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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Saturday, August 8, 1925. p. 8 — Peeps at Parliament: A Search for Twopence-Halfpenny — Mysteries of Finance

The Dominion, Saturday, August 8, 1925. p. 8
Peeps at Parliament: A Search for Twopence-Halfpenny — Mysteries of Finance

"I move that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee of Supply." Businesslike sort of ring about that, isn't there? Mr. Speaker, whom, deep down in my own private mind, I have christened "The Tempestuous Petticoat," carefully adjusts his iron-grey wig, and, like the Mace, goes into hiding—but, unlike the Mace, not underneath the table.313 Mr. Young, Chairman of Committees, takes possession of the big, leather-upholstered armchair usually occupied by a most important-looking personage in a kind of black dressing gown, and the game is afoot. The Opposition, at least, seem to find it a very amusing game—a sort of political catch-as-catch-can.

But before we start talking about the Opposition—they're always there when anyone wants—or doesn't want—them, let's try, in our hopelessly unsophisticated and unparliamentary way, to get some kind of shadowy idea as to the nature of the day's proceedings. The true Financial Debate, as you're aware if you've been conscientiously reading the newspapers, came to an idea on the night before last. About time, too. It was pretty far gone in senile decay. The afternoon that I'm at present painstakingly endeavouring to discuss is rightly supposed to be spent in consideration and, if we're really uncannily lucky, in the passing of the first item of the proposed expenditure. That is to say, the first item of the Estimates. Sounds all right if you say it quickly, doesn't it?

But the truth of the matter, as far as an onlooker can perceive it, seems to be that on this occasion—and for the matter of that, on most others—anyone can get up and chat peacefully away about any mortal matter that he chooses to mention, so long as it has some distant connection with what he thinks the finances of the country ought or oughtn't314 to be. Thus, if Mr. Jordan thinks that the Government really might have arranged, in a friendly sort of way, some trifling little subsidy for a wireless station to be erected on Mount Eden with the purpose of allowing citizens of Auckland to hold social intercourse with the more heavenly bodies every Sunday evening, he is quite at liberty to arise and say so. And then Mr. Holland, Mr. Fraser, Mr. Sullivan, and Mr. Lee—we mustn't forget Mr. Lee—will all get up, one after the other, just like—I was going to say sheep, but I suppose I oughtn't to—and point out the entire reasonableness, moderation and justice of the hon. member's little requests, and the Government's shameless inhumanity in refusing to give ear to them. Just like that.

But for reasons of our own we have decided, temporarily at least, to give the Labour-Socialists a rest. They need it. Rest is simply splendid for the nerves (you know, the things that old-fashioned people call bad temper), the mind, the digestion, the political indigestion, and so forth. A hundred years' sleep, now, would work wonders.

So let's cast our eye around into every Parliamentary nook and cranny, until finally, in the chaste seclusion of the Nationalist benches, we discover Mr. Sidey. Mr. Sidey is, at the moment, the strong hand, stout heart, and in control of the Wilford-Nationalists. Mr. Wilford is absent through indisposition I believe.315

But to come back to Mr. Sidey—who has been left outside all this time, shivering with cold and excitement. As you all know (or ought to, if you're really good and patriotic citizens), the Budget, each session, is prepared and read by the Minister of Finance. But Mr. Nosworthy, who, through the illness of Mr. Downie Stewart, has taken on his shoulders the very heavy weight of the Finance portfolio, is a new and, as he himself put it, "green" Minister of Finance, and the Budget which is at present undergoing much "unjust, ungenerous, unkind, untrue" criticism, is his first and—I'm sure he hopes—his last effort of the kind. This is altogether too good for Mr. Sidey to miss. Carefully, with an infinitude of toil and trouble,316 he went through the minor details of the Budget, in a really noble effort to find tuppence-ha'penny missing. Can't you imagine Mr. Sidey, with relays of wet towels plastered over his fevered brow, sitting up till an altogether unchristian hour in the morning, totting up columns of figures, and murmuring in a plaintive little voice, "Dear, oh dear, I can't make these figures come out wrong." No wonder that Mr. Sidey looked somewhat out of curl when at last, with the missing tuppence-ha'penny clasped firmly in his mind, he faced the House, and, in tired but triumphant tones informed the startled Government that its Minister of Finance might be fair enough at reading and writing, but knew nothing whatever about 'rithmetic.317 And then, at the very end of the afternoon, when floods of excited conversation had all but overwhelmed the Government benches, the Minister of Finance calmly produced the missing tuppence ha'penny from his trouser pocket, and dismissed M. Sidey with the kindly admonition that he really ought to be sure of his facts before he spoke quite so emphatically.

This brings us to another little matter. After members in general have turned the financial pockets of the Budget inside out, and, incidentally, found that no odd threepenny bits have somehow slipped through the lining, they are still at liberty to agree to disagree with the first item of the expenditure. This total disapproval is expressed by a motion, moved, in this case, by the unquenchable Mr. Sidey, to reduce the proposed expenditure by five pounds.318 It's not, if you understand me, that the Opposition believes that the country is short of a fiver, or, if it were, that it couldn't beg, borrow, or lawfully confiscate one, but simply that the aforementioned Opposition wishes to express its unmeasured contempt for the Government's financial policy. A vote, therefore, is solemnly taken on the point of whether the Government shall, or, on the other hand, shall not have its pocket-money docked to the extent of five pounds. Ridiculous, isn't it?

However, the long, sad story had a happy ending. The Government kept its five pounds and its dignity. Mr. Sidey was reassured concerning the little matter of his tuppence ha'penny. I say nothing whatever about his dignity. The Minister of Finance came through his ordeal without loss of life or limb.

Some few Governments have a future; every one of them has a past—lurid, murky, or blameless, just according to which side is talking about it. The present Government's past is—strictly according to Socialist-Labour—only one shade lighter than its present. Once, then, in the very long ago, the Government, out of the kindness of its heart, decided that the Pensions Department in Auckland was inconveniently situated for the old and infirm, and therefore purchased other buildings, in the heart of Queen Street, to take their place. This was all very well. But for some reason or reasons utterly unknown to Socialist-Labour, the Government changed its mind yet again, and made use of other buildings—buildings which, according to our Socialist friends, are an awful example of departmental frightfulness. Mr. Jordan, almost with tears in his eyes, and quite with sobs in his voice, pointed out that his idea was that old-age pensioners should be kept right away from the atmosphere of the courts.319 I think everyone would heartily agree with him in this—and, so thinking, listened in sympathy, expecting to hear that our old-age pensioners were escorted by policemen before bewigged and scowling magistrates, placed in docks and ordered to come along quietly. But Mr. Jordan reassured me. His objection is that the Pensions Department is situated right opposite the magisterial quarters. Seriously, now, don't you think that that's, if not a bit too thick, at least a little too thin? Let me gently remind Mr. Jordan that dozens of perfectly worthy Wellington citizens—perhaps even including in their midst some supporters of the Labour Party—live within full sight of the Terrace Gaol, and, so far, seem none the worse for it.

313 See also Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), p. 40.

314 Dominion: ought'nt.

315 Sidey began the debate on supply; see Hansard 207: 266-67.

316 Cf. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act IV, scene i, lines 10-11.

The Witches: Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005).

317 Sidey noted that there was £150,000 not properly accounted for in the £29,000,000 estimate for the year (Hansard 207: 267).

318 The motion to reduce the supply (by £4) was actually proposed by Monteith (Hansard 207: 292).

319 Jordan said that "[t]he place the [Pensions] Department had now was away up at the top of a hill, in a side street, and it was a great hardship to the pensioners having to go there, as there were no public conveyances going near the place" (Hansard 207: 269). Hansard does not record any reference to the Pensions Department being located near the courts.