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Illuminating political history and Hansard through cartoons

Cartoon of an MP in front of a gramophone. Enlarge image

Specially commissioned for the 150th anniversary of Hansard. Jim Hubbard (9 July 2017)

Source: Parliamentary Collection [SA3519]


Through the years politics has been the bread and butter of cartoonists. Politicians and their antics comprise a fertile field for the butt of cartoonists’ humour. Hansard operates quietly in the background and prefers to keep it that way – after all it is produced as the objective record of what is said in Parliament, and, for those who produce Hansard, the less controversial and problematic that record is the better. But politicians being politicians, there is always the possibility that Hansard becomes part of the controversy. The fact that this has not happened too often is a testament to the ability of Hansard to steer through the perils of political life.

Cartooning was a minority interest in the early decades of Parliament – cartoons were often hand-drawn and circulated amongst the political elite. But from the 1880s and into the 1890s cartoons began to reach a much wider audience when published in mass circulation weekly papers. Cartoons became part of the political hurly-burly and a new breed of professional cartoonists emerged in papers such as the Observer, the Graphic and the Free Lance.

The accession of the Liberal government to power in 1891 amplified this trend. Politics became much more accessible, there was wider public engagement with politics, political parties sought broader public mandates, and women got the vote (in 1893). The trickle of cartoons became a flood.

Such changes were evident in cartoons concerning Hansard. While for record-keeping purposes Hansard provided the ultimate record of what was said, in the minds of politicians it was who said what and how much they said that was far more important. Politicians frequently brandished their Hansard to demonstrate how they served their constituents and how hard-working they were (Observer and Free Lance, 12 October 1895). With women obtaining the vote in 1893, cartoonists poked fun at women’s serious attitude to politics by suggesting they would rather read Hansard (Observer and Free Lance, 25 August 1894).

Hansard experienced a great deal of scrutiny in the 1890s and some of this was evident in cartoons. What went into Hansard, surprisingly, could be contested – one might have thought it was simply the words that tumbled endlessly out of the mouths of MPs. One famous incident involving Premier Seddon and his lieutenant Jock McKenzie involved the insertion of a controversial map into Hansard (Observer and Free Lance, 10 September 1898). As a result of this one cartoonist wondered whether Hansard should be turned into an ‘illustrated comic paper’ along the lines of the British Punch (New Zealand Graphic, 17 September 1898).

Premier Seddon at that time strongly asserted his executive power over that of Parliament. He fired the Chief Hansard reporter for voicing divergent political views in his other journalistic employment outside of parliamentary sessions. This drew a cartoonist’s rebuke regarding freedom of speech (Free Lance, 21 July 1900).

Since the turn of the twentieth century, Hansard has continued to feature from time to time in cartoons. From 1936 the traditional print-based record of debates in Parliament was supplemented by the radio broadcasting of debates. This was the new Labour government’s idea to broaden the accessibility of Parliament and ‘reach the people’. What would be the effect on the behaviour of politicians (Auckland Star, 7 August 1934)? And what did it reveal about the speaking habits of MPs? Pity the poor Hansard reporter who had to make sense of it (New Zealand Herald, 8 June 1936).

One never-ending sport amongst politicians was to ‘dig up dirt’ on their opposite numbers out of Hansard (New Zealand Herald, 19 June 1957). Cartoonists had a field day when the chamber became disorderly as it often did (New Zealand Listener, 4 June 1977). And on occasion Hansard would provide the backdrop for a significant political event such as when previous Prime Minister David Lange retired from Parliament in 1996 (Hubbard).

The Hansard office itself collected cartoons. A Hansard typist of the 1950s produced a series of telling cartoons portraying the kinds of difficulties they got into – ranging from talking back to a Hansard reporter, to misspelling ministers’ names, to the bedlam that would break out with the House in Committee when full Hansard was not taken.

This Cartoon Exhibition gives glimpses into the history of Hansard and its political context. Cartoons provide vivid and telling images in a way difficult to convey through words. Hansard has served Parliament for a century and a half. While always at hazard of being caught up in the political turmoil over the years it has done remarkably well in providing an objective record of Parliament’s debates while itself remaining largely invisible.