Editorial: 'College' for politicians a good idea

The National Party's intention to form a political candidate's "college" is a fine idea as far as it goes. One of the prime functions of political parties is to recruit good people for government and possibly the task is more difficult on National's side of the fence. Parties to the left seem to attract people well practised in political dispute. Factional battles within left-wing politics are famously more fierce than the contest with the right. Look in on conferences of our two main parties and you are liable to notice the difference. Labour's is normally a marketplace of political causes, each promoting its concerns with vigour. National's is usually a polite audience for the party's leading figures.

Labour's parliamentary candidates come to national politics from the combative nurseries of trade unions, particularly of schoolteachers, from university liberal arts faculties or from public advocacy groups of various kinds. National typically draws from farmer and business organisations, the legal profession and the police. But the wider any party can cast its net, the better our governments might be.

The cut and thrust of politics is extremely off-putting to most people. They see its practitioners putting the verbal knife into each other, often personally and needlessly. They see politicians treated without much respect by rude television interviewers and, of course, they hear them castigated constantly in everyday conversation.

Not many self-respecting people would volunteer for that.

Yet in in all walks of life there are people sufficiently interested in the nation's problems and possibilities to consider standing for Parliament. Many will possess knowledge and judgment that any government could use, but they would need a great deal of persuasion to ever consider subjecting themselves to the unpleasant side of public life. And they might only be persuaded if parties were better at preparing them for the gauntlet they would need to run.

National's "college" is described as an informal group of MPs and party office-holders who, aided by "talent scouts", will select from applicants for a couple of days' training a year. The chosen ones will be encouraged to involve themselves in party activities and in their local community before they are helped to prepare for candidate selection contests. Obviously the exercise is mainly for the party's benefit but the public gain should not be denied.

The list system of MMP has made it easier to attract people such as National's Don Brash and Labour's Margaret Wilson, who might have been deterred by the grind of campaigning for an electorate seat. While it is unfortunate that the system allows people into Parliament with no personal mandate, it is only sensible to make the best of the list system.

Politics is a profession like any other, with its own body of knowledge and arts of organisation and communication. All aspiring MPs should have a working grasp of economics and the social composition of New Zealand. Ideally, they would come from a range of occupations and income levels and have some personal acquaintance with business management. But to be effective in public life they will need to know how to speak, not so much at length these days but succinctly and clearly, often live on the air where any mistake might be replayed mercilessly.

The task of political mentors should be to ensure prospective candidates come to see that the harsh tests of politics serve a valid public purpose and surviving them is a point of pride. People who aspire to power are asking for enormous trust and it does little harm to help them keep their feet on the ground. Seasoned practitioners have come to accept that they will be national objects of satire and ridicule. It can be seen as a backhanded compliment to those who have the guts to stand for public office.

If National's talent quest can find people of good calibre and its college can help them face the rigours of politics, the public will be well served.

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