Opinion: Good MPs still outweigh the bad, but Parliament needs a spotlight on it

4:35 pm on 23 July 2020

By Brigitte Morten*

Opinion - There is a weariness in writing anything about the last few weeks in Parliament. The admissions and scandals have been continuous.

Grant Robertson delivers Budget 2020. Generic Parliament pic

The scandals do not rest with one party. Unfortunately they are spread across the chamber so no party leader can avoid responsibility, writes Brigitte Morten. Photo: Pool / STUFF LTD

Often when a Member of Parliament resigns there is a victor, someone who exposed their tawdy dealings or their spending of taxpayers money. Another MP or a journalist that stood up for taxpayers and got to the heart of the story.

But now we are facing the consequences of gross misjudgements from the very people that we elected to be the decision-makers on our behalf. And no one is the better for it.

Affairs, inappropriate communication and background leaking is commonplace in most large organisations. You only have to look at the #MeToo movement to see evidence of that. That doesn't make it right but it does mean this is not a problem unique to Parliament.

What is unique though is that most workplaces do not have the power arrangements that Parliament does. It is very clear that MPs hold a particular status that has given some of them a belief that they are beyond reproach.

It is not all MPs of course.

There are those that will be acutely aware that their behaviour is in the spotlight. They are meticulous about their office spending for the fear that there could be any accusations of misspending taxpayers' money. If they have one drink at a function, they will never drive. And they actively get to know new staff to ensure that they are looked after and feel included.

It will be these MPs who will face the hard questions on the election hustings. Instead of talking about the local issues or the plan to address a post-Covid-19 economy, they will be forced to face questions about their former colleagues' behaviour. Behaviour for which they are as bewildered about as the constituent.

It is about this time in the election cycle that the media starts crying out for policy. They want to know exactly what a party will do if elected. The problem for parties has always been that the amount of effort that goes into writing an election policy is not reflected in the amount of consideration given to it by voters.

The dealings of the last few weeks make this problem even worse. A lot of swing voters have a general distrust of parliamentarians in the first place. The common phase heard on the election trail - 'they are all as bad as each other' - will be amplified in 2020.

Many people do not remember which party a badly behaving parliamentarian belongs to. They are more likely to just think they all not worth their $160,000 pay package. For the MPs who have made their own choice to leave Parliament at this election, because they feel they have made their contribution, will be seen as part of the great clear-out of 2020.

It's not all doom for the state of Parliament.

The good MPs still far outweigh the bad. And there is a genuine desire for change. The scandals do not rest with one party. Unfortunately they are spread across the chamber so no party leader can avoid responsibility. Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday seeking co-operation on how make Parliament a safer working culture. Only a bipartisan approach will work.

And there are significant changes from past terms of Parliament - MPs are much more aware of managing the stress of their staff and treating mental health with the same concern as they do physical ill-health, and long nights of drinking while the House is in session are mostly long gone.

Subtle changes like MPs' dogs being allowed in the corridors of Parliament might seem trivial but actually operate as a daily reminder that there is a world outside of the Wellington beltway.

If voters just looked at the last few weeks, they would be right in assuming that MPs are there for themselves and not for the constituents they represent.

But change is afoot and there are many MPs who want to make it happen. The spotlight needs to be turned on to them if we want anything to really change.

* Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant for public law firm, Franks Ogilvie. Prior to that she was a senior ministerial adviser for the previous National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party. In the current election, she is volunteering for National's Wellington Central candidate Nicola Willis.

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