Latta on what our politicians do

Nigel Latta has had a look at what our politicians (and media and lobbyists and activists) do.

Stuff: Nigel Latta: What Do Our Politicians Actually Do?

We decided to go and look at Parliament because whenever you’re looking at how to solve the nation’s problems, it always comes back to Parliament. 

Politicians are despised but when you spend some time with them, you quickly realise that almost all of them are there because they want to make a difference and do something positive. It’s just that ambition and ego sometimes get in the way. 

And the public mostly sees what our politicians do through the eyes of the media, who tend to focus disproportionately on conflict, disruption, controversy and mistakes.

Our Parliament is based on a clash of ideas and we’ve been led to believe that’s a good way to solve problems, but that’s the worst way to solve problems. It’s not the best idea that emerges, it’s the person with the loudest voice  who wins.

To an extent that’s true but it does require about 60 MPs supporting the loudest voices.

In a perfect world we’d be able to sit down as humans and talk through ideas. We’d just have a bunch of people who aren’t members of any party; they’re smart people, they’re going to talk about ideas.  They’d be genuinely open to any solution rather than driven by ideological views.

Theoretically perhaps, but what sort of people would we end up with as MPs if things worked like that?

The politician who is elected on the basis of a cause will behave very differently than the politician who is there for a career.

The problem now is we have this political class, career politicians whose primary focus is on getting reelected, and because of that they can stay in power for decades.

We seem to be getting a growing number of ‘career politicians’ under our party based system.

We spent some time with Paula Bennett, and regardless of what you think of her as a person or her politics, she works incredibly hard. She oversees a huge budget. And that’s the thing, they do an important job so we want smart people in there.

The public doesn’t see anything of the hard graft that goes on. Instead we are bombarded with images of opponents trying to destroy their credibility and careers, and of the media trying to concoct sensational stories hold them to account.

The bulk of Parliament’s work is in select committees. In the select committee that we sat on, it was the politicians who were being sensible, and it was the public servants who were trying to argue for a position that may have been legally correct, but was not in the actual interests of everyday New Zealanders.

It was the first time I’d seen MP’s as the sensible ones protecting all of us, and that was refreshing. 

MPs working for us against the bureaucrats? Who’d have thought.

One of the interesting things we did was to follow the procedure of how questions are asked in the House.

The whole process builds in intensity over the day and I can understand how they all get caught up in the drama of it all.

The problem is that while they all think it’s a really big deal getting to ask a question in the House, but none of the rest of us care. In fact most of us are appalled by their behaviour in the Chamber.

It was fascinating watching the reaction of school kids who’d come to see democracy in action. Their faces alternated between amusement and disbelief that our nation’s leaders could be acting like this. 

Ultimately though, our knowledge if what happens in Parliament comes from the media. And a lot of what we see is the antics in the debating chamber or gotcha journalism.

We see a small snapshot via a media seeking sensation and readers/viewers.

The real work in Parliament happens in select committees, and a huge amount of that work happens with politicians working together to get stuff done.

It’s not as entertaining as the silliness in the house so it doesn’t get covered.

Sensible and hard work doesn’t make good headlines.

And the end result of that is that we think they’re all acting like kids all the time, when actually they only behave like kids a very small percentage of the time. The rest of their day, they’re actually doing important work.

And quite a bit of that work involves working together.

At the end of my time in parliament the thing I was most concerned about was the influence of lobbyists.

I think any time a lobbyist goes to see a politician, given this is a person who’s being paid to influence politicians and policy, we should know who’s there, who they’re representing, and what was discussed. That goes for all lobbyists, whether it be a lobbyist for big alcohol or for environmental groups. 

We should all be concerned about the influence of lobbyists.

Yes, lobbyists (and often the money and vested interests behind lobbyists) have more influence on what happens than many realise.

After watching this people might say ‘you were too soft on them’. I’ll undoubtedly get emails about why I didn’t slam them on issues like inequality, or housing or any of the other weighty problems we face as a nation.

But that wasn’t the point of going. I wanted to know more about how Parliament works, not circle round the usual policy debates. So now I know that if you want to have some influence find your local MP and feed them a question they might get to ask in the House. Because if it gets asked in the House, you might just get some media attention on your issue. 

So the influential voice is not always the loudest voice in Cabinet, it is influenced by getting a loud voice for your views in the media.

This is something that’s also attempted via social media and blogs, and it sometimes succeeds, like the Red Peak flag. But it’s very competitive, there’s a lot of political and social activists competing to be the Nek Minute in the spotlight.

There are some principled, genuinely compassionate in there who really want to make a difference.

I think most are to an extent at least.

And then I think there are people that are the complete opposite.

Some seem to be hanging in there to collect healthy pay packets. Some seem to think that destruction (of their opponents) is a requisite for getting power to change things.

For us though, as voters, I’m hoping we can learn to demand more than coverage of the trivial, or the endless inane controversies, and instead expect a higher quality of debate. We should also, just by the by, lift our own game.

To an extent at least we get (from the media) what we demand or deserve. And those active in politics outside Parliament demand sensation, as long as it is applied to those they oppose.

Ordinary people (voters) are either bored by politics or turned off by the worst that the media shows them, so they are turned off rather than inspired to demand better.

So I doubt that we will see much improvement. The noisiest politicians, the noisiest journalists and the noisiest activists and lobbyists rule, and while the rest of us allow it to continue like that it will continue being like that.

Leave a comment


  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  18th September 2016

    The media want to sell stories not to report the truth. They hire journalists who think they are going to fix the world. The overlap is what gets written and published.

    • Blazer

       /  18th September 2016

      as George Burns( or was it Robbie)said,’the only people who know how to fix the world….are too busy cutting hair..and driving…cabs’!

  2. “In a perfect world we’d be able to sit down as humans and talk through ideas.”

    The human condition prevents attainment of a perfect world. Humans rely on the state for protection, which makes them accessories to the crimes of the state. Humanism promotes human rights and marginalizes natural rights because of its inherent atheism.

    • @ Ugly Truth – I’d be very interested, seriously, to hear sometime about what you DO BELIEVE IN, as opposed to rather oblique statements about what you don’t …. ?

      Your comment above seems to imply you’d like no State or no protection from the State; and some form of Theism rather than Atheism. Can you elaborate please?

      Latta makes some very interesting points, which alludes IMHO to the need for Parliamentary reform and reform of so-called Democracy. This might nicely merge with a new written Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand?

      Latta: “It’s not the best idea that emerges, it’s the person with the loudest voice who wins.”

      @ PG – “To an extent that’s true but it does require about 60 MPs supporting the loudest voices”

      To a very limited extent that is true PG. What it does require and relies upon implicitly is the Political Party system of unerring loyalty to the Party line. The 60 or 61 or 62 majority MP’s can hardly be described as individuals at all … They are “party votes” unless a conscience vote is allowed (by the Party) …

      “We should all be concerned about the influence of lobbyists.”

      While the media provide our perception of politics, it is too easy to blame them IMO, and take the heat off the others and the obvious, glaring need for evolutionary improvement …

      • Hi PartisanZ,
        What I believe in is rationalism, that beliefs should be grounded in facts and consistent with reason. The reason why I’m opposed to the state in its current form is because it misrepresents its mandate, i.e. it operates by fraud. IMO Parliament is beyond reform because of the institutional nature of this misrepresentation. This doesn’t mean a remedy is beyond our reach, only that the language of humanism is an impediment to that remedy rather than a means of achieving it.

        A written constitution isn’t a bad idea in itself, but to be effective it must be internally consistent and address the core issues of ethics and customs which make up the moral fabric of the nation. Identifying the differences between natural rights, civil rights, and human rights is essential here.

        I get that Latta recognizes that MP’s are well intentioned, but without knowledge of the relationships between causes and effects, the best of intentions can be ineffective or counter-productive. The most significant of these relationships are the ones relating to security, and the security model of theism is incompatible with the humanist model.

        • Now that’s what I call interesting Ugly Truth! What do you mean by “the ones relating to security”? Can you elaborate more on “the security model of theism” and, to a lesser extent, “the humanist model”?

          My search so far has led me to Wiki’s page “Philosophical Theism” which I am strongly relating to insomuch as I have read it yet …

  3. Gezza

     /  18th September 2016

    PG, the link in your post to the Stuff article doesn’t seem to be working.

  4. Time to reduce the number of list MP’s that are just there to make up the numbers & offer no value of money to the taxpayer. Also parties really start to ‘scrape the bottom of the barrel’ when trying to fill their list quota. More emphasis should be put on winning electorates in order to be in parliament.

    Considering list MP’s are told how to vote (unless they do their own thing which shouldn’t happen as they are only there based on the overall party vote) make it that a party can have at most 7 list MP’s with the rest of their election day quota given to the party leader to put towards any vote in parliament.

    So the Greens for instance would have 7 list MP’s with the 7 remaining seats they are due given to the Green’s leader(s) to put 7 additional ‘block’ votes against anything the party wish to vote for on top of what their individual MP’s vote. Under this system National would lose 12 list MP’s, NZL first 4 (on election night at least).

    List MP’s are basically in parliament to just be votes for their party – miss out the middle man (and save $) and just give those votes to the party leader to use as they wish once their 7 person list MP/ per party quota is filled.

    • “list MP’s that are just there to make up the numbers & offer no value of money to the taxpayer.”

      How many of those are there? Who are they?

      • Most of them………

        • So you can’t answer specifically? If not your claim is meaningless.

          Would you scrap all NZ First and Green MPs? Bill English and Steven Joyce? Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern?

          • No – hence why I specifically detailed each party could have at least 7 list MP’s……..this solves the problem of those parties only made up of list MP’s having some actual people in parliament, but not so many that they struggle to make up the numbers with decent candidates.

            • So a party that got 20% of the vote may only have 10% of the MPS?

            • The important thing here is that a party that gets 20% of the vote still gets 20% of the vote. Maximum of 7 list MP’s per party, the rest of their entitlement given to the party leader to vote as they see fit (which happens nowadays anyway with the party itself dictating how their MP’s vote on almost every issue).

            • How would that work on a conscience vote? Some MPs could be far less equal than others.

              It also gives a party leader disproportionate power in their caucus. I have serious concerns about that.

            • PG: “It also gives a party leader disproportionate power in their caucus”.

              Considering the votes that get list MP’s into parliament are votes for the party/party leader, not the actual list MP themselves, then why shouldn’t the leader have these votes to do with as they please? It already happen in 99% of cases where the party itself dictates how their individual MP’s vote. Same goes with conscience votes – why should a list MP have this ability when no one elected them into parliament as their representative?

              On the other foot why should a list MP be able to vote against their own party when they are only in parliament due to people voting for their party & it’s policies rather than the individual?

              Of course each party needs some actual people in parliament hence the 7 list MP quota I suggested. We are talking a reduction of around 20 odd MP’s, not 50% or anything.

            • On principle alone let alone for practical reasons I don’t think it’s a good idea for Winston peters or Metiria Turei to each have multiple votes while John Key and Andrew little only have one.

              And the proportionality of a party caucus affects the decisions on which way party votes will go, so changing that is not a good idea.

            • John Key actually has 50 odd votes…………last time a National MP voted against the wishes of the party? Never?

        • An you detail the workload and achievements of any of those ‘no-names’?

          • No………..which is kinda the whole point I’m making………

            • The only point I see you making is you’ve made a sweeping generalisation about list MPs but have nothing of substance to back up your claims.

        • You asked me to provide “workload and achievements of any of those ‘no-names’?” and I couldn’t? Ria Bond (NZL First), Darroch Ball (NZL First) for example are just human voting machines for Winston, much like those at the very bottom of National’s list.

          • I could name a few MPs who i think are a waste of space in parliament, but I have no idea what they actually do most of the time and how little or how much they contribute.

            Have you got more knowledge of what they do?

            • My opinion is that there are too many MP’s in parliament based on our population. I also suggest there are too many unelected (list) MP’s padding those numbers.

              I also think Auckland Council has far too many staff.

              The case for and against is purely objective. You may argue Darroch Ball and his like are an integral part of parliament and our democratic system whilst I will argue they are just ‘walking votes’ that could be cast on behalf of the party by the leader instead of an actual person.

  5. Blazer

     /  18th September 2016

    not a bad idea there.Definately at least 20 M.P’s too many .

    • PDB and Blazer – I tend to agree, too many MPs for the size of our population …

      However, this doesn’t account for the [numerous] systemic and structural problems with ‘Parliamentary Democracy’ as we know it … and our outdated, essentially colonial form of Constitutionalism …

      • So do you suggest just cutting down on the number of list MPs, which would jeopardise proportionality, or cutting the number of electorates.

        • If you still have the votes those list MP’s would have provided at each party leader’s disposal how would less list MP’s “jeopardise proportionality”?

          • @ PG – “So do you suggest just cutting down on the number of list MPs … or cutting the number of electorates?”

            Good question Pete. I’m not really sure; not very well informed about it. Spontaneously my answer is the number of electorates might be reduced somewhat, by upping the electorate population requirement? Let’s say down to 60 seats, variable depending on population …

            Then maybe 40 List seats in Parliament, lower the percentage vote threshold and remove the coat-tailing clause … Total 100 or 101 seats …

            Such reform might need to be accompanied (and will be accompanied if I have my way) by structural and operational changes. The main one would be a focus on facilitated, consensus decision making, with voting as a last resort and always a conscience vote. Take the emphasis off ‘Party’. This system is archaic and protects age-old dominant interest groups; colonist attitudes, men, churches, lodges, corporates and, until not so long ago, unions, to name some …

            For example, if Select Committees work best and most co-operatively – as Latta asserts – and they surely still involve robust discussion and debate – why can’t the House or [as I’d call it] ‘Representative Forum’ operate the same way?

            Legislation needs to be simplified and the volume of legislation reduced. NZ’s statute books need to be professionally culled IMHO.

            Parliament needs to be modernised and modified (and the name changed) into some kind of Representative Forum which avails the public of every possible means of involvement, interraction, access and participation …

            And, of course, asap, it needs to operate under a newly written Constitution, in whatever form that document designates …

            • Blazer

               /  18th September 2016

              ‘Switzerland is the closest state in the world to a direct democracy. For any change in the constitution, a referendum is mandatory (mandatory referendum); for any change in a law, a referendum can be requested (optional referendum). Through referenda, citizens may challenge any law voted by federal parliament and through federal popular initiative introduce amendments to the federal constitution.
              The same system is used for the three administrative levels of municipality, canton and country. If the community is small enough like in small villages, the parliament representing the people does not exist. Also the ordinary law does then not exist, only the constitution of the village. The term “council” is used ambiguously, sometimes it refers to legislation, i.e. parliament, sometimes to the execution, i.e. government.

  6. Alan Wilkinson

     /  18th September 2016

    I have no idea whether there are too many or not and which do and which don’t do useful work for their constituents and in select committee. I don’t know how anyone outside the process can know that. All we see is what excites the media into publication and we judge based on quotes that may be presented completely out of context.

    I do know that our current Mayor who is an ex MP and Minister does an excellent job for our district and people and is warmly regarded by those who deal with him.

    I tend to side with Kitty in thinking a great deal of criticism of MPs is grossly misinformed.


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