Friday, August 14, 2009

Parliamentary Unions

Image from NZ Free Lance, 27 June 1908.

When I put together the much earlier post on Auckland merchant Yan Kew, the reference to the Auckland Parliamentary Union to which he belonged for a time intrigued me. It's still a bit difficult nailing down in my mind exactly what a parliamentary union was supposed to do, but the following from the Dunedin Herald, via the Wanganui Herald gives as good an indication as any as to their purpose.
"Parliamentary Unions afford to some persons an occasion for expressing their contempt. They sneer at them as a mimicry, and only that, of a real Parliament. But these Unions, if properly conducted, though their imitation of the real Parliament may excite a smile, must be looked upon as a powerful means of education. How often one hears a man put forth apologetically the mistake nature made at his birth in not giving him the "gift of his gab," as an excuse for not playing his part in those of a citizen's duties that call for the exercise of the art of speaking. One would imagine to hear some people talk that orators, like poets, are born, not made. No one, not physically disabled from speaking, who can join a Parliamentary Union, can give a valid excuse for not being able to speak. It has a great advantage over other debating societies, in that it offers so many inducements to would be speakers to begin by degrees to express their ideas.

"Members can get used to rising on their hind legs by putting questions, raising points of order, of personal explanation, &c. Anyone who does try this for a few nights will soon find himself trying his newly-fledged wings in oratorical flights during some debate. There is in ordinary debating societies too much tendency to discuss abstract questions, in preference to those of every day utility— such as, "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all ?" or the deeply important question that is said to have lately stirred the breasts of the members of a German society, " Was Shakespeare drunk when he made his will ?"

"Not the least use of a Parliamentary Union will be found in its teaching persona how to conduct a public meeting. Other things being equal, a person who has attended regularly a session or two of one of these unions will assuredly conduct as chairman a public meeting with greater ease, quickness, and authority than one who has had no practical acquaintance with the forms in use in them. As a training school for future members of Parliament a Parliamentary Union is invaluable. No one who has been present at debates in the House of Assembly and observed our representatives rising to points of order instead of personal explanation, amongst other blunders made by members who are not always the youngest in the House, can doubt that, if they had had the advantage of belonging to a Parliamentary Union in their youth, much annoyance and confusion of mind would have been spared them. It is doubtful if a man who enters Parliament late in life ever thoroughly masters the forms of the House.

"Few, of course, of the members of a Parliamentary Union can hope to become members of the House of Assembly, but many will be members of County and Town Councils, of School Committees, and of Education Boards. We shall not then hear, as we occasionally do now, of such a display of inexcusable ignorance as a member moving a motion pro forma! But in its capability of inspiring men with confidence in expressing their thoughts in words a Parliamentary Union is of the greatest service. Many a member is forced into speaking in the excitement of party warfare —for the keenness of party strife imported into a debate there is thoroughly understood only by one who is a member of one of these Unions—who would very probably have possessed his soul in silence in an ordinary debating society. The unnatural timidity that an early training in speaking would have removed has turned aside many a young man from the pulpit, the forum, or the rostrum of the auctioneer."
(14 May 1886)

Parliamentary Unions in New Zealand began in Dunedin in 1884. Wanganui, Invercargill and Auckland followed later that year. They seem to have still continued, in places like Dunedin and Te Puke, into the early 1920s at least. I suppose Toastmasters might have picked up the mantle these days, along with debating clubs -- but it seems that parliamentary unions were something just that bit more. A cadet system for future real parliamentarians, perhaps, complete with someone even in the role of Speaker of the House, with casting vote. Auckland's parliamentary union had, in November 1884, 300 members. Currently, our real Parliament has 122 members. Egad, those union meetings must have been complex!

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