Is New Zealand ready for its own Donald Trump?

By Geoffrey Miller, Mark Blackham

As Donald Trump stamps out a populist path in US politics, Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham write a homegrown equivalent could develop here.
Populists like Donald Trump are an extreme of the backlash against the one-note and unrepresentative range of bland and uninspiring career politicians.
Populists like Donald Trump are an extreme of the backlash against the one-note and unrepresentative range of bland and uninspiring career politicians.

An estrangement between the political establishment and ordinary voters is one reason for Donald Trump's popularity in the US. A gulf is growing between politicians and voters in New Zealand, too, inviting a similar backlash here.

Our recent study of the careers of New Zealand politicians reveals the idea that MPs come from all walks of life in the community to serve in public office is now a myth. Instead, we are witnessing the growth and dominance of our own "political class" - a group of people who have only ever known a working life in politics and Government.

Our analysis reveals the main path to Parliament is to be born into the middle class, go to university, spend a short time in work, then get elected via party manoeuvring on to a list or into an electorate.

Being an MP is now a job, not a calling. This similarity of backgrounds, experiences and political careers reinforces the beltway paradigm of bland, uninspiring policies with little appetite for risk.

New Zealand's political system has long been intimate and humble. Under MMP, Parliament is more ethnically and gender diverse. But a narrow range of working and socio-economic backgrounds is creating a governing elite with less direct experience of the lives of the people they represent.

We found, stunningly, a full third of our MPs have worked only as political "insiders" in taxpayer-funded jobs.

We also discovered the biggest single job category for MPs is not having any definable career or work history (23 MPs). These parliamentarians typically leave university, work briefly in largely dissimilar office-based jobs, before finding employment as MPs.

This category has emerged only over the past decade.

The most common single career before Parliament was employment in the business world (19 MPs), largely in management roles - not as business owners or operators. But tellingly, the second-most-common career is within government (15 MPs).

Whichever way you look at it, our House of Representatives is becoming less and less representative and more of a finishing school for those with a privileged and largely middle-class employment experience.

In one respect, this is not so different from the past; white collar workers have always been more likely to be in Parliament than their blue collar counterparts.

Out of all the government cabinets of the 1950s and 1960s, only one minister had worked in a manual trade: a Labour MP who worked as a railways fitter. A quarter of ministers were lawyers.

By contrast, a quarter of today's cabinet (five MPs) are lawyers, and none are from manual trades. Farmers have long brought a heartland perspective to Government. In the 1950s and 1960s, six served as ministers.

There are two farmers in the current cabinet.

A revealing difference of modern MPs from the past is the short amount of time spent in careers before entering Parliament.

Members of our Cabinet are, on average, in their early-50s. The average age of National's Cabinet over the 1960s was late-50s. But the current Cabinet spent more than a decade less in a career before entering Parliament.

Fifty years ago, our Parliament consisted overwhelmingly of Pakeha men who had moved from successful long careers in a single field into politics in the second half of their lives.

Now, despite a Parliament more reflective of society in terms of gender and ethnicity, it overwhelmingly favours middle class men and women who view their first jobs merely as a strategy to gain "real-world" experience to propel them into politics.

Over time, we can expect this phenomenon to generate more career politicians - people whose whole working lives have been in politics.

This has already happened in the US. In 1965, no member of Congress or the Senate had previously worked in politics. By 2013, people with political careers formed half of Congress and 40 per cent of the Senate.

The beltway recipe mixes the same ingredients of people in the same bowl of thinking and every election serves it to the public with a different garnish. Now, we are seeing Donald Trump confronting the American political establishment.

To his detractors, Trump's messages are crude, arrogant and dangerous. But to his supporters, Trump's ideas are bold, strong and refreshingly authentic - especially against a backdrop of decades of political blandness and double-speak.

Could New Zealand see the rise of its own Trump?

Our study's findings show the ground is being laid for one. Across the political spectrum, our MPs' lack of life experience is already creating a jarring political culture that increasingly bears little resemblance to the lives of voters.

Populists like Trump are extreme reactions to the very real inadequacies of the current political choices on offer.

If New Zealand's political elites do not want to face a challenger to their own dominance, they need to start becoming more like the people they represent.

Doing so will be painful, but not as painful as staring down at a rampaging populist who will do it for them.


Geoffrey Miller is a New Zealand political analyst and researcher currently lecturing at Germany's Johannes Gutenberg-Universitat Mainz. Mark Blackham is a public relations and political strategy expert with Wellington consultancy BlacklandPR.

- Herald on Sunday

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