PETER DUNNE: The Value of Young MPs


Over the years, a media myth of my intractable negativity towards the Greens has developed. While I have been properly critical of the Greens at times, and may regret some of my harsher criticisms in the cooler light of day, I have nonetheless worked constructively with a number of Green MPs during those years. Keith Locke and I raised more than a few eyebrows when we made a joint submission to a select committee calling for the repeal of New Zealand’s antiquated sedition laws, but we succeeded and the laws were repealed. Kevin Hague and I maintained a very good common-ground dialogue over a long period on drug-related issues, and even though the media liked to pit us against each other, Nandor Tanczos and I worked fairly closely together on law and order and broader justice issues. During this Parliament, I kept in close contact with Eugenie Sage during all of the debate around the changes to the Resource Management Act, and I work closely with Kennedy Graham on climate change policy through the multi-party GLOBE group.

Recently, the Greens have attracted criticism from the more staid corners of the political spectrum over their selection of some very young candidates on their Party list. I do not know any of them personally, but I do not share that criticism. More than that, I welcome their selection as a sign of renewal within the body politic, and I wish them well.

However, it is not going to be easy for them. I say so from experience, having been one of the youngest MPs in the House when first elected, and therefore knowing first-hand how difficult it is to break through the glass ceiling. Young MPs quickly discover that the system is loaded against them. Passion and enthusiasm go only so far, when the opportunities to express them within the Parliamentary system are so limited. Speaking opportunities in the House are not spontaneous, but predetermined in advance by the Whips and the Business Committee; and the hours spent grinding worthily away in a select committee seldom attract much public attention. Yet, the public expects these new MPs to make their mark quickly, and becomes frustrated and unforgiving (“you have sold out, just like all the rest”) when they do not immediately do so. Few do – it often takes years of hard work for a young MP to overcome some of the prejudice they encounter and to be noticed, and more importantly to be taken seriously, for their achievements, rather than constantly pigeon-holed for their age. Little wonder their attrition rate is high, with their enthusiasm either extinguished by frustration, or boredom. A few survive, and an even smaller number prosper.

While these facts may seem brutal, they should not in any way be seen as a discouraging of young MPs. On the contrary, I believe the system needs a healthy influx of young MPs every election to refresh both it and the political parties. The vibrancy and enthusiasm they bring can be infectious, and their presence alone serves as a constant reminder to the rest of us that our core mission as Members of Parliament is to build a better and more sustainable New Zealand for those who are to follow us.

But if young MPs can be accused of sometimes being a little wide-eyed and with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve immediately, they are far preferable to those who turn to Parliament after a lengthy career elsewhere, in the vain belief that they have something special to offer in the twilight years left before they retire. There have been many examples from all parties over the years, from all different backgrounds, from diplomacy, the media and local government and a few others besides, but each with the common expectation that not only will Parliament and the country be better off for their presence, but that it is also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be blessed by their talent. Their ultimate frustration and alienation is even more pronounced, because their sense of entitlement was far greater to begin with, while their time horizon is far shorter than their younger counterparts’.

So, good on the Greens for their boldness. Parliament needs to be a balance of all the faces that make up New Zealand today. Promoting young MPs is a healthy step in that direction.