Parliament does not exist

by Don Franks

For a couple of years, when I was a little kid, I got a big buzz out of going to church.

Bottom picture MPs voting on pay rise Thanks to Brian Edwards' blog for picture
Top: usual day at parliament. Below: MPs voting on pay rise
Picture from Brian Edwards’ blog

Before you set off there was the Sunday call of bells and ritual of dressing in your best and brushing your shoes and hair which, all combined, made you feel a bit important.

Then, when you walked in the door of God’s house, you entered another special little world of sounds and sights.

St Albans always had a good organist; for some years it was Bruce Greenfield, which gives you an idea of the standard. Audible from outside, the organ music paved the way for its companion sensations.

Our local Anglican church was small, dark, heavy-beamed, with sunlight beaming red and gold through the leadlights.

The distinctive church smell combined fresh flowers, old hymn books and various worshippers’ perfumes. At the stage of the service when the candles were extinguished, their distinctive smokey scent took over and prevailed until the end of the service.

The solid, square old hymn tunes appealed to me as well, and I enjoyed joining in the mass intonement of the creed and collect.

However the main appeal of my early church going was, believe it or not, the vicar’s sermon.

The vicar of my childhood wrote his own sermons each week and delivered them in a deep, persuasive voice.

Buffered by an amusing or dramatic anecdote, the basic message was always the same.

Obedience to God and trust in God is the most important thing for people to remember and act on. Trust in God and do what he approves of and everything else will follow.

Home I would go with these injunctions ringing in my ear like the church bell. Each Sunday I resolved anew to lead a truly christian life during the following days of the week.

Children like repetition and reassurance, but they are not silly.

After a while I began to see that there were some inconsistencies in the vicar’s logic. God was so very obviously not the most important thing in the lives of the grown-ups around me.

If something went badly wrong they would never appeal to God for assistance, but would ring the plumber or a doctor or some other human agency.

It also became apparent that some grown-ups who never went near a church were, despite their terrible omission, very nice people.

It took me longer than some of my peers, but I came to realize that the vicar was wrong, and the Almighty God he described to us did not exist.

I’m sure the vicar was sincere in his belief. He and his wife worked hard and enjoyed some popularity in the parish. But their Almighty God was irrelevant.

Why am I sharing this recollection?

I’m drawn to recall my time as a fundamentalist christian because another institution increasingly reminds me of those days: parliamentary elections.

On reflection, they appear to me very similar to our vicar’s Sunday entreaties.

For most of us, over the normal course of life, parliament is a remote, vague presence.

Then, as a general election bears down on us, we are constantly reminded of parliament’s supposed vital importance to us. Our vote is our unique chance to make a difference, to alter our lives and the lives of others for good.

If you want to do the right thing you get out and go down to vote. If you want to get a bit more involved, that’s fine too, just as long as you stick to the rules of the game.

But the main thing is to vote and then hope your vote comes true. If the lot you voted for didn’t get in, well, you can have another go in three years. That’s not an awfully long time.

If the lot you voted for do get in and disappoint you, well, you can make some appeals to them. Write them a letter or visit the electorate secretary, or make an appointment to lobby an MP in their office.

I have done all of those things, some of them quite a few times, each time with the same spectacular lack of success.

Worst of all was being part of a union delegation, beseeching an MP to do something for us.

We would wait and wait until the MP came bustling out, with a perfunctory apology for lateness, “because we’re so busy”. Then, after a few humble words, from our group the obviously impatient MP would again plead more important business and have us ushered out, after promising to “have a look at” our request. What I don’t recall getting from any of these bastards is anything approaching a solid result.

Ah, but if you stand yourself, you could maybe get in and push for whatever you like?

In reality it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a working person to enter New Zealand’s parliament and stand up for their class.

To get in at all , you need to be selected by an established party and entrusted with a safe seat or high list placing. That means kissing a lot of arse and, worse, promising to say whatever your parent party requires you to say.

Let’s say you somehow manage all those hurdles. At the door of the House of Representatives there is a promise you must make, otherwise you can’t come in and be an MP. This is the promise: “I ( your name), swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the second, Her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

So if what you want to advance runs against the wishes of Prince Harry, or his tree-hugging dotty old dad, you can’t advance it.

Of course that’s not the real meaning of the Oath of Allegiance. “Our” oath is about being obedient to the demands of the NZ capitalist state. It will not be long before the archaic wording is altered to make its intention more clear. In whatever wording, the loyal oath remains a trump card which could translate radicalism into treason.

However, the worst thing about parliament, from a left activist point of view, is none of the above. If you can somehow get some change going, it’s worth putting up with a bit of shit isn’t it?

Of course it is.

But in terms of effecting social change, parliament is way down the track. MPs, fearing to offend conservative opinion, tend to legislate social change long after society has already moved.

There are some things MPs tread warily around, and these happen to be the big things.

Manufacturing, trade, investment and banking, all the things that affect our lives most, all of these proceed with the least possible interference from parliament. Such things as employment laws do get hammered out and passed in parliament. On examination, these laws reveal themselves as heavily favouring business interests. On closer examination, these laws may be seen to be flouted regularly, the recent Easter trading farce being only a more visible example.

There are social issues grappled with and put to rights in the parliamentary chamber, like the homosexual law reforms of recent times.

On examination social reforms such as this are legislated years after society has already informally made the changes. In the case of homosexual law reform, many years after.

So yes, changes are signed off in parliament, decisions are made there. Just not the vital economic decisions that make or break employment, threaten work safety, or trash the environment. At the first sign of serious parliamentary disruption to profiteering, bosses just need to cough quietly and say “BUSINESS CONFIDENTIALITY”. And the MPs back off quick. Ask any redundant worker.

For a tiny minority of wealthy citizens, parliament has its uses, which is why corporates make big political donations.

For most of us, parliament is no more relevant to our daily life than church. We may sometimes, in the manner of a prayer, sign a petition or write to an MP. If we really want something, we resort to more certain avenues.

The Beehive’s theatrics are real and serve a purpose of social control, but parliament, as a genuine voice and instrument of the people, does not exist.

The only beneficiaries of parliament are the new priest caste, the MPs. Like their frocked fathers before them, the MPs spread a message of comforting conformity, while the barons go about their grisly business.

Why then do some left activists sincerely seeking social justice continue worshipping before the golden calf?

Further reading:


  1. It’s good to see a genuine left wing analysis at last. Thank you. OTOH I’m not sure we should stop voting, even tho it does seem futile. So many of our ancestors died for a voice; we must not give up our slender gains. The decisions of Parliament are indeed belated and small, but to the extent they affect working people (which is to a great extent) we should continue to try to exercise influence over them.

    • Where we can wrest some small thing from parliament here and there, sure.

      And the best way to do that is without reverence for this ossifying institution.

      Parliament is a process.
      It was born of revolutionary ideas, such as the heresies of Tom Paine.
      It was a part of the struggle against landed property, the struggle against inherited privilege, struggle against racism and the struggle for women’s liberation.
      Parliament is now in the process of becoming a stifling influence on class struggle.

      I think we need to reject the politics of obedience and conformity that reign today.

      We need to challenge the law and where we’re strong enough, break it.

      Illegal strikes, occupations, effective picket lines and civil disobedience all offer more hope to the working class than a three yearly tick on the little capitalist sanctioned ballot.

  2. Visits to MPs are the most useless thing of all. At least with petitioning, you get to talk to actual people and might make some useful contacts.

    I only ever went on an MP lobbying thing once. Well, I think we visited two MPs.

    It was in Ireland and the government in the south was introducing legislation to allow the courts to extradite people from the south to the north and Britain for involvement (or alleged involvement) in the armed struggle. Before that, southern courts recognised activity by the IRA in Britain and the north as ‘political offences’ and tended not to extradite.

    I had zero interest in lobbying, but the leadership of Sinn Fein were determined to lobby. The one amusing thing about it, however, was that me and another comrade ended up going to Ruari Quinn’s clinic. He was a leading Labour TD (MP), who looked like Billy Bunter, all puffed up with too much alcohol, cream cakes and self-importance. He had wee piggy eyes and they panicked as soon as we told him what we’d come to see him about. He was a particularly loathsome, slimey, oily, greasy, member of the southern parliament (and later Labour leader). Just being in his presence made me want to go and shower afterwards.

    He gave us the Labour line on extradition and we gave him the Sinn Fein line on extradition. Then we started to abuse each other and he got more and more nervy, which was kind of entertaining, his little piggy eyes darting round wondering if were going to do more than verbally abuse him. Anyway, we left and I thought, “That’s 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”. Happily it was only 15 minutes, and it was kinda entertaining, but what an absolute waste of time.

    Instead of lobbying him, we should have occupied his office.

    Lesson learned.

    But a lot of the left is still quite mesmerised by the parliamentary game. In NZ, sections of the left even think it’s somehow clever to mimic the right and rort the system as with the Internet Mana stitch-up. Imagine the moral outrage from the left if some multi-millionaire pirate capitalist (especially a ‘foreign’ one) set up a vanity party and they did a deal with ACT, throwing in a few million dollars. The left would be screamiong holly hell about it. Yet a chunk of the left are happily going along with the Internet Mana grotesquerie.

    Just when you think some of them can go no lower, they establish a new moral and political nadir.

    It’s almost enough to make one an anarchist. . .


  3. Actually, the people I find myself having the most in common with politically in NZ these days would be AWSM. We’re on the same page on the Labour Party, class politics versus identity politics, political correctness etc etc.
    Spent a pleasant Friday evening last week with an AWSM member, talking about the state of the class struggle and the left in NZ over beer and pear cider.
    I also read the election article on the AWSM site last week; don’t think I had any significant disagreements with it.
    The AWSM site is usually much more readable than the hyperbole so often found on some of the sites of the ostensibly Marxist groups, coupled with their lesser-evilist politics in relation to Labour and their lack of class politics in relation to the Internet Mana Party (IMP).

  4. Your analysis is spot on Don Franks!!
    Parliament is a farce and serves only the interest of the ruling class. Informing people like you do with Redline is more productive than voting.
    The capitalist system is dying and not voting might accelerate its collapse and be less painfull for the 99% in the long run.

    • Agree to an extent, though why do you think not voting might accelerate its collapse? I don’t think the bourgeoisie would see at 20% voter turn out and go “hey maybe we aren’t mandated to do whatever the fuck we want after all” – they don’t care either way.

      • I don’t think not voting will achieve anything much.
        My point is, leftists are too prone to take the superficial appearance of parliament at its face value.
        We are trustingly and thoughtlessly accepting the bourgeois handout instead of making our own analysis and setting our own political agenda.

      • I don’t think Tony is thinking of the bourgeoisie; I assumed he was talking about a situation where the result would be workers looking elsewhere.

        I think Don makes an interesting point that voting these days is quite different from 150 years ago. This wasn’t something I had really thought about before, although I often don’t vote in national elections. But I think Don’s right and hopefully we can develop this thinking a bit more.

        I didn’t vote last time. Before that we were lucky enough to have the Workers Party on the ballot nationally, so I party-voted them. But before that I didn’t vote for several elections. It just has little to no purpose these days. I never voted in the 1980s or most of the 1990s either, apart from in several referenda, which are a bit different from parliamentary voting but, then again, they’re non-binding anyway.


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