Herding MPs challenge when whip comes down

Late one evening in Parliament, during the Budget debate, which is the opposition's prime time to take the government to task, I suddenly found, as opposition whip, that my next speaker wasn't in his seat ready to take the call.

The preceding government speaker has suddenly decided to sit down after speaking for only five minutes of his allotted 30; it was a carefully sprung trap. My tired and elderly colleague had gone home early having been told by the government whip that he would not be needed to speak that night, as his government man would see the time out with his own speech. Silly Jack. He should have known better than to trust the other side's whip, who, by springing this trap, immediately saw the chance to bring the whole 16-day debate to a very early end.

"Don't panic," I told myself as I stood to fill the speaking gap. It was the only Budget speech ever to begin with the words, "Where the f...'s Jack?"

"Order, order" harrumphed the Speaker from his chair. "Does the opposition whip wish to take the call?"

He had no option and totally unprepared, filled the breach left by tired Jack. "Yes, Mister Speaker, somewhat reluctantly, I do, and I totally oppose this Budget. I know that many of my colleagues sitting around me have put up some watertight arguments against it." As I spoke I was pleading for this information, beckoning with my hands to colleagues, to help me fill the remaining 20 minutes of my speech. By now all those MPs in the chamber could easily see my predicament, and joined in the fun with gusto. "Give in, Michael, you know you agree with this Budget," they laughed. It was Roger Douglas's first Budget and in fact I did agree with the guts of it, but as we were in opposition we were opposing it. Slips of paper began appearing on my desk with useful facts I could use. Twenty minutes later I was very relieved to hear the Speaker call the end of the day by saying those wonderful words, "The time has come when I should leave the chair."

The parliamentary term "whip" comes from the English House of Commons and refers to the fox hunting when "whippers in" kept the pack of hunting hounds all moving in the same direction. Parliamentary whips do much the same with MPs. They are voted into these positions by their caucus colleagues, not appointed by the leader. I felt honoured to do the job for four years.

Now we have both government whips located in this area. Well done Tim Macindoe and Louise Upton on your recent elevation to these integral roles in Parliament. Tim, your former life as a teacher will be an asset. You will have the job of making sure our democratic system works as well as possible.

At the end of my four years whipping, two in government and two in opposition, I could truly say that, despite the ructions, the verbal abuse [and occasional physical], our democratic system does actually work; although it is sensible that the distance between the two opposing front benches in Parliament's debating chamber is maintained at two sword lengths.

The whips' only power is that given to it collectively by their caucus mates, who want to see Parliament run as smoothly as possible and will submit to the whips' methods for achieving that. The Green Party has decided, collectively of course, that the term "whip" was too harsh and they call their whips "musterers"; how politically correct; how soppy!

The main task for government whips is to ensure that their leader can always rely on a majority in the House for any vote that is called. Only twice during my term did we go to our leader, Rob Muldoon, and tell him a vote would fail.

Like the current whips we operated, in the mid-1980s, with a majority of only one vote. Our first job each sitting day was to physically sight each member of caucus or talk to them on the phone. In those days, after the doors had been locked, each vote needed the physical appearance of every member in the voting lobbies. The bells rang for five minutes to warn all of them that a vote was imminent. I can recall the anguish on Bill Birch's face when it appeared against the outer glass of those locked doors. He had been doing an interview with some radio station in an entirely insulated room, and subsequently didn't hear the bells. The fact that no-one thought to tell him was suspicious.

Many will recall Mike Minogue, Member for Hamilton West and former mayor of this city. He was always a free thinker and on several occasions when it came to a division, he tactically used his vote. I enjoyed his approach to parliamentary life, even if, on occasions, he caused me severe headaches. I used to go up and visit him in his far-flung office and he'd welcome me with the question, "Are you here as a friend or a whip?" If it was as a friend he'd proffer a glass of Irish whiskey.

Being an opposition whip is much more fun. Although your face is against the political window glass, looking in, your role is keeping the opposition of government measures up to scratch. It is much more challenging.

I hope Tim doesn't find himself in a similar predicament as I did with the absent Jack, but I am sure he would meet the challenge.