Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The occupational backgrounds of politicians

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The occupational backgrounds of politicians

A recent opinion piece on the Newsroom site by Jess Berentson-Shaw (Leading our country is far, far bigger than leading a business) focused on the impact of newly elected National Party leader Christopher Luxon being described by the media a “businessman”.

The column argued that framing him as a businessman, and the concepts that invokes, such as profit, corporate and efficiency, undermined the fundamentals of the role of government as it failed to acknowledge the importance of concepts such as greater good, wellbeing and the role of citizens.

Doesn’t this somewhat miss the point? Our recent political history is filled with words to describe our elected representatives. Labour MPs have been labelled teachers, union representatives and academics. On the opposing side of the house, National MPs have been labelled farmers, currency traders and lawyers. Both currently have doctors. More minor parties have environmentalists and small business owners. At times MPs are also defined by gender and race. Sometimes all of the above.

Research undertaken earlier this year by Blackland PR and the Democracy Project found that MPs in the current Parliament had more than 200 different careers, and 500 jobs – one of our most diverse Parliaments ever. This is not only a reflection of MMP, which was designed, at least in part, to do just that, but also how people are much more likely to have multiple careers in their lifetime now than they would have say 25 years ago when MMP was introduced.

And as a modern democracy, this is how it should be. Broadly speaking, those who represent New Zealanders in the House of Representatives should, in fact, represent our society. As the research pointed out, it is far from perfect, but it is certainly an improvement from when Parliament had just one female MP, which it is worth remembering was not actually that long ago.

And this diversity has resulted in legislation that has a direct impact on New Zealanders’ lives. Take, for instance, David Seymour’s end of life bill or Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill. There are numerous others. And, more mundane, but of no less importance, every day that Parliament sits presents the opportunity for a diversity of opinion to be brought to bear in the House. The select committee process is also set up to maximise this diversity of opinion.

While it can be argued that the rules around the selection and election of our representatives, and the rules and conventions of Parliament, may in themselves constrain diversity views and debate, New Zealand’s system is head and shoulders above many other Western democracies.

So does describing Christopher Luxon as a businessman really stymie the role of MPs and Parliament in our society? Isn’t the diversity of our representatives more important than whether they are described by their previous employment?

And most importantly, aren’t the issues being debated in Parliament right now worthy of more attention than whether or not the newly elected leader of the National Party used to be a businessman and is being described as such? The answer, surely, is yes.


Jacqui Van Der Kaay, a former journalist, holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington and has a specialist interest in political leadership, voter behaviour, immigration and how social media affects democracy.