7 Jul 2021

Comedy stylings and slap-downs: a debating tradition 

From The House , 6:55 pm on 7 July 2021

Parliament is a dour place sometimes. MPs mostly discuss crises, tragedies and serious issues. It doesn’t pay to insert humour into many of the discussions taking place in the House.

Despite that Parliament is funny more often than you might expert. Often on purpose.

Especially during the General Debate which takes place after Question Time every sitting Wednesday.

National Party MP Shane Reti speaking in the General Debate

Shane Reti in a previous General Debate outing Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

General Debates can be pretty raucous. Especially early on. A rowdy clutch of speeches with no limits on topic and looser rules generally invite some fun.

As the debates progress they tend to get both more polite and quieter; but the first few speeches (always from more senior MPs) are as close as Parliament gets to a political knees-up.

The General Debate is a place where MPs place their party’s stake in the ground, make a case for a personal or electorate cause, and sometimes advance careers with a sheer capacity for oratory.

And the best House oratory is often built (at least in part) around humour - the better to keep the audience focussed. 

Basically, General Debate speeches vary widely because MPs get to decide how they approach it, what they cover and what to say. The best are impassioned, moving or funny.

We’re focussing on funny because General Debates are Parliament’s main stage for jokes, and the listening MPs lap it up just like the audience at a stand-up comedy event. Like a stand-up audience they are also at constant risk of becoming the target of a joke.

Sometimes they even seem to enjoy speeches from their opponents. Even jokes aimed at them.

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Grant Robertson in full flight (file photo) Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

For example last week Grant Robertson kicked off for Labour with a comedic tale about National’s leadership and collegiality. 

“Now, to get to the origins of this empathetic love note from Chris Finlayson, we need to take ourselves back to last Tuesday evening. Just on 10 p.m., as Andrew Bayly was pulling his slippers on and putting on his Versace night-robe, brewing his extra-strong Milo and getting ready to put his trusted teddy to bed, word came through about an emergency caucus meeting. ‘Good,’ Mr Bayly thought. ‘Finally, Judith is going to get me an oral question.’ But, alas, it was, in fact, not that. It was the ‘Night of the Short Plastic Knives’.”

On that occasion the opposition MPs present genuinely appeared to be enjoying the ride. Even those being lampooned. 

This week’s General Debate gave us a demonstration of a different comedic turn - the slap-down kick-off line. the riposte, the burn.

MPs seem to spend extra time preparing their General Debate speeches but they still follow Parliament’s tradition of improvising at least the opening of a speech - any speech - as a response to the previous speaker. So - for example the first response this week wasChris Hipkins, replying to Judith Collin’s opening speech.

“It was absolutely evident during that contribution that the person most enjoying themselves on the opposite side was one Christopher Luxon, because, when the caucus starts chanting ‘no’ after everything the leader says, you know that it's ‘all on’. And when it comes right before a three-week parliamentary recess, you know that the knives will be out.”

Chris Hipkins in the House

Chris Hipkins going with the flow in a previous General Debate Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Responding to him was National’s deputy leader Shane Reti with a speech focussed on Health - although his opening retort (good as it was) wasn’t a direct response to anything previously said - just a general burn.

“I would like to thank the member, who has resumed his seat, for resuming his seat, because I think if we could un-hear the last five minutes, New Zealand would be a more enlightened place.” 

There isn’t always a look back to the previous speaker. Especially where the previous speaker is from the same party - or where the focus of the speech requires a different focus. For example the speaker after Shane Reti was brimming with energy and launched herself positively into the fray after a few months off unwell - Labour’s Kiri Allan.

“Whilst we're still in the time where Tangaroa rules the moon, it is a time to reflect, and, admittedly, I've had a little bit more time to reflect than some in this House, as I've had the opportunity to take a few months out and I want to acknowledge the House for the support that has been provided. I must say that during that time of reflecting, can I just say how exceptionally excited I felt to be a part of a Government that is united, that is focused, and that is getting down to the real business.”

Kiri Allan saved up her jokes and jibes for later on in her outing.

ACT MP Nicole McKee wears a korowai gifted to her by the Council of Licenced Firearms Owners

Nicole McKee (file photo) used that classic comedy tool - mispronunciation. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

After Kiri Allan ACT party MP Nicole McKee managed a two-fer. A little nice and a little naughty in the opening of her look at firearms administration. She cleverly decided to direct the slap-down further back in the line-up to allow the ‘nice’.

“I'd just like to acknowledge and welcome back to the Whare Kiritapu Allan. It's really great to hear your voice, although I would say, even though you referred to the Hon Chris Hipkins as "working like a mule", I might say rather working like an arse. But there you go.”

The General Debate does one thing the opposite to a rowdy knees-up - it tends to get quieter and more polite as it goes on.

From that point on, alongside some gentle inter-regional competition between MPs for which electorate is the most beautiful (despite them all knowing it’s the East Coast), most speeches omitted the opening jibe, and welcomed the return of their colleague.