Bryce Edwards: What’s wrong with our politicians?

Bryce Edwards: What’s wrong with our politicians?

Parliament increasingly looks like a tawdry and dirty place in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross mega-scandal. There will certainly be many in the public who have less trust and respect for MPs and political parties as a result. The quality and ethical standards of our politicians might now come under greater scrutiny.

Jami-Lee Ross has come across as a narcissistic and ruthless game-player rather than any sort of ideal-driven altruistic representative of the people. It could be argued that he is an aberration amongst an otherwise healthy political system of upstanding politicians. However, given some of the other behaviour that has come to light, and numerous other scandals in recent years – which also show MPs just looking after themselves – the public would be right to be sceptical.

A new “political class”?

So why might our politicians have become more self-serving or less trustworthy? One answer is that MPs appear to have evolved in recent decades into a more cohesive and self-interested “class” of professionals. Rather than being amateurs who come into office to carry out public service after years of experience in other regular occupations, our current crop of representatives are increasingly “career politicians” with backgrounds only in the sphere of politics.

This is borne out by research on the backgrounds of the current Parliament carried out by BlacklandPR’s Mark Blackham and political scientist Geoffrey Miller. They’ve gone through and categorised what the main occupations of all the MPs were prior to them becoming MPs, and the results are quite striking. Blackham has published this today on his company website – see: MP careers: NZ’s 52nd Parliament.

The results show that a growing proportion of the Parliament has no discernible career prior to be elected. Typically, according to Blackham, “they had effectively been running a political career simultaneously with their employment. They were involved in party politics at university, and continued as party volunteers, campaigners and officials in early adulthood. They gained party nominations and employment as party researchers their 20s or 30s, and then eventually entered Parliament during these years.”

The other major growth area in pre-parliamentary careers is political work in government agencies: “20% of MPs in the current Parliament have previously worked in government jobs. Labour’s experience in government employment increased from 16% in 2015 to 26% in this Parliament. This jump was fuelled by the intake of new Labour MPs, where 21% of work experience was in government. National’s experience in government work increased by 1% point to 19%.”

Overall, these are the main occupational backgrounds of the current Parliament, categorised by party: National: Business (25% of all jobs held by all party MPs) and Government (19%); Labour: Government (26%) and Business (14%); New Zealand First: Business (27%), Education (18%) and Police/Military (18%); Greens: Union and Activism (43%) and Business (29%)”.

The results were covered recently by Rob Mitchell in his feature article, A breed apart? MPs are now birds of a different feather. He reports that these results have “some political commentators and experts worried. About a growing threat to democracy, a building distrust of politicians, and a widening divide between our representatives and those they are meant to represent.”

Blackham is quoted, explaining how career politicians don’t have the life experience that enables genuine empathy and connection with the public: “I’d argue that direct experience of the lives, difficulties and expectations and priorities of ordinary people is something that is hard to forget and will better enable you to understand the impact of the decision you are making”.

Furthermore, “If your experience is rarefied or significantly different to the majority of people who voted for you then your decisions are going to be different to what they might expect, and in a representative democracy I think that’s a bad thing.”

I’m quoted in his article, saying that there is also an important issue of diversity at stake in the way that Parliament increasingly only involves professionals. On the one hand Parliament is becoming more representative “of gender and ethnicity… browner and more female, and younger”, but “economically it’s become much more narrow, in terms of social backgrounds; you might call it class background or socio-economic background, or occupational background.”

Plus, I point out that once in Parliament, MPs become incredibly wealthy relative to their constituency – with base incomes (before you consider all the perks) ranging from a minimum of $160,000, up to nearly half a million dollars for the prime minister. This has democratic ramifications, because it “means they are quarantined from the everyday lives of everyone else”.

This lack of life experience has also been pinpointed by Matt McCarten as a “deep explanation” for some of what we’ve seen in the Jami-Lee Ross saga. Discussing the issue on TVNZ’s Marae programme, McCarten explained it like this: “Here’s Jami – he came in without any background into politics. At 18 he was on the city council in Auckland. He’s always been a politician. I always say that ‘you’ve got to have a life… before going into Parliament’. And then you can have your feet on the ground. When you go in as a kid, you receive this salary, you get told ‘you are special; you are wonderful’… If you’re 18 and have got no life experience. This is the kid that then goes to Parliament, and everyone keeps telling him ‘You Jami, you’re The One’. He was the bagman. He was ‘a player’.”

McCarten’s point is that the lack of real world experience, together with the quick elevation of MPs into the unreal world of politics, can easily change the outlook of individuals, essentially making the role all about themselves rather than political service.

According to political commentator Matthew Hooton, this new breed of politician has a very different connection to politics, which goes some way to explaining why we are seeing more MPs like Jami-Lee Ross. His recent Herald column on this issue is a must-read – see: Jami-Lee Ross fiasco a symptom of wider disease.

He points out that the youth moving up through the ranks of today’s rather hollow political parties don’t seem to have strong ideologies or beliefs, but are driven more by their careers and ambition. In this way, he suggests their “role models are, at best, The West Wing’s Josh Lyman and CJ Cregg. More usually they are The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker or, worse, House of Cards’ Frank and Claire Underwood.”

Hooton is worth quoting at length for his assessment of what this new “political class” of politicians means: “Politics has become less about policy proposals to make New Zealand and even the world a better place. It is about celebrity culture. It is just another opportunity to advance a personal brand through an elaborate game, with the bonus of being well remunerated by the taxpayer. This attitude has led to the rise of a self-perpetuating class that moves seamlessly from being activists in their party’s youth wings to jobs as parliamentary staffers or the bureaucracy. They use those connections to become MPs without becoming connected with a real community. A few months as a Government relations adviser for an NGO or multinational is enough to claim private-sector experience. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson are classic examples but Jami-Lee Ross is surely the most extreme.”

Hooton believes that this is now the norm rather than any sort of aberration: “Ross is far from alone in apparently being empty of genuine political ideas. Both main parties are now infested with MPs who have never worked a day outside politics. Some of these people are, of course, perfectly capable individually. Collectively, though, they risk Parliament and Government becoming ever-more out of touch, not just from business but from any other part of the wider world. This comes with consequences.”

For politics to regain its soul, Hooton says it needs to shift away from the professionalised path and back to more activism: “It is an argument to try to rebuild the big parties as genuinely democratic, mass-membership organisations that are inherently in touch with the general public and constantly evolving ideologically. They would become structures within which ordinary members argued policy and ideas rather than being mere vehicles for careerists.”

The Declining health of political parties

This argument has been taken up by another political commentator, Liam Hehir, who wrote yesterday about “the hollowing out of our political parties”, and how this is leading to them be dominated by ambitious “strivers who want to be elected to Parliament” – see: Political parties benefit from having a broad base of members.

According to Hehir, who has declared previous involvement in the Alliance and National parties, the current parties are becoming highly un-representative of society: “politics is about power and the people most interested in power are often those who covet it for themselves. So it’s no surprise that the ambitious are among those most attracted to party membership. As the older group gets older, they are not generally being replaced. With every passing year, therefore, the membership becomes smaller, more ideological and more grasping. They become less and less like the rest of the country. Given that our system of electing members of parliament now revolves around political parties, this is not ideal.”

This week, veteran political commentator Richard Harman has also argued that “politics has a purpose beyond simply gaining power” and in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross scandal, some MPs “are asking questions about their parties and whether there is a need for them to put more emphasis on policy; in other words to attract people in who want more than a seat in Parliament or proximity to Ministers” – see: Saving Labour from itself.

Harman interviews senior Labour MP Ruth Dyson about her experience as Labour’s party president in the 1980s when “people went to a [party] conference because they had something to say on an issue they felt really strongly about” and there were days of debates about policy. Dyson now worries about today’s party conferences going “to the other extreme where we have sterile debate or hardly any debate at all”. But she also reports a revival of recent youth activism in her party.

RNZ’s Tim Watkin has also noticed that something is amiss with our politicians, given behaviour and standards displayed on all sides of Parliament this year: “there’s something that ties together the woes both major parties have suffered this year. This tricky thing called ‘culture’. Something in Wellington is broken. It has two prongs, to my mind. One is the behaviour of MPs and the workplace culture they’ve created. The other is the level of transparency being offered” – see: Don’t give me culture – change it.

And, it badly needs fixing according to Watkin: “maybe it’s time for us to demand better of the people paid to represent us and our interests. Indeed, I think voters are heartily sick of the power games, brutal ambition and blind partisanship. From Brexit and Trump, to Ardern and these current US mid-terms, that fed-upedness unites them all.”

However, Watkin detects that neither National nor Labour really wants to fix the problems, being keener to just sweep any mess under the carpet. He complains: “We deserve better. This is not a moment for ‘business as usual’. This is a chance to clean house. Scrubbing out the dirty corners of our political life and preserving its decency in troubled times for democracy globally should be a much higher priority for our leaders right now. And if, as they insist, they’re not hearing that from voters, then I don’t think they’re really listening.”

Finally, it’s worth asking if we should impose term-limits on our MPs to prevent the development of career politicians. Andrea Vance makes the case for this, saying that long-serving MPs are part of the problem: “The more comfortable they become in their Beehive offices, with staff, perks and tax-payer funded travel – the more distant they become from those they represent. They come bursting into Parliament with big ideas and naive ideology but are eventually worn down by the grind and disappointment of real politik. Most get jaded, cynical, and too involved in playing the game… Term limits would allow MPs to spend less time worrying about re-election or scrabbling up the caucus ranks. More policy-making, less plotting” – see: Stamp MPs with a best-before date.