A secret army of people keeps Parliament functioning from behind the scenes. The House elves if you will. Security, librarians, office staff, cleaners, drivers, catering, messengers, maintenance, technical, it’s a long list. There’s even a small day-care centre.
It’s a quieter place on the weekend when the elves in the building are often cleaners, security and tour guides. Yes tour guides.
Parliament has seemingly constant tours of visitors trooping the hallowed corridors nearly every day of the year, shepherded by guides that explain artefacts, point out art, show off architecture and introduce the intricacies of New Zealand’s political system.
And it’s free. Your tax dollars at work.
The heightened security in the wake of the Christchurch attacks put public tours on hold for two weeks, so we took advantage of the break and organised a tour for radio. You can listen to a few highlights at the link above.
They are literally only a few of the highlights. The tour is both fun and fascinating and there’s a lot more of interest around Parliament than you might imagine.
We couldn’t go onto the floor of the House (where tours usually spend time), but we spent some time in the Speaker’s Gallery looking down on the combat zone from above. Guides, Jennifer Looman and Janet Herbertson were fonts of knowledge with a deep understanding of both parliamentary practice and our constitutional arrangements.
Partly, they put that down to years of strange but interesting questions from tourists from very politically diverse countries.
In the 1st floor foyer of Parliament House (often referred to as “The Tiles” because of its checkerboard floor), we met another tour, because this is New Zealand and even when there is heightened security and armed police at the doors, those doors are wide open for school children.
It’s here that you often see video of MPs talking to reporters. It's the obvious place to record interviews because it has the very worst acoustics of the entire precinct (possibly excluding the toilets). But when MPs are being interviewed here it's usually even worse.
Among the most common questions the guides get from visitors ‘on the Tiles’ are about "that bell" that always seems to be blaring in the background of all the interviews. It’s called the Division Bell and is a clarion to MPs to hurry to the House. It rings for seven straight minutes before 2pm, which is exactly when the MPs are giving those interviews on their way to Question Time.
It’s also used to call MPs to the chamber on the odd occasion when there is to be a conscience vote - when MPs vote in person rather than as a party.
Another foyer that features on the tour is one that most people don’t know about. It’s the front entrance to the Library building (and was once the main entrance to Parliament). It was built to impress and does. Built in a medieval gothic revival style and festooned with more decoration than a show-off’s wedding cake, it’s a pretty place. I swear I saw Dumbledore waft by.
It's not just the foyer that's grand though, the whole Parliamentary Library is great, including the actual library; a truly beautiful space that wouldn't be out of place as a corner of Oxford's Bodleian.
The gothic reading room soars to an ornate timbered roof, like a church for books. It says 'find a cosy nook, a good book and a cup of cocoa'. There is sadly no cocoa but there is an army of librarians and researchers - quite possibly Wellington's most fiendish quiz team.
And one last snapshot of the tour...
Most of Parliament's walls feature an incredible collection of New Zealand art. But there are also a LOT of portraits and photos of politicians. Speakers corridor features portraits of all of New Zealand's Prime Ministers (and earlier incarnations of the same idea). Walking down that corridor until they aren't familiar is a good way to remember your age.
They're quite a line-up the (often) old, (always) white, and (until very recently) all male rulers of the land. And almost always with extraordinary facial hair, especially in the early days. The portraits of by-gone MPs are, as the tour guides say, a "history of haircuts".