Analysis: Career diversity among MPs could act as bulwark against populist revolt

7:13 pm on 27 February 2021

By Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham*

Analysis - New Zealand's Parliament may be more diverse, but is it enough to prevent a global wave of populism from reaching New Zealand's shores?

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Parliament has become more diverse, but 20 percent of MPs have never had a job outside of politics. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In 2016, we asked whether New Zealand was ready for its own Donald Trump. Our research showed that the pre-Parliament work experience of 20 percent of MPs was chiefly in politics. We feared this showed a rise in New Zealand of a 'political class' that could provoke a Trump-like voter backlash.

We argued that New Zealand's political parties needed to change. 'The main path to Parliament,' we wrote, was 'to be born into the middle-class, go to university, spend a short time in work, then get elected via party manoeuvring'. If New Zealand's political elites wanted to avoid a local version of Trump, we concluded, they needed 'to start becoming more like the people they represent.'

Our latest research - undertaken following the 2020 election - shows that New Zealand's parliamentary parties have made serious attempts to refresh themselves. The sheer number of new MPs entering Parliament - 42 at the 2020 election alone and nearly 80 since we wrote our 2016 piece - is striking.

With the latest intake, the employment backgrounds of New Zealand's current MPs have become more diverse. We identified more than 200 different careers amongst the 120 MPs, finding that, on average, each Parliamentarian has held four different jobs. In this regard, the work experiences of MPs mirror those of voters: a Stats NZ survey in 2018 found that only 38 percent of NZ employees had held the same job for five or more years.

Our study also shows MMP in action, with each party having different strengths and weaknesses. Labour has a growing number of doctors in its ranks: three were elected in 2020, including associate minister of health Ayesha Verrall. In National, new Southland MP Joseph Mooney left school without any formal qualifications before working in a large number of blue-collar jobs. He later attended university and became a lawyer - one of a total of 20 in Parliament.

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Associate minister of health Ayesha Verrall Photo: Dom Thomas

The minor parties also reflect growing employment diversity, as well as the overall societal trend towards having multiple careers.

New Act Party MP Chris Baillie served as a police officer for 14 years, before working as a teacher for 15 years and also becoming a restaurant owner.

In the Greens, new MP Teanau Tuiono has an activist background and has also worked on indigenous issues overseas, including as an investigator for the UN Human Rights Council. Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer worked in Māori broadcasting and held a series of management positions. She also served on the South Taranaki District Council. In this respect, Ngarewa-Packer is in good company - she is one of 44 MPs to have worked in managerial roles. She is also one of 15 MPs to have had previous careers as elected representatives.

Diversity is growing, but political parties still have work to do.

For a start, the percentage of MPs who have mainly worked in political roles before being elected remains the same at 20 percent.

Secondly, parties are still easily differentiated by the employment backgrounds of their MPs. Teachers, for example, are more likely to become Labour MPs. Managers are more likely to become National MPs. This characteristic narrows each party's range of experience, interests, and exposure to different points of view and walks of life.

In addition, very few MPs have had true blue-collar careers. Overall, white-collar professions dominate; Parliament has no former professional fire-fighters, panelbeaters or gardeners - to name only a few examples. Only one MP fits in the construction and infrastructure employment category - Green MP Julie Anne Genter (an urban planner). Only two MPs suit the manufacturing and technology category. And new Act MP Mark Cameron stands out as an unusual exception in a modern New Zealand Parliament both for being a full-time farmer and for having done the job for 30 years.

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Green MP Julie Anne Genter is a former urban planner. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Furthermore, Parliament is awash with degree-rich MPs. Over 90 percent have university degrees (compared to about 25 percent of the general population) and the proportion of MPs with doctorates is double that of their counterparts in the UK Parliament and US Congress (7.5 percent).

Parliament's increased diversity is welcome, but it is a peculiarly narrow kind of diversity.

New Zealand's MPs stand against a global environment that has become more volatile. Populism has surged. The visceral anger that simmered at elites is boiling over - as exemplified by the rioters at the US Capitol in January and global street unrest amidst a pandemic that has only heightened inequalities.

Growing disparities could still provoke populist resistance here. Rising rents and house prices are widening the voter split between haves and have-nots. Covid-19 stimulus packages favour the wealthy who can invest in assets over the poor who lack discretionary income. Concerns over inter-generational fairness are worrying parents as much as they are troubling their anxious Generation Z offspring.

In 2016, we argued that John Key's political pragmatism and 'everyman' image was our main protection against a populist surge. Jacinda Ardern's own brand of crisis management, incremental change and kindness could have the same function. But governments and parliaments are more than the prime minister.

To resist populism, Parliament needs to make decisions that reflect voters' interests. To do that, it needs not just to look more like the voters, it needs to share their experiences.

*Geoffrey Miller is a political analyst at the Democracy Project. Mark Blackham is a director of BlacklandPR.

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