What do MPs get up to when they’re not sitting in the House? Irra Lee followed some backbenchers around during a recess week in February to find out.
This is part of a series about the work of various list and electorate MPs around the country. Read the other parts in this series on Labour MPs Deborah Russell and Jamie Strange or National MP Denise Lee.
National’s Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi has been around politics all his life.
“My father was an active politician in India… and when I came to New Zealand, I thought I should be part of the political system over here,” the list MP based in Manukau East in Auckland says.
“I joined the National Party in 2001, when I came, and started advocating for an Indian representative in Parliament.”
He then became New Zealand’s first Indian and Sikh MP when he was elected in 2008.
“When I first came to Parliament, it was a bit of a challenge to understand the system. There were so many rules and regulations,” Mr Bakshi says.
He says he soon learnt how to advocate for areas close to his heart. Mr Bakshi says that being a list MP means he doesn’t have a specific constituency he represents but he still acts as a representative for his party throughout South Auckland.
“Even though I’m a list MP… the issues which come [to my electorate office] I take them to Parliament from time to time.”
There’s also an extra dimension to his work.
“Being an ethnic MP, my electorate becomes all of New Zealand.”
The House followed Mr Bakshi at a conference hosted by the Hindu Youth New Zealand and New Zealand Hindu Students Forum.
“We need some more people in politics," he tells the young people at the event.
"We are fortunate that we have got three Indian members of Parliament... your vision and your challenges can only be heard if you’re present.”
Mr Bakshi says some issues faced by migrants can be quite different to issues faced by others because of cultural differences.
“Sometimes, it is very hard for some of the MPs who don’t understand the culture, for example.”
He says that’s why it’s important MPs in the House are as diverse as New Zealand’s population. In particular, the Manukau East electorate is home to large Pacific and migrant communities.
In addition to constituents from the electorate, Mr Bakshi says people approach him from all over the country with issues typically relating to immigration, housing, health and law and order.
As the associate spokesperson for justice part of his role is to visit places where people have had issues with law and order.
“People want to talk to me and pass their views [about] how they feel about law and order.”
Even though he's a backbench MP without a ministerial position he says there are a number of steps he can take when people tell him about issues.
“We do write to the Minister or authorities from time to time, whatever the issue is, depending upon the issue, how severe it is.
“Sometimes we write directly to the department… and, if required, we then approach the Minister also to get his or her intervention.”
Being in opposition can make it more challenging for a backbencher to advocate to ministers about issues. This generally comes down to a difference of access. A backbencher whose party is in Government tends to be able to see various Ministers more often, such as during caucus meetings.
However, Mr Bakshi says “ministers are very kind to listen” no matter what party an MP is from.
“For them, every constituent is equal. Whether a Government MP is approaching them or opposition, they have to consider on merit.”
The right to carry a Kirpan
Members’ bills give MPs who aren’t ministers a chance to influence the agenda of proposed laws considered by the House.
One purpose of a members’ bill is to amend a single existing law or multiple laws. Mr Bakshi’s Kirpan Authorisation Bill aims to do the latter for the Crimes, Search and Surveillance, and Summary Offences Acts to allow Sikhs to legally carry a small Kirpan. A Kirpan is a ceremonial knife carried by a baptised Sikh person as a symbol of their faith.
But for a members’ bill to even be introduced in the house, it has to be picked out of a ballot. Mr Bakshi is still waiting for the Kirpan Authorisation Bill to be drawn, but he’s struck lucky in the lottery of members’ bills before with his Military Manoeuvres Act Repeal Bill.
“It was an obsolete bill… the military had the right to take over any land during the First World War for their training purposes,” Mr Bakshi says.
When the bill was passed in 2010, it hadn’t been used in 30 years. It was deemed that repealing the bill wouldn’t disadvantage the Defence Force.
A seven-day job
Weekdays are taken up with constituent work and sittings in Wellington while weekends can include multiple events all over the country. Mr Bakshi's says the job is often a seven-day a week task.
“One thing I would like to acknowledge here is the sacrifices made by the family because they suffer because of my commitments,” he says.
“My kids were very young. They were both teenagers when I became a Member of Parliament. My wife, because of her past experience when she saw how my father used to work during his days, she knew she would have to make a lot of sacrifices.
“I thank her for looking after my boys.”
He says he has two aspirations for the future: “an excellent health and education system for future generations.”
“The day I will retire, I’ll see what I’ll do and I’ll continue to work for the community wherever I can.”