The Minister for Knitting

The New Zealand House of Representatives debating chamber. Source.

New Zealand is a pretty special country. Where else in the world does the parliament have a rule regarding knitting?

Under the ‘General Procedures’ section of the Speakers Rulings, runs the text: ‘Knitting is permitted in the Chamber except by a Minister in charge of a bill in committee.'[note] Speaker’s Rulings, 2003, Vol. 608, p. 5908. Hunt Source[/note]

Speaker’s Ruling are the house guide and have been laid down by the Speaker of the House (a role similar to a chairperson). They’re generally made in response to something that has happened in the Parliament; therefore some incident needs to prompt them into existence.

Strangely, I couldn’t find a photo of Tizard knitting. Here she is with a crazy cricket bat instead. Source.

So what happened in this case? In 2002, Judith Tizard, Member for Auckland Central and Associate Commerce Minister for the Labour government, was ushering through the Trade Marks Bill. It had been a long night; there were sixteen bills to be passed and the House was sitting under urgency to get them all done before the long summer break.

The Trade Marks Bill was number fourteen. While she waited for her bill to come up, Tizard did what most MPs do in the house: wrote and signed reports and letters, and read departmental correspondence. She’d even done the newspaper crossword, she had so long to wait. Eventually she turned to her knitting.

‘I have arthritic hands, so I took my knitting down to the House,’ Tizard recalled in interview a few years later.[note] KiwiFM: Wammo Talks To Tizard About Knitting,  ‘I was sitting there knitting and it was a peaceful and pleasant evening, About twenty to twelve, I was called to the chair for the Trade Marks Bill and I was halfway through a row. So without even thinking about it, I took my knitting down.’

Guiding a bill requires the relevant minister to sit in front of the Speaker’s chair and take questions from the House. Tizard sat down in the chair, with her knitting, and began to present the bill.

‘There was a great kerfuffle on the other side and Bill English stormed into the House, shouting and I thought ‘Good lord, somebody’s died.’ And he took a point of order, saying that I was disrespecting [the House] by knitting. And he went on and on like a chook. Well, a very small chook,’ Tizard remembered.[note] KiwiFM: Wammo Talks To Tizard About Knitting, 

In the same interview, she alleges the National Party had been drinking at a karaoke party and this may have added to the kerfuffle. Other sources confirm that the National Party were having a Christmas party, but Tizard has simplified the rest of the story. It wasn’t just Bill English (Leader of the Opposition); several MPs were involved in the point of order.

It was nearly midnight when the trouble first started. National MP Tony Ryall was attempting to make a point about Cellotape being sacred (silly, I know), when he swerved off topic.

‘I must say I have never before seen a Minister in the chair during the Committee stage of a bill – on quite a serious bill – sitting doing her knitting,’ Ryall said. He made a joke about the department providing her knitting pattern and then continue on with the debate. For a little while, the House stays roughly on topic, and then National obviously decides to make a bigger deal out of it.

John Carter stands to raise a point of order and asks the Chairperson: ‘Can you tell me what the rules are in regard to the Minister sitting in the chair, knitting? I take exception. It is absolutely outrageous and arrogant. Does it mean that Shane Ardern can bring his cows into the Chamber and milk them? [note] Incidentally, Ardern did ride a tractor called Myrtle up the steps of Parliament the following year. Seriously, see this article here.[/note] Or can I bring my lawnmower in here and fix it? It is not appropriate for the Minister to sit in that chair and knit. It is just disgraceful. I ask you to rule whether it is appropriate for the Minister to sit there arrogantly and knit.’

The Chairperson replied that there was nothing in the standing orders. The leader of the another opposition party, Richard Prebble, stated there have been multiple rulings against the use of devices and that knitting needles are a device. If the knitting needles are a device, Prebble argued, then the Speaker himself needs to declare them okay.

Tizard then points out she already has permission to have knitting needles in the chamber: ‘As any member who has read the old Dominion[note] A Wellington newspaper [/note] would know, I have knitted in the House before. I have sought permission from the Speaker, who has assured me that it is perfectly normal, and he has allowed members to knit if they chose to. I assure the member that as a woman I can knit and think at the same time.’

At this point, the debate almost gets back on track – and then English goes full chook.

‘This is a matter of respect for the House,’ he raged. ‘It is a matter of whether this House will tolerate the contempt and arrogance of a Minister in the chair, knitting. It is as simple as that. I am advising you, Mr Chair, that the conduct of the Minister will lead to disorder…the unprecedented situation of a Minister sitting in the chair and knitting is totally unacceptable to the dignity of the Chamber.’

Now, having watched the New Zealand House of Representatives debate, I can assure you there’s nothing dignified about it. It’s akin to school children yelling and screaming at each other and making cheap points. But I suppose we need to pretend it’s a serious business, running the country and all. Which is a point National MP Gerry Brownlee then goes on to make.

‘The point here really is that we are debating legislation that the Government considered so important as to keep the Committee here until almost midnight working its way through it,’ he starts off rather reasonably, and then goes on: ‘We have the Minister in charge of shepherding this bill through the Committee stage who is sitting in the chair knitting. In what other job in New Zealand would one be paid $160,000 a year to sit and knit while one is supposed to be working?’

At which point, it was pretty much decided they’d all had enough for the day and they went home. The next day, the Speaker returned and he ruled that a Member may knit while in their own seat in the benches, but not while presenting a Bill. Brownlee had to get one last dig in, though, describing Tizard as ‘some sort of latter-day Madame Defarge, knitting away as the guillotine was about to fall on the heads of the entrepreneurial community of this country.'[note] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 604, 19 November 2002, pp. 2285-2288 [/note]

This last dig during the Trade Marks Bill, however, wasn’t the last. The Opposition used the knitting as an insult for the next year. The Parliamentary Debates are full of jibes throughout 2003 directed at Tizard and fellow knitters and Labour MPs Helen Duncan and Dianne Yeats.

Knitting is often used as a device to imply a lack of attention. In May, National MP Roger Sowry asked the Speaker to consider if Yeats, Member for Hamilton East, was bringing the House into disrepute by knitting. In July, Stephen Franks stated that although Tizard was not knitting in the chair, he still didn’t think she’s paying attention, and on the same day Ron Marks comments that the Labour MPs are up to something, but he’s not sure what ‘whether they were organising the next knitting competition, or what.’

Knitting is also used as a slur that at least the Member is doing something useful. In June, Rodney Hide refers to Tizard knitting and she interrupts to point out it’s allowable in the chamber.

‘I did not complain about the Minister knitting,’ Hide replies. ‘She can carry on knitting. My view was that at least she was doing something useful, for a change.’

To which Tizard quipped ‘Which is more than you have ever done in this House.’

Then in August, Sowry complains that the Labour government is simply sitting there and ignoring the issue – apart from Tizard who sits and knits.[note] All quotes from Hansard after 2002 were accessed from the Parliament website. [/note]

I’m not implying that the National MPs are anti-knitting; politicians will use anything they can get their grubby little paws on to slur the other side. But it’s interesting in the way that it’s been used. From my fairly brief trawl through the Debates , it’s never used as a gender-specific insult during this period – in fact, it was Tizard, in her statement that as a women she can knit and think, who made it about gender.

I know at this point in the story, knitters will be feeling like I’ve left the most important bit out: what was Tizard knitting?

The NZ Herald reported that it was a black mohair shawl.[note] Audrey Young, ”MP Judith Tizard makes it plain: she will knit in the house’, NZ Herald, 22 November 2002. Accessed 3 March 2016 [/note] In the later interview, Tizard says: ‘I am not a technical knitter. I tend to get beautiful wool and knit scarfs, so you just have to knit in a straight row.'[note] KiwiFM: Wammo Talks To Tizard About Knitting, 

That’s right folks – it’s entirely likely that the National MPs got their knickers in a knot over a garter stitch scarf, the simplest thing on earth to knit.

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