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Source: New Zealand Parliament

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A few weeks ago I read an article by a former member of our Parliament in a publication called the National Business Review. The author makes the provocative suggestion that MPs should only be allowed to serve a maximum of four terms of Parliament and then be required to do something else with their lives. He said, and I quote, “In a nation of just four million, we have made politics a career much like butchery, accountancy or law. People choose politics at a young age and then work at it their entire lives. They are professional politicians, a breed apart”.

I disagree with the sentiments in this article for a number of reasons, not least because it displays a lazy cynicism, unfortunately shared by many in New Zealand, about our elected representatives.

In over 20 years as a member of the New Zealand Parliament, and as Speaker for the last three, I have been fortunate to encounter many politicians who have looked upon their work as an MP as far more than a career. They have understood that the privileged position they find themselves in allows them to do good and important things.

Rather than professional politicians, I consider them to be professional parliamentarians. Rather than being a breed apart, driven by self-interest and detached from the people who elected them, they represent constituencies, interest groups, and individuals with vigour and fearlessness.

But they cannot do so in isolation and without support. And this is the subject of my address today – what role should Parliaments play in inducting and then providing ongoing development for members? And in particular, what should we, as Speakers and Presiding Officers, be doing to equip our members to be effective parliamentarians?

Implementing worthwhile induction and development programmes for members would be more straightforward if we could say definitively what we are seeking to equip them for.

But the role of an MP can be a nebulous one and the accountabilities unclear. As statutory office-holders, they are not in a simple employer – employee relationship. They are not contractually obliged to perform specific tasks to particular standards, nor are they required to meet minimum skills and qualifications criteria.

And yet the public’s expectations of what they could and should be doing are sky-high and any failure to meet these expectations means considerable disappointment or criticism. Or, as one academic paper puts it, “Those elected to public office are expected to possess indefinable qualities to accomplish an indescribable job.”

In New Zealand we do now have a firm idea of the type of training and support members need when they first arrive at Parliament. We are fortunate in having two well-functioning agencies that can introduce new members to the operational logistics of being an MP and what they need to know to begin participating in parliamentary business.

Our Parliamentary Service inducts them on technology, staffing arrangements, travel and finance services and everything else they need to get up and running; while the Office of the Clerk leads training on speaking in the House, what happens in select committees, the role of the Speaker, the constitutional role of members of Parliament, and other matters to allow them to start discharging their representative functions.

This aspect of induction is effective because it is participatory, with new members engaged in mock debates and question time in the House, and select committee role plays. Proof of its benefit was the high level of member satisfaction with the last induction programme in 2014 and the situation has certainly improved considerably from when I first entered Parliament through a mid-term by-election in 1994.

So while the “sink or swim” mentality for new members is not as prevalent as it once was, gaps remain in what we offer new members. The first few days and weeks of being new MP’s may feel extremely disorientating, even alienating, as they seek to get to grips with a considerable workload, new relationships to manage, and the realisation that their performance is being intensely scrutinised.

It is not surprising that some of these members struggle to absorb all of the information and advice received in induction, complain about the lack of follow-up, and come to rely heavily on party whips and senior members of their caucus. While close allegiances with party colleagues are inevitable, the risk is that new members focus on these relationships to the exclusion of others and that this may promote an increasingly partisan politics.

As Speaker, I’m always keen to see cross-party engagement and cooperation and I believe induction and ongoing development can assist in this. We heard of an initiative of the Scottish Parliament, which has set up an induction programme to establish a cohort of new members from across the political spectrum and build a shared identity from the time they enter Parliament.

I think this idea could work well in New Zealand, with the new intake of members meeting on a regular basis throughout the term of the Parliament. The impression I have is that we mostly succeed in imparting knowledge to our members but are less effective at enhancing the essential skills they need to conduct parliamentary business well. Members know how to lodge oral and written questions, but they may need training in what constitutes effective questioning and how to ask those searching questions, for example.

We want a true House of Representatives, with a diversity that is reflected in the backgrounds of our members. We shouldn’t then be surprised if some of them arrive having had minimal exposure to reading and analysing legislation, public policy development and analysis, budget scrutiny, effective committee membership or the myriad other activities that a member is required to perform on a day-to-day basis.

The value of ongoing professional development for parliamentarians is, I believe, very hard to argue against. But there are barriers to successful implementation and uptake that Parliaments need to address. A key one is the engagement and motivation of members themselves. Parliaments may be empowered to develop stimulating, varied and useful programmes for members but these will mean nothing if members do not avail themselves of opportunities.

Members are time-poor, and regularly work long hours. They may say they want more training but fitting sessions into a working day can be very challenging, and training will be the first thing they forgo when the inevitable, unexpected issue arises to derail their day.

So, there will be members who want development but find it hard to accommodate. And there will be those who simply do not think they need it. A response to these issues and that of the skill gap faced by many MPs is for Parliaments to advocate for implementing compulsory professional development for members.

The argument for mandatory training has been advanced by various people, including the Australian academics Colleen Lewis and Ken Coghill.

Opponents of the idea may say that it is inappropriate to prescribe what MPs should be doing and focussing on, that this is contrary to the democratic notion that we elect representatives to represent us and that there are many different ways of doing this well. Related to this is the view that members are answerable to the electorate for their performance and that performance is judged ultimately and regularly at each subsequent election.

What better motivation to do a good job than to expose yourself to the risk of very publicly losing it every three, four or five years?

However, there are many factors in play at election time other than the performance of an individual member in the preceding term of Parliament. Politics isn’t always fair and I’m sure we can all think of examples from our own jurisdictions of capable MPs losing their seat at an election and of underperforming MPs being re-elected.

Moreover, relying on a general election as a verdict on performance is the very antithesis of what we now understand to be good people management and motivation practices. We would be rightly concerned if our doctors, nurses or teachers had to wait three plus years for a conversation about their performance or received hardly any training opportunities over that period, so why should it be any different for our members of Parliament?

While I do not think we should compulsorily require all members to undertake a programme of development, I firmly believe that parliaments have a strong duty to provide proper professional development to members. This is a duty owed not only to the electorate but also to the members themselves. We want members to contribute positively to society, both as representatives and when they depart Parliament, even if it is only after one term.

So, I encourage you all as Speakers and Presiding Officers to consider carefully a number of questions: What do my MPs need to perform the role? What skills are they lacking in? Who is best placed to develop them in a way that promotes the interests of Parliament? Do they need specialist support?

And find out members’ own perceptions – do they think they are adequately equipped to discharge their representative functions?

And after those conversations and discussions, should come the decision to invest in our people. Investing in members of Parliament is not an easy sell to the public and media, who have become accustomed to hearing and writing stories of MPs displaying poor judgement or taking advantage of public funds. The solution to this is, I believe, to be strategic in the construction of professional development programmes and to be prepared to advocate strongly for their worth.

This is what we have done with our inter-parliamentary relations programme and its new strategy. Overseas travel by MPs has previously attracted criticism, with questions being asked about the value to the taxpayer of spending public funds. This negative commentary and media scrutiny can make members reluctant to take advantage of opportunities for international engagement.

The strategy is structured around five drivers, including the provision of professional development for members, the intention of which is to build parliamentary capability through increasing members’ knowledge of parliamentary business, the workings of representative parliamentary democracy, and of global issues.

I fully expect public scrutiny of delegations and visits to remain but I hope that the scrutiny can hopefully occur in a more balanced and informed context, with us being able to articulate a coherent programme and resulting set of benefits and motivations for members which shows that public money is being spent appropriately.

I see no reason why a similar model should not apply to our domestic development of members, with the implementation of a coordinated programme of training opportunities in such topics as representing constituents, understanding and making policy, constitutional law, analysing public accounts, and developing in-depth understanding of key policy areas.

A recent report on the funding of the New Zealand Parliament identified the folly of not spending on professional development for members, stating that, “The tax payer has spent millions completing the process of electing Parliament every three years. The tax payer will then spend millions more supporting them and the cost of Parliament for the three-year term but spend an infinitesimal amount on knowledge and skills development.”

So I end with a simple message: we must do more. Failure to do so would be to do the electorate an injustice.

Thank you