I took a Social Studies class on a trip to Parliament. I have never been on a tour of Parliament before. Some of the students grumbled that they had already been to Parliament, but when we got there they seemed to enjoy themselves. We had the good fortune to be taken into the gallery during question time. I say “good fortune” because otherwise it would have just been a room with a lot of chairs in it, and I doubt the students would have really understood what happened in that room without some bickering politicians.
I have to say that the chamber is a lot more intimate than I had imagined. When it gets down to it, democracy in this country is a very personal affair: a bunch of people in a fairly small room arguing with each other. It helped to raise the students’ interest to: (a) see people they recognised from TV, (b) hear quite a bit of shouting, and (c) have some random member keep interjecting with the word “marijuana” into Tony Ryall’s response. Principally the portion of question time we saw was Cosgrove’s questions being fairly effectively swatted by Key.
Up in the gallery were a handful of ordinary folk, my class, and a class from Samuel Marsden (a private girls’ school). When Prime Minister Key delivered his best line of the day (his MPs dutifully cheering), all of the Samuel Marsden girls clapped and cheered. Shortly afterwards they were told off by one of the gallery staff. Mind you, I was told off for not having a jacket. Apparently men in the gallery must wear a jacket. Nevermind that I was wearing a shirt and tie. Seems a rather elitist and undemocratic rule to me, but given it was my first visit in 38 years I didn’t quibble and dutifully pulled on the oversize suit jacket.
Back out of the gallery and downstairs Gerry Brownlee ambled past an antiquated lift while the guide showed us a bust of Kate Sheppard. A few months ago when I was writing about 1981 I discovered a little article about the man who had operated that lift through the 70s and into the 80s, and I had hoped very much that it was still running. It is, although it is unmanned now.
In the Parliamentary Library students asked if there were any ghosts, and one girl said – staring in awe at the ornate capitals of the columns – “this must be how rich people live”. We were assured that there were ghosts and then left to see the wooden elephant the Thai government gave to Holyoake. “If you rub its head it is supposed to bring good luck.” We lined up to rub its head. A security guard managed to look bemused although I imagine he sees dozens of tourists do the same thing every day.
We thanked our guide and left. Outside it was hot and sunny. A man in a Rugby World Cup SUV waved at the girls, and a black sedan with a Chinese flag flapping on the bonnet swooped up the drive to Parliament and past us. We went down to the bus stop at the train station. “We’re on Wellington Girls’ territory,” my class told me nervously. After some tense moments we managed to get on a bus safely unmolested by any of the perilous packs of decile 10 girls roaming the streets of Thorndon.