The mystery of the disappearing ‘bitch’ at the heart of NZ’s democracy

Did a National MP really call a Labour MP a “bitch” in parliament? And if so why did it vanish from the official Hansard record?

It was just another ennui-inducing debate in the House of Representatives. A scattering of rostered MPs were debating, if you must know, the Appropriation (2017/18 Supplementary Estimates) Bill and Imprest Supply (First for 2018/19) Bill at its second reading. For all the best efforts of Deborah Russell, the newly elected Labour MP, to liven things up by laying into the National finance spokesperson Amy Adams, most of the faces around the place stared into the middle distance, the will to live slipping ever further out of reach.

And then Nicky Wagner called Russell a bitch. Or at least according to the draft version of Hansard, the official record of NZ parliamentary debate, she did. “You are a bitch,” were the words documented by one of parliament’s transcribers. That prompted Deborah Russell to appeal to the assistant speaker that an “unparliamentary word” had be spoken, which in turn led Wagner to withdraw and apologise.

But at some point in the following days, the “bitch” disappeared. As observed by former NZ Labour Policy Council member Reed Fleming, the offending slur had been excised from Hansard in non-draft form. Where had it gone? Did Wagner say it at all? The video wasn’t conclusive.

The draft and revised online versions of Hansard

“Absolutely confident.” That’s how sure Russell was that Wagner had used the words. “It wasn’t loud but loud enough that I picked it up. I thought: bloody hell, she called me a bitch,” she told The Spinoff. “I didn’t want to repeat it. It’s such a horrible word to use … I was gobsmacked.”

Russell wasn’t surprised that Wagner would have been riled. She had been “having quite a crack at Amy Adams. Calling into question Amy Adams’ competence, having a good crack.”

But the bitch line was too much, she said. “The house is robust at times but using an epithet like that seems unusual to me … It’s well beyond the bounds of debate.”

She hadn’t thought more of it until it was drawn to her attention that the “bitch” had disappeared. “When she withdrew and apologised I thought that’s the end of the matter. By why change the record? … I don’t understand why the Hansard has been changed.”

It’s a good question. Did she really say it? Was this the parliamentary equivalent of the Shortland Street Angry Fucking Cop enigma? After all, Russell did say at the time that she “might be mistaken”. And even more importantly, had Wagner sought to have it removed?

The National MP was straight up. “I did use the word. I shouldn’t have so I apologised immediately,” Wagner told The Spinoff.

OK. How about the deletion? Did she attempt to bleach it from the public record?

“I didn’t ask for the comment to be removed.”

And according to the official parliament website, she wouldn’t have any right to do so. MPs are not entitled to “improve” what was said in the house. “They can ask for things like corrections to a wrong fact or figure. Strict rules also decide what changes Hansard editors can make to what is said in the House.”

Speakers’ rulings, meanwhile, make it clear that a withdrawal and apology does not entail the removal of the offending words. “Because words are withdrawn does not mean that they are expunged from the record; they are still part of the debate and are recorded in Hansard.”

And yet they were gone: evaporated like mildew in spring.

In search of explanation, The Spinoff telephoned parliament’s Office of the Clerk, which oversees the documentation of parliamentary business. “I can categorically say she did not ask us to take it out,” said Suze Jones, the manager of Hansard.

There were reasons that remarks might be removed from draft transcripts, she explained. For example, when no point of order is raised, interjections are not meant to be recorded, which is disappointing but understandable given the bedlam sometimes heard in the place. In this case, she said, the interjection had been removed in error by an editor who had misunderstood an esoteric rule.

If it was an error, would it be corrected? Would the word go back?

“It’s in now!” said Jones.

She sent the link. There it was.

The mystery was over, and the bitch was back.

 


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