9 Oct 2022

Treading water: the plight of the First Term MP

From The House , 7:35 am on 9 October 2022

Becoming a Member of Parliament is in itself a huge achievement, but usually at the start you’re a small fish in a big pond and the odds are stacked against you making waves.

This is the dilemma of the first term MP, which every Member of Parliament must be at some point. So what’s it like in that maiden term? The House spoke to four first termers to find out.

Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono

Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono Photo: Johnny Blades / VNP

Apart from those who have previously worked in the Parliamentary system in another capacity, people already versed in its byzantine codes, for a first term MP it’s a vast new world to get their head around, with different rhythms and intensity. 

At the start, orientation support and induction training from Parliamentary Service are provided for the first termer, but Teanau Tuiono of the Green Party said it could be quite bewildering and overwhelming.

“They do their best, so you do get that (support), but whether it stays in there or not is another thing entirely,” he said.

“The place is massive, it’s a rabbit warren and of course you’re representing your constituents as well. Probably my only comparative would be having worked up at the UN, that’s even more rabbit warreny than this place. So that kind of thing I was used to, and knowing that there’s heaps of different parts and all that, and knowing that in time you will know how those parts worked well or don't work well. Because I’m what they would say is a calisthenic learner, I’ve got to learn by doing.”

National Party MP Joseph Mooney

National Party MP Joseph Mooney Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

This is echoed by National’s Joseph Mooney, the MP for Southland who admitted Parliament is “a different kind of place, and it does take some time to get used to”. 

“Some very experienced politicians have said to me, there’s no training manual for this job, you have to learn on the job, and that’s because it’s always changing,” he said.

“You get paired up with a buddy MP in the party, and then there’s also Parliamentary Services who have an induction process where they give you an indication of how things work. And other MPs are quite happy to give you advice. Like anything, there’s a mixture of mentorings available and it’s also up to the individual to actually seek out advice and opportunities themselves, like any job.”

But it doesn’t necessarily seem like any other job. Thrown in at the deep end, not everyone can swim it out comfortably. Look no further than the unfortunate case of one of the current batch of first termers recently expelled from the ruling party after he sparked a political nuclear meltdown of bullying claims related to a vortex of staff issues. 

Get busy

The best way through for the first termer seems to be to get busy. For the ACT Party’s Nicole McKee that primarily means defending firearms owners. She’s developing a whole new Arms Act in case her party ends up in government, and is also studying an eighteen-month post-graduate course on government and governance.

“If I’m going to be in a place where I (am) a lawmaker I need to understand a bit more than just going down and delivering debates, to actually understand policy framework, how they are delivered.”

A first term MP is limited in what they can achieve, and very rarely are they ministers or select committee chairs at that time. But like Tuiono in the Greens, an ACT MP gets multiple portfolios to handle in contrast to the first termers in bigger parties who may sometimes struggle for visibility.

McKee said she was savouring opportunities to gain traction when she speaks in Parliament.

“When we look at the size of our party, we have 10 MPs that are trying to take on all the portfolios across the house, this means that we get the opportunity to speak more than other backbenchers in some of the major parties. I notice some of them you don't hear from at all because, you know, Labour, they have 65 (MPs) and there's only so many speeches that you can give, whereas with ACT there's 10 of us so we get more opportunities and I really like that because it helps us accustom to the process of the house and it's a really great learning experience."

ACT MP Nicole McKee sits on the Justice Committee in an estimates hearing for the Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio

ACT MP Nicole McKee sits on the Justice Committee in an estimates hearing for the Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

No guarantees

In the past two years, the first termers have learnt a lot about procedures, how legislation works and what their role in it can be.

They come from a range of backgrounds which can be drawn on in the lawmaking process. As such the extensive experience in midwifery of Ilam MP Sarah Pallet was acknowledged as invaluable to her colleagues during the recent passage of the Accident Compensation (Maternal Birth Injury and Other Matters) Amendment Bill. 

“I think (Parliament) proceeds slower than what people looking in from outside might realise,” she said.

“I didn't realise on the outside of Parliament quite how much work goes into creating really good legislation. So it can be slow, but that’s of necessity to make sure that it’s good.”

Relishing select committee work, Pallett said she had been able to work constructively with MPs from across the House.

“We have good collegial relationships with each other, and I think that’s what people want us to do, I think they want us to work together to achieve a common aim. We obviously differ sometimes in our pathways to achieve that aim, but the more we can work together the better, as far as I’m concerned.

Labour MP Sarah Pallett listeniing to evidence in Select Committee

Labour MP Sarah Pallett listeniing to evidence in Select Committee Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

“It’s been a journey, and I have really enjoyed it,” Pallett said, adding that she is well aware there’s no guarantee that she’ll still be in Parliament after next year’s election.

“I’ve never taken a single vote for granted, so I don’t take my time here for granted.”

In a sense the first termer must tread water to survive. They can't get ahead of themselves, but must bide their time in minor positions if they are to advance. Finding a role and some purpose is critical, and of course working hard - that way, even if they don't get re-elected, at least the first termer will be ready for a break.

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