By Alex Tarrant
As our new MPs arrive at Parliament they’re being treated to various induction courses over the next few weeks. One of the initial lessons which often goes unreported, is cited by experienced campaigners as the most vital tuition they received. Namely, spending a day getting to know how the different elevator and escalator systems function throughout the Parliamentary precinct. Ignorance of such skill has been known to ruin political careers.
Thursday was as big a day for Parliament’s internal transport mechanisms as any before it. Perhaps it will one day be remembered as the biggest of the lot – this will be for the history books to decide. But it certainly had all the key storylines: Age old campaigners who have seen Beehive elevator systems come and go; those who remember a time before the travellators between Bowen House and the Beehive; and new Parliamentarians trying to take a fresh approach to internal travel.
Enter Winston Peters, Bill English and Jacinda Ardern. The tale below is one for the ages.
The travellator between Bowen House and the Beehive has rarely seen so much foot traffic. Thursday’s level of use would have seen a lesser travellator falter and grind to a halt. Not this one though. It carried Peters and his team back and forth between meetings with National and Labour like a champ. One of the television cameramen running after Peters had so much trouble keeping up with it that he came a cropper, flat on his face.
The New Zealand First leader didn’t bat an eyelid. He was on a journey to a higher place and that journey was going pretty well so far.
But as so often happens when everything is going so well, fate struck. The escalator up towards the Beehive lifts had gone awry. Wellington’s top escalator engineer had been working tirelessly trying to get the thing going all through Wednesday in anticipation for Thursday’s action, but it was not to be. In the early hours of Thursday morning he had realised that the broken handrail had defeated him.
This left Peters and his team an unnerving choice as they made their way to meet Bill English. Take the 40 stairs alongside the escalator and risk arriving at the meeting earlier, but absolutely buggered, or wait for the world’s slowest elevator to come down from the first floor, pick them up, and then labouriously take them higher.
They took the first political risk of the day and chose the elevator. Despite everyone’s initial concerns, it was probably the smoothest ride of the lot. Nothing was going to get in anyone’s way as government formation talks loomed large.
It’s only a small distance across the no-man’s land between Bowen House and the Beehive’s core, where a visitor is faced with a 360-degree choice of elevators. To the unknowing, this sounds like heaven. But there’s a catch. The Beehive is notorious for its random elevator generator. These machines are even more notorious for being the smallest in the precinct.
As in more recent election years, negotiation teams had been kept to a “Beehive elevator minimum”. Older heads had memories of one disastrous day in an election year gone when one of the teams had to be split in order to travel back to the Beehive basement. One bunch of government hopefuls was accidentally taken up in direction of the Beehive’s third floor bar. It was hours before they were found again.
Not this time for Peters, however. He’d spent a marathon caucus meeting the day before going over BMI ratios as he sought to choose the nimblest negotiating team he could muster. The sun was shining down the lift shaft. He and his team arrived at the negotiation room on level two of the Beehive first. The trip over could have been so much worse. Perhaps this was a sign?
Unbeknownst to them, English and National’s team was facing a problem. After repeated assurances earlier in the week that they’d all fit, when push came to shove Thursday morning it just wouldn’t happen. They couldn’t get 100% approval on everyone taking the stairs. They’d have to make two trips – English perhaps separated in the PM’s private elevator. This wasn’t how National wanted to begin negotiations.
They received key information that Peters and his team had entered the negotiating room, and so would have no view of the elevators and hence no idea about National breaking the rules. A final roadblock remained, however. The media.
Waiting outside the negotiation room, some with cameras, others with deep institutional understanding about how the Beehive elevators operated, the media would surely see through the two-lift veil.
English was now running late. He’d meant to arrive after Peters, but not by this much. What to do? Brownlee couldn’t be dropped from the team. At crunch time, help arrived. Security, on instruction from the Speaker’s office, decided the media wasn’t allowed to wait where they were. The fourth estate was ushered back to a distance far enough away so that we couldn't see too well. So, English and co. chanced it.
No one noticed a thing. It worked like a charm. They were in the room. For thirty minutes the two teams discussed the Beehive’s random elevator generator and how it had evolved so since 1996.
I’ll leave it to those who were there to tell the tale of what happened after that meeting, as one team needed to go up, and one down – the mere thought of it was too much for me to handle.
Behind closed doors
It was Labour’s turn next. They thought they had it covered.
Jacinda Ardern has brought a fresh face to New Zealand politics. Despite her team including some who favoured taking Parliament House’s birdcage elevator from level 3 to level 2, Ardern had put her foot down. Labour was going to walk.
It paid off. Even Michael Cullen managed to keep up. No one was breathless as Labour’s team filed past the waiting press pack. Peters was already in the room – his team buoyed by a clean Bowen-to-Beehive run.
This was clearly the explanation behind Labour’s meeting not lasting as long as National’s – in fact, I’m told the Beehive’s elevator system wasn’t even mentioned, although Peters may have reiterated his bottom line that the Beehive requires re-carpeting. Especially after Steven ‘fill them to the brim’ Joyce had been on tea duty at the previous meeting.
Labour had nailed it. Exiting the room and turning left back towards the waiting press pack, Ardern reiterated to her team that they were going to take the stairs up again. No one argued. This was a team all on the same page. A clean break through the doors, around the corner and up we go.
But even the best laid plans will go awry. Disaster struck as Labour’s team approached the security doors between the Beehive and Parliament House. A young journalist, while trying to keep the automatic doors ajar for Ardern, had somehow triggered them to remain shut. It was chaos. The electronic door arms had given up. Labour’s team, stuck, didn’t know what to do.
First, Ardern tried to trigger the double-doors. Nothing. The journalist tried again. Michael Cullen made moves to try his swipe card. It looked like Labour would have to turn around to go and brave the Beehive elevator system – and we all know that disaster there could have meant government out the window.
Grant Robertson all this time had been quiet. A thinking man, he was taking it all in, trying to work out how to avoid the impending doom. He took a risk. It may have saved Labour from three more years in Opposition.
He gently pushed one of the doors. The press pack, seeing him make the move, took a collective intake of breath. What would happen? The door budged. Robertson kept pushing, a little harder. The door opened ever wider. Soon it was wide enough for the entire Labour team to file through.
It was a miracle. We cheered. Smiles returned to the Labour Party faces. Swelled with relief, Ardern forgot to stop and talk to the media pack. She had an aim and one aim only. Get to the stairs. She skipped up the first three. Labour’s team followed, heads down to make sure they wouldn’t trip. They’d made it. Time for a whiskey.
Back to some proper sized lifts
It doesn’t end there. The small matter of Peters’ final trip was yet to be finalised. The press pack caught up with him going down the Beehive-to-Bowen escalator (this one working; only the up one was defunct). The team had obviously made it down the Beehive elevator system intact.
The travellator was a breeze. The media, running ahead on the pedestrian path, had all remained on their feet. Peters gave a brief comment to the press on the ground floor of Bowen House before an elevator miraculously opened behind him. This was going to work. And the great thing about Bowen’s elevators? They’re bigger than the Beehive’s. No trouble fitting everybody in.
The doors began to shut. You could see the relief on Ron Mark’s face. Until – there’s always an until in politics – some rookie journalist asked Peters a patsy question that the New Zealand First leader couldn’t let go unanswered.
“Hold that door,” he told an advisor, whose trained hand shot straight to the open button. Standing between the doors, Peters berated the media for what we thought would be one last time. Back into the lift only to be confronted with another impertinent query he couldn’t resist. His training took over. Peters’ right arm shot out to the open button – the day wasn’t going to be over that easily. “…thank you very much.”
Finger off. And the Bowen House elevator doors closed on a breath taking chapter of New Zealand political history.
Some in the press gallery laughed. Others were silent. Some of them, including this correspondent, still get flashbacks to when the New Zealand media contingent was left stuck in a fake-Hyundai lift within Vladivostock’s APEC campus in 2012. It was a time for reflection.