to offer an alternative. “Anyone towards the back but not quite the back, right in that backbenchers block there.” Why? “If you really needed to go to the toilet, it’s a real squeeze getting out.”
There are 31 MPs occupying “that backbenchers’ block” who would have to squeeze by someone on their way to the bathroom. All their seats are bad but I needed one to represent them, much like … a politician … represents … their electorate. I chose Erica Stanford. She sits four rows back but not in the back row, and is within earshot of Webb so has surely been spied on by the Labour MP. She’s also smack bang in the middle of the row.
I had finally found the worst seat in parliament. Surely she had no rebuttal.
“Worst seats in the house are those in the aisle,” she said, as my head fell onto my keyboard. “Great for skipping out for a bathroom break but also dangerous when speaking.” She linked to a Youtube clip of an MP stumbling off his perch while speaking.
“I can heckle the opposition during question time and not get pulled up by Speaker Mallard because he can’t see or hear me.” I assumed she meant “heckle the government” because she is part of the opposition. “There’s still a row of people behind me so I don’t look like I’m right at the bottom of the list.” Finally someone mentioned the social implications of an upper bowl seat. And someone was finally about to mention Trevor Mallard’s hearing.
“Any seat on the speaker’s left is great. Speaker Mallard is partially deaf in his left ear and doesn’t always hear objections on that side.” So by that logic, the worst seat had to be on the side of the government, Stanford confirmed.
“Anyone in NZ First in the aisle. Close to the speaker and on his good ear side and at risk of falling in the aisle.”
Who was from NZ First and in the aisle? Jenny Marcroft.
I was Frodo and the worst seat in the House was Mordor.
I had spent days, weeks, years on this and all it got me was right back to the beginning. I finally knew what it was like to work in politics. I didn’t know how anyone could do it. So I found someone who no longer had to.
Peter Dunne sat in a lot of seats throughout his political career. From the backest of benches to the front row of the opposition – a VIP – Dunne knows them all. And he knows which ones sucked the most.
“I think the worst seats are way up the back because you’re so far away from the action. It’s difficult to attract attention if you want to get the call and you’re pretty much a spectator at that point. And it’s better to be in a pair. If you’re on your own … it’s a loneliness thing, in a way.”
It sounded like he was describing Duncan Webb’s seat. I told him there was a Labour MP sitting to the left of the speaker, in the last row, next to the sergeant-at-arms and two empty seats. He was firm in his response.
“Yes that would be the absolute worst seat, I think. Very hard to make an impact from there.”
The bowtie had spoken. Duncan Webb occupies the worst seat in the House. But he doesn’t have to. Dunne had some life changing advice for Webb.
“Seats are on a seniority basis and for new MPs it’s alphabetical. So I’d suggest he change his name to Arnold Aardvark.”
Sincere condolences to Duncan Aardvark-Webb, you officially have the worst seat in the House. The good news is, the only way to go is up. Or rather, down, as in, come down out of the shadows where you currently sit.
Next time you find yourself watching Parliament TV by accident, spare a thought for Duncan Webb. You won’t see him (don’t be silly), but he’ll be there, working hard in the darkness, hoping to one day rise up and out of the worst seat in parliament.