"You all thought you were Milton Friedman", is how veteran political journalist Richard Harman mocks those of us who were 20-something staffers in the Bolger Beehive of the 1990s.

But Harman insists his words were also complimentary. We young right-wingers, who became politically conscious during the 1980s, had a sense of mission motivated by the economic reforms of David Lange and Roger Douglas, and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan.

We even indulged in the usual Kiwi conceit of global leadership. Such fervour now exists only in elements of the Greens.


For today's young activists in the two main parties, the role models are, at best, The West Wing's Josh Lyman and C. J. Cregg. More usually they are The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker or, worse, House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood.

Politics has become less about policy proposals to make New Zealand and even the world a better place. It is about celebrity culture. It is just another opportunity to advance a personal brand through an elaborate game, with the bonus of being well remunerated by the taxpayer.

This attitude has led to the rise of a self-perpetuating class that moves seamlessly from being activists in their party's youth wings to jobs as parliamentary staffers or the bureaucracy. They use those connections to become MPs without becoming connected with a real community.

A few months as a Government relations adviser for an NGO or multinational is enough to claim private-sector experience. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson are classic examples but Jami-Lee Ross is surely the most extreme.

Having left school at 16 to become a lifeguard, he was first elected to the Manukau City Council at 18 while also working for then Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson. He began no degree nor learned any trade nor even did an OE before being elected to Parliament in 2011, aged just 25.

In his maiden speech, Ross lauded both Thatcher and Reagan while attacking socialism and promoting as virtues "the principles of freedom and liberty". But something rang hollow.

Ross was 3 when Reagan left office, 4 when the Berlin Wall fell, and 5 when Thatcher was rolled. It is implausible he was personally inspired by the events of the 1980s. In any case, surely a young person entering Parliament in 2011 should have had more contemporary heroes.

Nothing in Ross's record since suggests any commitment to the values he associated himself with in his maiden speech.


It seems he just thought they were the right words for the day.

Ross is far from alone in apparently being empty of genuine political ideas.

Both main parties are now infested with MPs who have never worked a day outside politics.

Some of these people are, of course, perfectly capable individually. Collectively, though, they risk Parliament and Government becoming ever-more out of touch, not just from business but from any other part of the wider world. This comes with consequences.

The trend has caused a self-absorption in Australia's main parties leading to the prime ministership being passed around as a mere short-term trophy of party supremacy.

The separation of US political elites from the people has produced the current catastrophe that sees Donald Trump unwinding the Reagan legacy.

Former party staffer David Cameron's bequest was his cynical Brexit referendum that threatens to unravel the UK after more than 300 years.

The EU's profound democratic deficit and the dominance of career politicians and technocrats has fuelled a rise of extremist parties not seen since the 1930s.

Even in liberal Sweden, 18 per cent of voters backed the nationalist Sweden Democrats last month.

This is not an argument for National or any other party to dust off their Friedman, however much I personally wish they would.

It is an argument to try to rebuild the big parties as genuinely democratic, mass-membership organisations that are inherently in touch with the general public and constantly evolving ideologically.

They would become structures within which ordinary members argued policy and ideas rather than being mere vehicles for careerists.

Elements in the media would stop painting political party membership as odd or evil, and promote the value of civic engagement.

Parties would be less vulnerable to small groups of committed activists and parliamentary staffers hijacking selections. And a practical political bonus is that party leaders would be less likely to have to deal with the likes of Ross, for whom politics is a mere stage to play Tucker or Underwood.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.