At 7:15 each Wednesday morning when Parliament is sitting, a small group of MPs shuffles into a meeting room in the Beehive.
Daylight starts to shine through the big windows. The MPs are convening for their regular Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, which their group’s co-chair, National MP Simeon Brown, says is a quiet place where they can step back from politics and spend time together.
“As a Christian, it’s a great opportunity to spend time with other people of like-minded faith, spend time praying for each other, encouraging each other, we talk about each other's families, and provide support where we can,” he explains.
Brown’s fellow co-chair is the Hamilton East MP, Labour’s Jamie Strange, who describes theirs as a cross-party group, “led by a couple of gentlemen from outside parliament who come in from outside Parliament and put on food for us, and a group of MPs come together to read the scriptures and pray. It’s been going for over twenty years”.
“I see it as a sea of tranquility in amongst the hustle and bustle of the parliamentary life,” says Strange, a Pentecostal Christian.
The group is open to anyone, he explains, and “it’s absolutely non-political. We’re there to build relationships and support each other as human beings as much as we can. And for me, at times I talk about some of the struggles I’m facing, and I really welcome the support I receive".
He says a main benefit of being part of the group is the opportunity to slow down.
“For the 45 minutes there’s a chance for me to reflect on my role as MP and I guess reaffirm the values I bring to it and just remember why I’m there. Often when we get busy we can be doing things just for the sake of doing things. But it’s really important (to slow down) and different people have different mechanisms. For me it’s spirituality, where I can slow down and reflect and assess what I'm doing, how I'm acting, how I'm feeling and how I'm responding, against the values that I hold in my life. That's one of the benefits, and another benefit is the opportunity to support each other. At various times in our lives we all go through challenging times - that's life - and it’s important to have a support network around us,” Strange says.
After the prayer breakfast, the MPs go off to select committees or other meetings quite different to the one they attend at the beginning of the day, which is more about quietude and reflection. By afternoon, these MPs are in the debating chamber, sometimes squaring off against each other vigorously, jousting in the public sphere.
Brown says the combative politics seen by the public is only one side of MPs, and one which gets left at the door when the prayer group meets. Asked how his role of political attack dog for the parliamentary opposition stacks up alongside his Baptist faith, the Pakuranga MP explains that “it’s different parts of who I am”.
“I’m someone who comes to Parliament to represent an advocate for my community and for my views and for my party, and I do that in a strong way because actually we're not here to eat our lunch, we’re here to actually work hard on behalf of people who put us here, and that means sometimes very strong advocacy, but at the same time we come with different views and faiths, and a lot of MPs (have) no faith. That’s part of who we are, and it’s important we spend that time together.”
Groups such as these are about human connections which tell us things about what makes the MPs involved tick.
Other cross-party groups that MPs belong to include the Rainbow MPs Group and sports clubs. Then there are the groups within the parties. In the ruling Labour party, there is the Māori Caucus, and a Pasifika one too.
List MP Lemauga Lydia Sosene is a member of the Labour Pasifika Caucus which gets together after the Labour Party caucus meets every Tuesday. She says it’s been an invaluable help to her since she entered Parliament this year, mid-term.
“The Labour Pasifika Caucus has been a really good support group with knowledgeable, experienced members of Parliament, and I really appreciated their camaraderie-ship in terms of leadership and terms of mentoring,” the MP of Samoan descent says.
The group has a focus on the Government's work programme, but also offers the MP a range of advice for navigating the parliamentary journey, from the government mechanisms and legislative procedures to the health and wellbeing challenges of a member of Parliament.
“It's really helpful when you can get some good advice, some friendly advise just to sort of help you decide what your next move is. And so you come in and you’ve got parliamentary duties, you’re placed on select committee, you’ve also got duties in the House. And we like to navigate those pathways but we also like to take our ethnicity and our background and our cultural knowledge and expertise with the role. What I've learnt from Pasifika Caucus is the intertwining of that and having those extra skills.”
Then there are inter-parliament groups, such as the New Zealand - Latin America and Caribbean Parliamentary Friendship Group of which Green Party MP Ricardo Menéndez March is the co-chair.
“It’s a group of MPs whose goal is to build peer-to-peer relationships with parliaments in those respective regions. So we can build relationships based on issues that the group is interested in, and friendships groups can bid for delegations each term.”
It provides an avenue for MPs to compare notes with counterparts in different countries and territories, and he says a recent delegation to South and Central America was a reminder of how much this country has in common with countries in that region. Menéndez March was part of an inter-parliamentary delegation led by the Speaker of Parliament, Adrian Rurawhe, that visited Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico for two weeks last month, with the Mexican-born Green MP proving an ideal translator while the delegation was in these Spanish-speaking countries.
But the friendships groups are not just about connecting with overseas counterparts - they also help forge connections domestically.
“As a first term MP, being able to meet with MPs from a range of political parties and discuss how we can build closer ties to Latin American and Caribbean region and learn what they’re doing without so much being worried about divides along party lines is very useful. And it also allows us to get to know our colleagues better, because Parliament doesn’t actually create many opportunities for us to get together outside of our party lines to actually get to know each other as humans,” Ricardo Menéndez March says.
“Those friendship groups are a bit of an opportunity to build a much more constructive culture, and I think that is one of the advantages of having those spaces as well.”