Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: University of Life best qualification

39 comments
Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A certain amount of intellectual snobbery occasionally wafts its way through Parliament, that place happily peopled by doctors, farmers, church ministers, policemen, dental nurses and money traders.

It happened last term when Anne Tolley was Education Minister and some Labour MPs - those champions of blue collar workers - rather sneeringly observed she was "the least educated Education Minister in history".

Lips also curled when former Labour MP Michael Cullen was made the Attorney-General because he was not a lawyer.

More recently, Winston Peters described Gerry Brownlee - who had accused Peters of being incoherent - as an "illiterate woodwork teacher". In Peters' case, it was prompted more by an attempt to get a laugh than any genuine superiority complex.

The idea that only people with higher learning should become MPs is worrying given the relevance of higher learning to both MPs' jobs and to real life.

A search for the qualifications deemed desirable in an MP leads to the Careers NZ jobs database - the guidance website set up by the Government's own careers advice agency. This should be compulsory reading for all MPs if only for pure entertainment value.

The website is targeted at helping the young and bewildered figure out what they want to do. "Member of Parliament" is one of the increasingly rare jobs for which there are no tertiary education requirements. It points out that to get the job, the support of voters is more important than a degree. Once there, however, it suggests a degree - especially in law, public policy or economics - might be useful.

National minister Steven Joyce's zoology degree is perhaps less useful for him than his business experience, although it could come in handy should he ever experience time in that wilderness of the Opposition.

As for Brownlee, he does have teaching qualifications and an advanced certificate in carpentry. His ability to knock a few blocks of wood together is a more useful skill than being able to delicately tease together a haiku, given one of his jobs is the rebuilding of Christchurch. And in Parliament, his ability to spot a trap from a mile away and intervene as Leader of the House shows his past as a woodwork teacher has not affected his ability as a politician.

In fact, in a Parliament of representatives, too many qualifications can be a political liability. In the early 2000s, a reverse intellectual snobbery kicked against Labour for the number of academics in their line-up. Some MPs downplay their qualifications in the interests of showing an acquaintance with "real life". Hence, former Act leader Rodney Hide often spoke of his past as a truck driver but rarely of his decade as a university academic.

But the careers website does not make the job sound very glamorous at all. There is a live action shot of Labour MP Moana Mackey, taken some years ago, with the riveting caption of: "Moana Mackey checking her emails." Aspirants are also told that MPs "have to spend a lot of time reading".

Ms Mackey warns the skills needed are akin to those of a breakfast TV show host and gives a hint on how to get media coverage. "There are things that you might have said if you were not an MP, that you don't say if you are. You have to be very careful - throwaway comments can end up on the front page of the newspaper."

Under "physical requirements" we learn members of Parliament "must have clear speech, a tidy appearance and a good level of stamina". Here Mackey appears again, telling us it is also important to keep fit to be an MP.

"The job has become a lot more physical. I think it requires people to be far healthier and physically fit than they have been in the past."

It is unclear how indolent Ms Mackey considered her predecessors to be. It is true MPs such as Peters expend significant energy in standing up to take points of order. Doorknocking every three years in more mountainous electorates could also be arduous, but that is why the handy mechanism of party volunteers was invented.

Trevor Mallard has clearly read this job description and taken to cycling with a vengeance.

But other MPs such as Brownlee himself, conveniently situated on the plains of Christchurch, have managed to turn themselves into handy politicians without any indications they did so on a treadmill.

After Peters' comment about Brownlee, an onlooker on Twitter observed it was ironic given Peters was the leader of the party with the lowest proportion of MPs with a university degree. Three of the eight NZ First MPs have degrees - Peters, Denis O'Rourke and Barbara Stewart. By comparison, 11 of the 14 Green MPs have degrees - many at a masters or doctorate level. Nonetheless, the observation is wrong.

The Act Party takes the prize for highest proportion of MPs without a degree - its sole MP John Banks managed to make his way from door to door salesman to businessman, to government minister, to mayor and finally to the heady heights of Act Party leader without a tertiary qualification to be seen.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

Read more by Claire Trevett

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 31 Oct 2014 07:13:19 Processing Time: 363ms