For longer than anyone can remember - indeed, since a Speaker's ruling in 1905 - ''hypocrisy'' has been top of the list of words forbidden to be spoken in Parliament.
An MP could, as the saying goes, cut down a tree and mount the stump to make a speech in favour of conservation, and his foes have never been allowed to call him a hypocrite in the House. So when Prime Minister John Key dropped the H-bomb yesterday, MPs were surprised when Speaker Lockwood Smith let it pass. They were even more surprised when he told them to grow up, harden up and stop being so precious.
Mr Key, fencing with Green co-leader Russel Norman over National's environmental record, accused the Greens of commiserating with jobless miners, while refusing to support new mines which could employ them. ''I call that hypocrisy!''
That Labour's seniors didn't surge to their feet to point out Mr Key's sin was partly because they probably don't mind their electoral rivals being taken down a peg or two, and partly because they'd just handed round a stash of lollies and most were now chewing vigorously.
But Dr Norman did complain about being called a hypocrite - and got somewhat less than he bargained for. Dr Smith reviewed Mr Key's exact wording and ruled that saying a particular position was hypocrisy was not the same thing as saying the holder of the position was a hypocrite.
As MPs on all sides virtually manifested overhead thought-bubbles with ''Eh?'' in them, Dr Smith was forced to elaborate. It was like the distinction the House made between someone who had inadvertently given Parliament the wrong information and someone who had deliberately misled it, he said. A person could give the wrong information without actually being a liar. And one could hold conflicting positions on something without being a hypocrite.
When both mystification and dissent intensified, Dr Smith grew irascible.
''Sometimes we should toughen up a little,'' he exclaimed. ''For goodness sake, we're grown up. I don't want to be ruling out more words. This is a robust place. [Dr Norman] accused the various government ministers of all sorts of things. Now, I'm not going to prevent ministers from using pretty robust language in return.'' Dr Smith was mulish in the face of more than 100 years of parliamentary precedent for banishing the H-word in all its permutations. ''That might be the case, but I'm not going to go back on my ruling, though. You know, I'm not! Because if I was accused of that [hypocrisy] I wouldn't lose too much sleep over it.
''For years we've heard members getting all upset over words of very little serious damage . th. th. this is a robust place. This is so pathetic, that we all get worked up about whether a position might appear to be hypocritical. That is just childish stuff.''
Labour's Clayton Cosgrove said, with a simmering menace he reserves for exchanges with Dr Smith, that MPs were only asking for clarity and consistency from the Speaker.
''I thank the member for that,'' Dr Smith said tartly.
''I think I've given reasonable clarity for people with reasonable intellect.''
There was nothing else for it but to give the newly decriminalised word a test-drive. Labour's Grant Robertson proceeded with great relish to ask Mr Key about the hypocrisy of John Banks' conduct with respect to Kim Dotcom - and with that, more than a century's taboo melted away.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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