John Armstrong: Business as usual as decorum forgotten

Parliament teetered on the brink of the uncontrollable yesterday, when National MPs engaged in sustained bouts of relentless barracking in order to shout down Helen Clark and Michael Cullen.

The wall of noise reached such a crescendo during Dr Cullen's general debate speech that Assistant Speaker Ann Hartley, who was chairing the House at the time, accused the major Opposition party of deliberately and completely disrupting proceedings.

In a rare move, Ms Hartley, who comes from Labour's ranks, ruled that Dr Cullen start his speech again after a complaint - one of several from MPs sitting at the back of the chamber - that it was impossible to hear anything he was saying despite loudspeakers at ear-level in members' seats.

Making the afternoon even more remarkable was some of the language.

National referred to "Labour" and "corruption" in the same breath so many times it seemed designed to provoke Labour to challenge whether the combination was acceptable. Labour sensibly ignored the taunts.

National's Bob Clarkson, not someone to get hung up about what is or is not parliamentary language, exclaimed how he was "getting a bit pissed off" he could not hear what the Prime Minister had said about him.

That ignored the fact that his raucous colleagues were responsible.

Meanwhile, Dr Cullen sought to ridicule Don Brash by pointing out National's leader was increasingly using "naughty words" like "bastard" and "crap" to spice up his speeches and statements.

Most of the din was caused by National MPs chanting "pay it back" for Labour's splurging of public money on its own election advertising. The racket might have been contrived. But with one difference. For once, National really had fire in its belly.

The "barraging" - as Ms Hartley inadvertently, but aptly, described it - was designed to ensure National kicked off the latest four-week sitting of the House by retaining the psychological upper-hand over the old enemy.

The chanting also seemed to be a warning to Margaret Wilson that her rulings are being watched closely following National's motion of no confidence in her Speakership during the last sitting.

However, unlike her assistant, she refrained from reading the Riot Act while chairing question time to ministers, though Helen Clark had to repeat one reply three times to be even half-heard above the tumult.

Margaret Wilson seemed to have judged it was better to let things ride on the first day back proper, which was an astonishing contrast to the decorum displayed during Tuesday's tributes to the late Maori Queen.

While the Speaker pleaded for the House to "just settle", MPs seated at the back of the chamber were clearly annoyed with the rowdiness generated by National's "pay it back" chant and Labour's inevitable reference to the Exclusive Brethren in response.

Raising a point of order after one such exchange, Act's Rodney Hide quipped that it had sounded like Labour and National were having an exciting meeting. "I wonder what it is all about."

NZ First's Brian Donnelly reminded the Speaker that his right as an MP to hear debate was being infringed, while Labour's Martin Gallagher was just plain angry at the treatment being meted out to Dr Cullen.

But then you did not need to be able to hear Dr Cullen to know what he thought of the afternoon's proceedings.

It was enough to observe his increasingly vein-popping demeanour, finger-pointing indignation and facial complexion turning puce to match the tie around his neck.

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