First Rule Of Parliamentary Politics - Learn To Count! Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins (Centre) confers with Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and Prime Minister Ardern. Hipkins' mistake - trusting the word of the National Party - is one he will be determined to avoid repeating.
IT WAS A MISTAKE: a serious mistake; a mistake born out of Labour’s naïve readiness to trust the National Opposition. It was, after all, the first sitting of the newly elected House of Representatives. Normally, an occasion for a little bit of pomp and circumstance, when Members of Parliament swear allegiance to the Sovereign, assume their seats, and elect one of their number Speaker of the House. Historically, a day of bi-partisan goodwill; a day for tradition; a day of calm before the House settles into its normal, adversarial, storms.
Not this day.
Clearly, when the Leader of the Opposition, Bill English, told a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government”, Labour’s new Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, refused to take him seriously. Not even English’s parting shot: “we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever”, was explicit enough for Labour to take precautions against an Opposition ambush.
Not on the first day.
Not even when Simon Bridges, National’s “Shadow” Leader of the House, accused Labour of attempting to perpetrate an “unprecedented” erosion of the Opposition’s democratic rights, did Hipkins smell a rat. Why should he, when all he was proposing to do was implement a number of unanimously agreed changes to the rules governing the conduct and membership of Parliament’s select committees?
After all, these same amendments to Parliament’s “Standing Orders” – one of which limited the number of Select Committee members to 96 – had been recommended to the previous House of Representatives by no less a person than the man now proclaiming them to be a democratic outrage – Simon Bridges!
Obviously, this was all about the Opposition giving voice to their frustration. Opposition is never easy and the temptation to rhetorical over-statement is always very strong. English was simply talking tough – that is his job now. And Bridges? Well! Taking his cue from Bill, he was simply pumping-up the rhetoric to bursting point. Hell! Hipkins had done it himself often enough when seated on the Opposition Benches! All this fire and brimstone was being laid on for the benefit of National’s aggrieved voters, still smarting over the election outcome. There was no need for him, or anyone else on the Government’s side of the House, to get excited.
Except, there was.
With the Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters, and the Trade Minister, David Parker, both out of the country, and three more Government members absent from the Chamber, Hipkins was three votes shy of a majority on the Floor of the House. No matter, the only important business of the day was the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker of the House, with National’s Anne Tolley as his deputy. All parties had been consulted, and all parties were agreed. The vote was a mere formality.
Until Bridges turned it into something else.
They say that the first and most important skill a politician is obliged to master is how to count. Bridges tallied-up the Government numbers and realised that the National Party had command of the Floor. Without a moment’s hesitation he pounced. If Labour wanted Mallard to be Speaker, then they would have to yield to the Opposition on the number of Select Committee members. Instead of 96, Bridges demanded 108. If Hipkins refused, then National would use its temporary command of the House to deny Mallard his heart’s desire – the Speaker’s Chair!
It was a scene of extraordinary drama. Bridges, his face contorted in a rictus of anthropoid belligerence, confronted the beseeching countenances of Hipkins and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. The image will do him no harm – not among his caucus colleagues, anyway. With a single, ruthless stroke of parliamentary gamesmanship, Bridges has seized for himself the priceless mantle of National’s warrior knight.
But at what cost?
Hipkins made the mistake of believing that National would not stoop to turning the opening of Parliament into an ugly display of aggressive partisanship. It’s a mistake he will do everything in his power to avoid repeating.
Bridges, meanwhile, has signalled that National is ready to employ the tactics of the US Republican Party: obstruction without reason; obstruction without purpose; obstruction without end.
In the memorable words of Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 November 2017.