It’s election year, the time when MPs should be listening. Paul Little has the best tips for getting their attention.

They sit in their ­ivory Beehive, high-handedly signing off decrees based on their doctrinaire party lines and with no thought for what the ­people who put them there and pay their wages want.

At least, that's a common view of how our representatives make their decisions. And anyway, don't the bureaucrats really run things? Well, no, Minister.

We asked several former or soon to be former MPs the most effective way for a voter to get their attention.

Apparently, we don't know how lucky we are.

Advertisement
Maurice Williamson. Photo / NZPA
Maurice Williamson. Photo / NZPA

"The most amazing thing about New Zealand," says ­National's Maurice Williamson (1987-2017, 22 ministerial portfolios), echoing just about everyone else spoken to for this story, "is how ­accessible MPs are".

"My number was in the directory even when I was a Cabinet minister. I was just in Nelson and a lady in a mall said, 'Can I have a chat?'

"In America and Europe that doesn't happen. I know ministers of the Conservative Government in Britain who only hear from their ­officials."

But surely there have to be some filters? All those nutters and barrow pushers out there?

"If someone rings and asks for your office, it's an executive assistant who answers and that person acts as a screen," says Act's Heather Roy (2002-11, Minister of Consumer Affairs, Associate Minister of ­Defence and ­Associate Minister of Education).

"But I always had conversations with whoever might be responsible for [screening] about what I was keen to hear about and who from. Some people could be described as energetic constituents - they're contacting everybody and you don't want to be stuck with them, but that's part of the job. People should have access to their elected representatives."

Heather Roy. Photo / NZPA
Heather Roy. Photo / NZPA

In fact, the filters can be the voter's best friend.

"Nine times out of 10, our executive assistants could do whatever the person wanted," says New Zealand First/Mauri Pacific/ ­National's Tau Henare (1993-2014, Minister of Maori Affairs).

Tau Henare. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tau Henare. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"I always tried to have people sharp enough to see, among the thousands a week, who it was worth me meeting with personally," says the Greens' Sue Bradford (1999-2009). "I was open to it because I went in wanting to be a voice for the ­voiceless."

Sue Bradford. Photo / NZPA
Sue Bradford. Photo / NZPA

Sometimes the filters didn't work, especially if an MP was identified with a contentious piece of legislation, such as the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill 2005 - the anti-­smacking law.

Bradford says she was hassled over this "constantly for four years. Two years from when it was drawn, then two years after it was passed. People still make a beeline for me when I'm out. I figure it will be with me forever."

Some constit­uents' approaches are so direct as to be counter­productive, according to ­Labour's Annette King (1984-2017, Minister of Health, Police, Transport and ­Justice).

Annette King. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Annette King. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"For most MPs, ­people shouting and yelling at you and getting in your face doesn't work," says King. "Most humans don't react well to that."

They do react well, she says, to people who make it easy for them to help, especially if they are willing to start a petition.

"One: make an appointment to see me," says King. "A good constituency MP will see anybody who insists they want to see them. Then usually I work through the issue they're lobbying me on and look at ways I could help them. It could be on a health issue about access to drugs. Normally I say: this issue is bigger than an individual MP and the only way we can fix this is if there is overall change and the best way to do that is to start a petition.

"I'll assist them with how to go about it then help set up their presentation and any media and present it to Parliament.

"The reason they're ­effective is because once a petition is ­presented it has to go to a select committee. It's a form of lobbying people sometimes overlook."

Williamson, like many of us, loves bullet points.

"Those who come to you with a clearly put case, summarised in bullet points on a couple of pages have a better chance of having at least an influence over you," he says. "The ones who do it really well are the people who make an appointment to see you at your ­office. Good lobbying is about being precise and constructive."

Unlike a former Spark ­executive, who in Williamson's telling "came once when I was minister of ­communications with four phonebook-sized books about what ­deregulation did to the industry. I looked at him in despair and said, 'If you think I've got time even to read the executive summary, you've lost the plot. I've got five portfolios'."

Roy was all about ­focus and clear messages. Today, her company LobbyTorque runs courses for lobbyists on how to do exactly this. "A direct approach was always the best," says Roy.

"Sometimes I would give out my business card with a cellphone number and never really minded people contacting me.

"I was a list MP and also responsible for health for Act so I was keen to connect with those people and welcomed them contacting me. If someone wanted to contact me about ­Auckland transport, being a ­Wellington-based MP, there was not much I could do."

List or electorate, the roles are equally demanding, says Henare, who has been both.

"I would have thought there'd be more demands on an electorate MP but it works out pretty much the same. As a listie, because you're all over the place geograph­ically, you might get sent down the line to talk to people.

"You would most definitely have one day of your week full of appointments."

Fronting up on the ­Beehive steps is also surprisingly ­effective, according to King.

"We have a lot of ­lobbying from people at the front of Parliament. Those who come and are organised with speakers and are respectful and give politicians a chance to respond - I think they're successful. They might come with a petition like the Pike River people.

"It was a serious issue done in a very effective, lobbying way."

Bradford thinks voters could be even more effective if we followed the American example and taught politics in school.

"I went to school in the US for a year, and civics and political ­education were part of the curriculum. I used to lobby for that and for the voting age to be reduced to 16.

"I had a private members bill that the Greens wouldn't let me put ­forward, because it was too radical, that would have also brought civics education into schools."

In the meantime, keep sending the emails. "Email is obvious," says Roy. "You need to work out if you're contacting somebody whether they clear their own email. Some do, others have an assistant." All MPs' emails are available online.

It has been said one of the secrets to success is showing up, and that's especially true of select committee.

"One of the big things I learned ­early on," says Bradford, "while being politically active but didn't know till I got to Parliament, is how influential any citizen can be if they make an oral submission to a select committee and do it well, even for five minutes."

And if you can't make it to the committee there are electorate ­offices. "Over 15-20 years I did a lot of my work on Monday or Friday in the office," says Henare. "A lot was with people who didn't have jobs or a family member wanting ­another one to come [to New Zealand].

"The policy was whoever walked through the door would get help."

Power to the people

1.

Funding for cancer drug Keytruda is an example of something that happened because of voter initiative, says Annette King. "There were two petitions and cancer sufferers gathered outside Parliament to present the boxes of papers. The media took a lot of notice.

"The minister said he was too busy to meet them, then changed his mind. Then he announced there would be funding for more cancer drugs. Within weeks Pharmac announced they would fund Keytruda."

2. Heather Roy was contacted over the case of a school whose roll had grown but couldn't get more classrooms. Other efforts having failed, "we jointly decided that publicity might be helpful. A shipping container was brought to the school grounds, we set it up as a classroom for the first day - you can fit six children, their desks and a teacher inside. We invited TV3 to come and interview the relevant people at the school. By the end of the week following the ministry had agreed to another two classrooms at the school."

YOUR BEST BET

According to our expert panel, ways to get your MP to help are:

• Email
• Ring their office
• Visit their electorate office
• Organise a petition
• Front up to Parliament's steps and make some noise
• Attend a select committee.