Ideasroom

The House representing the middle class

Parliament’s shortage of working-class MPs and domination by those from a business or ‘political insider’ background risks alienating New Zealanders, according to political commentator Dr Bryce Edwards.

Edwards, a Senior Associate in Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) was talking at an IGPS-organised public forum discussing the implications of the 2017 general election for New Zealand politics, public policy and public management. 

He said that although there have been improvements around ethnicity and gender, recent decades have seen a narrowing of Parliament’s socio-economic diversity.

“It’s becoming much more of a middle-class or wealthy House of Representatives. We are not seeing working-class people being elected to Parliament. We are not seeing people from those occupations go in there.”

Business continues to be the largest sector background of MPs, said Dr Edwards, but is now being equalled by MPs coming from “a sector you might call the government sector—so government departments, working in politics, local government, working for other politicians”.

He said: “I think we have some danger with that. It means there is a problem perhaps of a political class developing which is very much a class of political insiders. It’s a Wellington beltway [thing]. And it does increase that risk of revolt by people being disconnected from politicians that are very separate from the rest of society.”

Based on research by Dr Edwards’ colleagues Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham, looking at figures before all special votes are counted, 25 percent of the National Party caucus comes from a business background and 19 percent from a government sector background.

“Labour is much more government: 21 percent of their caucus, the main sector, is from a government background, 18 percent is from business. New Zealand First is 28 percent business—so they are the most business background party—18 percent from the education sector and 18 percent from a military police background. And the Greens: 43 percent of their current caucus comes from a union or activist background, 14 percent (i.e. one MP) comes from a government background and 29 percent is coming from business.”

Dr Fiona Barker, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Victoria, told the forum it was an excellent election for gender and ethnic diversity, based on preliminary results.

“We’ve reached our highest-ever share of women in Parliament, sitting at about 38 percent now of Parliament; that compares with about 31.5 percent in the last Parliament,” she said.

“It’s very much carried by Labour and the Greens. So a lot of it is to do with the left’s share of the vote being a lot better this time around: about 44 percent of the Labour caucus and about 71 percent of the Green caucus are female. That’s where we see a lot of inroads. New Zealand First bring it down a little bit, being two out of nine female there.”

Dr Barker noted that there is virtually an even split of electorate and party list women MPs.

“A lot of the international literature would suggest you’re going to get female representation … mostly through the lists in MMP-type systems. But we’re actually seeing quite a good balance of that.”

Despite the loss of the Māori Party, Parliament has its highest-ever percentage of Māori MPs, said Dr Barker.

“So you lose the institutional form in terms of what is being described as the independent advocacy or vehicle for Māori interests but actually overall the share of Māori is the highest it’s ever been at around 21 percent. It remains to be seen how that translates into what political scientists call ‘substantive representation’—so advocacy for Māori. And of course it’s obviously not the case all MPs of Māori descent choose to play a role as advocates of Māori interests.”

Dr Barker said Parliament is also the most diverse it has ever been ethnically.

“Mostly that’s around MPs of Asian origin and that Labour now has regained its representation of MPs of Asian origin, in large part due to their overall party performance being better, but also that they put their candidates in winnable list positions this time around.”

That was something Labour appeared to miscalculate in the 2014 general election, she said, “and they didn’t return either of their primary two Asian candidates. This time around that’s changed”.

Also speaking at the forum were Dr Verna Smith, a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Victoria; political commentator and IGPS Senior Associate Colin James; and political journalist Alex Tarrant. The forum was chaired by Professor Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at Victoria.

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