The Dominion, Friday, September 25, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: The Indiscretion of Mr. Corrigan — A Mare's Nest Becomes a Hornet's Nest
"The thing is to explain absolutely nothing, and to look as much of a silly ass as nature will let you."
—A Minister of the Crown.495
"You see," said the Minister, balancing a cup of tea and a ham sandwich with all the skill of a trained acrobat (all Ministers have to be something of the kind, haven't they?), the "point is this: You have a Bill to bring before the House. That's all right. Some member of the Opposition asks you to explain the fine points of your Bill. That, also, is all right. You start off on a detailed explanation of your Bill. Halfway through your speech, you glance across and see this looking at you and running its fingers through its hair." (Here followed an alarmingly life-like representation of a certain energetic member of the Labour Party.)496 "By the time you've finished your explanations (half an hour wasted) the whole Opposition wants to get up and talk, not about your Bill, nor yet about your explanation, but about your split infinitives and the way you part your hair. The consequence is that your Bill doesn't get home till morning. The best policy is to sit tight, never explain anything, and look as much like a silly ass as nature will let you. After a bit the Opposition won't bother to ask you questions. They'll just take it for granted that you know absolutely nothing about anything—and then perhaps you'll be able to get on with your work."
We nodded sympathetically, understanding, at last, the reason for that singularly blank and uncomprehending expression which so often dawns upon the face of a Cabinet Minister when hotly pursued by the trained bloodhounds of the Opposition. But we were more than a little amused, at a later date, to see precisely the same policy of passive resistance brought into play by a member of the Opposition, who, for his sins, was requested to explain himself and his altogether unfounded statements by no less a personage than our Minister of Education.497
We have a dim recollection of having heard, perhaps in a previous existence, that our Minister of Education originally intended to become a school teacher, but was deflected from his purpose and persuaded to enrol himself in what is, according to our Opposition, the Legion of the Politically Lost—that is, our present Government. But we have a kind of feeling in our bones that the Minister of Education, efficient though he is in his present capacity, would, had he not been called to higher things, have made an excellent—what's the masculine equivalent for school-marm—is it pedagogue? At any rate, Mr. Corrigan, honourable member for Patea, put his hands behind his back when the Minister (who is also in charge of the Justice Department) arose, and looked as if he wished he hadn't been quite such a bad boy. As a general rule, the Minister of Education seems to our inexperienced eyes and ears an easy-going and, considering his trials, a remarkably good-tempered gentleman, but it appeared on the present occasion that he had learned by heart the sound but somewhat painful old maxim "Spare the rod and spoil the child."498 For full fifteen minutes he stood and talked to Mr. Corrigan just like a father—the kind of father who keeps a slipper concealed (for the time being) behind his back. Speaking in a strictly metaphorical sense, the member for Patea was soundly spanked, stood in a corner, sent supperless to bed, and informed that he'd better not let the Minister of Education catch him at it again.
And what, may you ask, had poor Mr. Corrigan been doing to draw down such vials of Ministerial wrath upon his sinful head? Well, it's all a very sad story. Mr. Corrigan has committed the grievous Parliamentary crime of being found out.
Somewhere up in the North Countree dwells a landowner, who, while having absolutely no connection with the Minister of Education, rejoices (more or less) in the same surname as that bestowed upon that honourable member. It appears that someone has actually induced the Government to think about starting out, some day, and constructing a new railway. The consequence is that the hundred acres or so owned by the lucky individual in our story (or perhaps we ought to say in Mr. Corrigan's "scoop") will eventually, if the Government doesn't change its mind, be cut up and sold at a substantial profit. Here's where all the trouble begins. One day, early in the present session, the member for Patea happened to pass this land in a train. Somebody pointed it out to him, and idly remarked that it was owned by a fortunate gentleman of the name of Parr. What more could Mr. Corrigan want? Within the week—almost within the hour—the House listened, appalled, to a harrowing story of the corrupt and nefarious practices of a member of this wicked Government—aye, even a member of that soi-disant saintly bard, our Cabinet Ministers, until even the Minister of Education himself assumed a dazed, half-hopeful expression, as if wondering whether, after all, there was something in the statements of the member for Patea, and he, the Minister, was liable at any moment to wake up and find himself the possessor of ill-gotten millions.499 As for the rest of the Cabinet—well, perhaps it's all our imagination when we say that they looked perfectly green with envy.
But alas, the brightest illusions, even those conjured up by Mr. Corrigan, must fade, and the Minister of Education awoke, bitterly disappointed, to find himself the possessor of the mere thousand or so which inevitably accompanies his Ministerial office. This, naturally, was enough to make anyone cross, and the consequence was that the Minister was put to the painful necessity of asking Mr. Corrigan publicly to withdraw his statements. Mr. Corrigan, seeing his beloved "scoop" vanish, like the Minister's ill-gotten millions, into thin air, reluctantly did as he was told, and we, being inexperienced in the matter, fondly imagined that no more would be said, or even thought, about the matter.500 But, as election time drew near, Mr. Corrigan, deciding that he must find something to amuse and interest those fractious children, his electors, distributed among them entertaining little pamphlets containing those impassioned, playful, witty, moving, and in every case brilliant speeches with which the honourable member has so often delighted the House. (Only, at the time, we happened to be out of the Ladies' Press Gallery.)
This was all very nice, and kept fathers of families from descending to the level of bad temper when their breakfast bacon was burned. Who, may we ask, would think of cavilling about the mere mundane details of life when he had, for his delectation, copies of the speeches delivered by the honourable member for Patea? Among them (just by accident, as it were) was that speech which had originally been calculated to put the fear, if not of Providence, at least of Mr. Corrigan, into the heart of our Minister for Education. By some regrettable little oversight, no mention was made of the fact that the allegations had since been denied. Nothing was mentioned either of the fact that Mr. Corrigan had been forced to admit that his charges were unfounded. The consequence is that the good wives and the more or less average husbands of Patea are all agog with excitement over the duel to the death between their honourable member and "that there Minister of Education." Then somebody went and spoiled the fun by telling the Minister all about it, and he, quite unappreciative of the fact that all's fair in love and elections, arose and wanted to know the reason why. You know, these Ministers are like children in a way: always asking questions—most of which you can't answer.
But after all, as we have already intimated, things might have been worse. Mr. Corrigan saved the situation—his situation—by adopting a policy of masterly inactivity, and knowing nothing—absolutely nothing, Your Honour, 'swelp me—about the whole matter. He couldn't understand, really he couldn't, how ever he came to make such a mistake, and how, what was very much worse, the knowledge of said mistake came to the ears of the Minister for Education.501 In other words, he "explained nothing—absolutely nothing, and looked as much like…"—well, he carried out the second part of the programme to the best of his undoubted ability. But it just shows us, doesn't it, how very easy it is for a mare's nest suddenly and without warning to turn into a hornet's nest. We're willing to wager that it will be a very long time before Mr. Corrigan permits himself to be "stung again."
495 Hyde later mentioned that she was on good terms with some M.P.s and that the "gentlest of them" took her "to the little tea-room of the House and poured tea and information into her" ("The Author of 'Journalese', A Talk with Robin Hyde, New Zealand's Young Writer," Australian Woman's Mirror, June 25, 1935, National Library Ms77-067-7/28.
498 Cf. Proverbs 13 v.24.
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
500 See Corrigan's personal explanation (Hansard 207: 201-02).
501 Corrigan said that he was "very sorry that the Minister has taken exception to the circulation of these speeches….I will certainly, on every platform in my electorate, give out the withdrawal of the charge if necessary" (Hansard 208: 574).