30 Aug 2022

The life of a backbench MP

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 August 2022

We might not know their names, but parliament is full of them - what do backbench MPs do and how much power do they wield?

Former National MP Lawrence Yule and former Green MP Sue Bradford

Former National MP Lawrence Yule and former Green MP Sue Bradford Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone/Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Things are not quiet in the cheap seats. 

Parliament's backbenchers have been in the news in the last couple of weeks for all the wrong reasons. 

The life of an MP can be hard - especially if you've come from a job where you're respected, you've won a tremendous victory on election night, and you find yourself in a pot-boiler atmosphere in Wellington at the bottom of the heap.

"I had no idea what I was walking into, and I don't think that anybody who starts as a new MP can really understand the world into which you're embarking - there's just no way,"  says Sue Bradford, a Green MP from 1999 to 2009.

"And it is hard knowing that the public, people at large and even people who are quite close to you, have no idea what you're going through - that is difficult."

Lawrence Yule, a National MP for three years from 2017 to 2020, agrees. 

"I quickly realised it was a very pressured environment. There was massive scrutiny from the media on everything that happened," he says. 

"It's a very intense environment, more so than I'd ever experienced before." 

The Detail talks to the pair about their experiences on the backbenches.

Bradford and Yule came from very different backgrounds. 

Bradford was the social justice warrior who was swept in with the Green wave of 1999, and left 10 years later after she lost the vote for co-leadership of the party, realising the passion for parliament had left her. As a backbench MP, her career was outstanding - pushing through three members bills.

Yule was the former Mayor of Hastings with a passion for the people of Hawke's Bay who endured some of the National Party's most turbulent times, and was swept out in last election's red wave. 

However, it's surprising how much they have in common. 

Both talk about having a purpose, remaining humble, managing your expectations, treating your staff well.  

Yule talks about parliament being something of a self-contained fishbowl, where all the facilities you need are on hand, and as such it's very easy to get "disconnected" from the rest of New Zealand.  

"You go in there and you get sort of caught up in the place, really." 

He'd had contact with parliament before in his role as mayor, but only on visits. 

"But when you're an MP the people you're representing are actually physically remote from where you're operating in Wellington, and that's the difference.  

However he had re-set his expectations. 

"I knew that when I went in as a backbencher I was at the bottom of the heap - particularly with a surname beginning with Y." 

Both Bradford and Yule also talk about the huge privilege and honour of being an MP, and the members who don't really know why they're there. 

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