Our politicians are in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Again.
Hard on the heels of the confidential Cabinet leaks and the sudden defection to a rival political party, we now have a couple of ministers falling foul of Parliament’s rules.
Education Minister Jan Tinetti appeared before Parliament’s privileges committee this week on a charge of misleading parliament. And Transport Minister Michael Wood is in the gun for failing to disclose his ownership of shares in Auckland International Airport.
What’s interesting this time around is that the ministers in question have both had the opportunity to correct their errant behaviour before it became an issue. Tinetti was apparently reminded more than once of the need to set the parliamentary record straight. We learned that Wood was reminded on 12 occasions to sell his shares in Auckland Airport.
We’re now learning that a number of Auckland’s councillors have also “forgotten” to declare their shareholdings in Auckland Airport.
In Wood’s case, the PM suggested his error was “one of those life admin tasks” that busy people can forget. But we’re all busy and we all have admin. Seldom are we reminded even two or three times before the penalty hits us. And if we fail on our life admin, the price is high. Just think of the 10 per cent penalty on the overdue tax or rates bill!
Perhaps Michael Wood never heard that “you don’t walk out the door in the morning to sort out the corporation, if you can’t clean up your garage”.
I’m not worried about “admin”. I am worried about what such behaviour suggests about capability and judgment.
I’ve often thought that the arrival of MMP lowered the bar to becoming a Member of Parliament. Under the old first-past-the-post parliamentary system, prospective MP’s had to win an electorate seat. That meant there was a contest. You had to walk the streets and convince people of your worth. Such was the competition that some very good people, successful people, missed out.
The arrival of MMP meant that budding parliamentarians no longer had to win a seat. Today, getting into Parliament as an MP is easier. Instead of presenting your credentials to an electorate in the hope that people will vote for you, you need only find favour within the comparatively small group of people who represent the hierarchy of your preferred political party. If your personal “admin skills” are up to managing relationships with such people, your prize will be a place on the party list and your entry into Parliament is thereafter largely a given, sometimes regardless of your capability or judgment.
I looked back on the men and women who have occupied the office of Prime Minister during my lifetime. For the most part, they were people whose careers before politics were reflective of much that was good about the country at that time. They were variously farmers, school teachers, tradesmen, businesspeople and lawyers. Many were very successful. For the most part, these people had built careers based on skills and capabilities developed over time, prior to their arrival in Parliament.
Post-MMP, National Party prime ministers have continued the line of farmers, a school teacher and a businessman. The Labour Party, however, has given us a university lecturer, and thereafter two career politicians whose pre-parliamentary work history revolved around assistant roles in the offices of other politicians.
The lack of sound, worldly experience is not limited to the office of the PM. Without wanting to be disparaging to the people concerned, many of them are in positions, sometimes powerful positions, that they shouldn’t be in.
My concern is that there is now an accepted career choice of “politician”. And while I’m not advocating a return to first-past-the-post politics, I would like to see the system amended in a way that ensures those rising to the top political offices really are the best of the best. Or as the saying goes, “the first among equals”.
People develop experience in many ways. One thing is for sure, though. The more experience we have, the better we get. Life experiences should deliver a capacity to fix what’s broken, to play by the rules, to understand basic financial management, to nurture people going through a tough time or to take on leadership challenges. Our best people should be able to step back and take a strategic view of the needs of the country, while at the same time understanding the tactical view of how to respond to those needs.
Such skills come with experience. With experience comes perspective. With perspective comes the ability to look at different challenges and to apply your own experiences in overcoming those obstacles.
We have a current example of such a politician. I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me they’re “loving Wayne Brown”. The Auckland Mayor has a clear view of what needs to happen in the city. You might not like him, but he has plenty of real-world experience and you know where he stands. He’s made promises on that basis and he’s pursuing his objectives. Yes, he’s abrasive and he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But my bet is that we’ll be better off as a result of having him in the mayoral seat, than we would have been without him.
However, such skills and the desire to use them appear to be lacking in the current crop of ideology-based politicians.
The new alternative is that you spend your life at high school, possibly in the debating team, go on to university to study politics and thereafter work in the office of a senior MP. There you will wait until your chance at the big time arrives. Either a safe electorate seat that you can stroll into, or better still, a place high up on the party list.
Working in a minister’s office might teach you about what has happened in politics past. But it doesn’t prepare you for things you’ve never seen before. For the future. Only experience and perspective and judgment do that.
But the perpetuation of such an approach will continue to deliver politicians who see everything through a politically based, Wellington-centric and retrospective lens. As a result, the basis of decision-making becomes narrower and narrower.
An example is the current Government’s fascination with the need to centralise decision-making. In healthcare and education, centralisation has become the new norm. But the Wellington-centric lens has no place in a classroom in Whangarei or a hospital waiting room in Invercargill.
The role of politicians should be to set up the platform or framework in order to make a sector succeed. Set up the core objectives, listen to the needs, support the infrastructure and ensure appropriate funding levels. Then get out of the way and let the people who are best at doing – police, health workers, teachers etc – get on with the job.
Our top surgeons should be co-opted into solving the health crisis. Instead, they are resorting to letters to the editor in order to have their voice heard. Our top school principals should be part of the solution to falling attendance and inferior achievement levels. Instead, they are pulling their schools out of the national qualification framework and calling talkback radio to tell the world how bad it is.
The reason is that our inexperienced, yet ideological leaders are busy majoring in minor things. Centralisation of the health service is not as important as making sure that people get the medical attention they need. As we are already seeing, the centralisation experiment isn’t helping our tertiary education students either.
As a number of high schools are now saying, lowering educational standards because we can’t reach the target is not a solution. Instead of dumbing down education, we need to brighten it up. Instead of principals opting out of the system, how about we get them to come up with a better system? Yes, the principals. The people at the coalface.
Tinkering with new logos and name changes to government departments does not make them more user-friendly or efficient. But it’s the sort of activity we get from struggling leaders who don’t know what else to do.
The result is that we have problems across the park – policing , education, health, mental health, transport, infrastructure and of course financial stability. And while this goes on, the people in parliamentary leadership roles are unable to provide solutions. The reason? Experience. Capability. Judgment.
There are politicians whose goal is to win power or to stay there. There are others whose only reason for being there is to make the country a better place. I like the latter. But only if they have the skills and experience to deliver on such a promise.
Sadly, in a post-MMP world, we can no longer be sure to attract the right people to the Treasury benches. The result is that we have the current Government struggling to fill important ministerial vacancies in the wake of the stand-downs and sackings. The Beehive website lists our new acting Transport Minister as having been a voluntary firefighter. The Labour Party website lists his previous employment as a “Work and Income case manager, and a bookie at the TAB”. That must be why he’s also the Minister of Racing. But it doesn’t equip you for the multibillion-dollar transport portfolio.
I don’t want to pick on well-meaning individuals. But I’d like to see us aspire to be better. I want a Minister of Health who has run a major hospital. And a Minister of Defence who led troops in Iraq. A Minister of Education who ran the country’s best school. Or a Minister of Finance with strong economic and accounting fundamentals. And a Minister of Transport who made billion-dollar decisions in an earlier career. Wishful thinking I know. But you get the point.
But the talent cupboard is currently bare. Bare of experience, capability and judgment. Perhaps it’s time for half as many MP’s, who get paid twice as much.
Or perhaps, it’s time for an election.
FOOTNOTE: Regular readers will recall our Bike for Blokes charity cycle ride from North Cape to Bluff, which we completed in March. Earlier this week we held a celebration event to thank our supporters and sponsors and to present the funds to our charities. We announced that we raised $286,000 which brings our two-year total to $503,000. We’d like to convey a huge vote of thanks to all the Herald readers who have supported us. Thank you.
This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 10th June 2023.