Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Why we despise politicians

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As in the rest of the world, there’s an anti-political mood in New Zealand and sometimes we show signs of despising politicians. Is that unfair, or do politicians bring in on themselves? There have been a few answers this week in parliamentary politics.
Nationa; MP Nuk Korako has recieved criticism for current bill on airport procedures. Photo / Supplued
Nationa; MP Nuk Korako has recieved criticism for current bill on airport procedures. Photo / Supplued

"What Do Our Politicians Actually Do?" - that's an episode in the latest TVNZ series of "The Hard Stuff with Nigel Latta", which started screening this week.

That particular episode - number six in the series - doesn't screen until 20 September, but you can watch it online now. In the 44-minute programme, Latta delves into the worth and performance of MPs, and includes a fair amount of commentary from myself - which is, of course, rather critical of the parliamentarians. But others provide some contrasting views about how we should regard politicians.

This week we've seen some examples of why politicians are not always highly regarded by the public. Ranging from ridiculous legislation from backbench Government MPs, to slurs against public servants from Opposition MPs, to Ministers refusing to engage in important debate, we see examples of where politicians need to pull their socks up.

Exhibit 1: The "Lost Luggage" private members bill

That politicians manipulate the democratic process for their own partisan ends has been once again spotlighted this week by the seemingly arcane debate about National MP Nuk Korako current members' bill dealing with airport procedures. Although the whole issue appears bizarre and trivial, at the heart of the debate is whether the National Government is abusing the parliamentary process. This is pretty much the objection of constitutional law professor Andrew Geddis, who has obsessively highlighted the ludicrous situation.

Geddis' first blog post was fairly blunt - see: Worst. Members. Bill. Ever. As well as outlining why the bill in question will "literally achieve nothing at all", Geddis characterises the motives of such Government MPs as being part of an anti-democratic pattern: "MPs simply find some trivial matter - such as the fact that airports have to put notices in papers before selling lost property - and draft a bill around it so as to take up a spot on the order paper. And then the matter will get dragged out in the House, eating up parliamentary time that could be spent on discussing and voting on issues that actually could do some good for us as a society."

Such actions are an abuse of process, bringing Parliament into disrepute. For this reason Geddis says it's "disrespectful to New Zealand" and that he "found it personally insulting". He then elaborated in further interesting blog posts about just how bad this type of legislation is - see: C'est pire qu'un crime, c'est une faute and I really can't believe I'm having to say this again ... In the latter post, Geddis suggests the National MP's actions are either characterised by incompetence, or "something worse than incompetence" - simply the manipulation of parliament to stymie other legislation coming forward.

Blogging lawyer Graeme Edgeler seems to concur with Geddis, and has published his own very detailed question and answer blog post about the bill in question - see: The law to make it easier for airports to sell your stuff. This is his conclusion: "Nuk Korako's bill is not about reuniting people with their lost property, but about making it slightly easier for airport authorities to sell that lost property, keeping the profit".

But the fun really started for Geddis, when Gerry Brownlee - the Leader of the House - attempted to put the critical law professor in his place. The Government minister lashed out, saying "Professor Geddis is demonstrating a degree of arrogance that can only come from academics" and that "Ultimately, if you took that to its nth degree, it's an attack on democracy. For him to pontificate this is a bill unworthy of Parliament is just completely inappropriate" - see Jason Walls's NBR article Brownlee slams 'arrogant' academic for criticising lost luggage bill (paywalled).

This was too much fun for Geddis who instantly replied with his own blog post apology: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa. Here's the best part: "And so, to the people of New Zealand - but more importantly, to the institution of Parliament and the very concept of democracy itself - I apologise. I have seen the error of my ways. I shall no longer make the arrogant assumption that the statutory requirement that my University "accept a role as critic and conscience of society" requires me to speak out if I see foolish or wrongheaded lawmaking. Instead, I will do my duty to democracy and assume that whatever MPs (at least, government MPs) do is completely fine and not to be questioned in any way, shape or form."

Geddis was also reported in the NBR as believing "Mr Brownlee obviously has a different view of democracy, in which people should just 'shut up and let Parliament do what it wants' - I don't agree with him on that" - see Jason Walls' Professor fights back, chides Gerry Brownlee (paywalled). In the same article Geddis says about Brownlee: "He can't defend the bill itself because the bill itself is completely stupid and has no point to it whatsoever, so he has to attack those who are pointing that out."

So, who was on Geddis' side? Interestingly, the NBR then carried out polling of its readers, asking Was Brownlee out of line? (paywalled). Geddis had the support of 71 per cent, and Brownlee 29 per cent.

The NBR's Rob Hosking also weighed in the luggage bill: "A government which was confident of its own purpose and sense of direction would not be bothered about indulging in such silly games. There is a sense of irresponsible frivolity about any government that would put up a bill like this, simply to play silly beggars on the floor of the House, to tie up a select committee for anything from six to nine months on the matter, at a cost of roughly $43,000 an hour, with the main purpose of simply wasting everyone's time" - see: Frivolous and expensive: the government's lost luggage bill (paywalled).

Vernon Small labelled the bill "execrable", and called for it to be withdrawn: "If Korako doesn't want his parliamentary career defined by this nonsense he should be banging on the National whips' door, begging them to can it before it arrives on the floor of the House" - see: Korako's inconsequential lost property bill reveals dark side of Govt tactic.

National Party blogger David Farrar was mildly critical of the bill, saying: "A members' bill doesn't need to be a major issue, but it should have some significance to it and this particular bill doesn't seem to make that threshold. In fact it is debatable if the bill is even needed" - see: The lost luggage bill.

More critical is Matthew Hooton, who in a NBR column - not currently online - says the whole "embarrassing" incident indicates that John Key needs to carry out an urgent reshuffle. Hooton suggest that a new reform agenda is needed in National: "Key's government also needs to pull its socks up, put together a regulatory reform programme worth speaking of, and desist from insulting the public and taxpayer with trivia".

And others joined the fun in lampooning the National bill. Derek Burrows proposed other similar bills: "in keeping with the spirit of that bill, I would like to find a sponsor in the House for a Creation of a Department to Investigate the Mysterious Disappearance of Socks in the Wash Bill" - see: Here are some bills that really deserve to be enacted. But his more serious point was this: "Members of Parliament are, after all, paid not insubstantial amounts of money to represent their constituents' interests, not engage in school playground-type politics."

But not everyone was totally dismissive - Claire Trevett argued that "Loading up the members' ballot is a legitimate political tactic for a Government that cannot be certain of a majority" - see: Lost luggage bill off conveyor belt and into fire (http://bit.ly/2b2Rp99).

Nonetheless, reform of the private members' ballot process might be coming - see Rosanna Price's Backlash over 'lost luggage' bill: Is the members' bills process flawed?

Exhibit 2: Grant Robertson vs the Chief Statistician

When the latest employment figures came out this week, Labour's employment spokesperson Grant Robertson claimed that the figures had been massaged by the government, noting an important methodology change in counting the jobless. Implicit in this critique was a questioning of the impartiality of Statistics New Zealand. The Chief Statistician, Liz MacPherson, fired back disputing the allegations - see Jo Moir's Government statistician calls out Labour's Grant Robertson for 'political interference' accusations.

David Farrar saw it as a smear and attack on the public service: "Robertson is not stupid. He knows the Government Statistician has independence and no Minister can tell her to change an official definition. He just figured a cheap shot at the Government was worth the implicit smearing of the neutral officials at Stats NZ who make these decisions. Remember this when Robertson talks of protecting the public service - it needs protecting from him" - see: Government Statistician rejects Robertson smear on public servants. See also: More Labour lies.

Robertson was accused of "playing the person, not the stats" by the Prime Minister, leading to a quasi-apology - see Rosanna Price and Sam Sachdeva's Labour MP Grant Robertson offers apology of sorts to Government Statistician over jobs figures.

According to a Southland Times editorial, "If you detect any skerrick of apology in there you're imagining things" - see: Robertson gets a smack from a statistician. The editorial commented: "Although Grant Robertson screwed up badly when he accused the Government of interfering in the production of official unemployment statistics - which it hasn't - he does raise a point people should know about."

The NBR's Rob Hosking has delivered the most stinging rebuke of Robertson in a column today - not currently online - arguing that the politician has unscrupulously undermined confidence in the integrity of Statistics NZ, and thereby undermined New Zealand's constitution. For this, Robertson's actions are "dumb", "nasty" and "potentially dangerous".

Exhibit 3: MP spending

The quarterly parliamentary and ministerial spending figures are out. Although there's nothing too controversial this time around, they once again reinforce the large amount of money being used up by politicians. The best coverage of the various costs is in Newshub's Parliament's biggest spenders revealed.

National Clutha MP Todd Barclay figures prominently in the spend-up - see Newstalk ZB's Backbencher Todd Barclay racks up big travel expenses. His latest quarterly spend of $45,000 on travel is raising questions, albeit ones that might be answered by the size of his electorate.

Exhibit 4: The new Children's Ministry

The soon-to-be Minister for Vulnerable Children, Anne Tolley, is receiving criticism for her failure to consult and be accountable. Central to this is the decision on the name of her new children's ministry, which many professionals in the sector disagree with - see: Simon Collins' Children's Commissioner will not use English name of new ministry.

One journalist with a background in the reporting on children's issues says that the minister has failed in the setting up of the new agency: "For her to blithely ignore the concerns of those who have spent their professional lives working with children is beyond disappointing" - see Katie Kenny's 'Ministry for Vulnerable Children' ignores those who have spent their professional lives working with children. Kenny notes the numerous times that the minister has "declined to comment" on issues arising from the new ministry, and give her some concluding advice: "Here's a tip for free: stop declining to comment".

Finally, in his usual inimitable style, Toby Manhire explains that Nuk Korako's lost luggage bill is an Olympic torch of aspiration.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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