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Leadership by Lockwood Smith

  • August 9th, 2009

Lockwood Smith trounced Paul Holmes this morning (Q & A) in defending the MP allowances system. Whoever chose Lockwood for Speaker knew him much better than me. I feared he would get chewed up by graceless MPs taking advantage of his good manners. 

Cathy (Franks) was particularly grateful for his spirited defence of MP’s families, the best she felt since Jonathan Hunt gave the new MP’s spouses avuncular advice..

Perhaps it is easier for Katherine Rich (and me) to put up our heads to defend MPs than it is for others – because as MPs elected after the reforms driven by Rodney Hide’s perk-busting we were too late for the free travel perk (after leaving Parliament) and the gold-plated pension. 

The stupid pressure to turn allowances into increased salary (for sacred ‘transparency’) would have suited me as a Wellington based list MP, and it would have suited the singletons (no family to placate or to try to include in an activity). It would also suit the lazy MPs and the greedier ones. They would simply pocket the increase and ignore the visit requests. They’d say "sorry I can’t" to those who expect you to get a rental car to reach their meeting, or take the last expensive seat home after waiting to hear another sad sack voter story.

In other words for those who think that there is great privilege in free travel, or an accomodation allowance when you have to be away from home, there will an huge own goal if they are transmuted into a salary increase. At least to qualify for the ‘privileges’ you have to do something. In effect they are piece rates. You have to be busy, or where you are supposed to be, to qualify. Turn allowances into salary and the undeserving benefit while there is a financial incentive to be one of the  lazy passengers in Parliament.

My income as an MP was a fraction of what I earned before. I never whined about that. I knew it in advance and no one was going to feel for a lawyer moaning that his income had come down. But Cathy and the kids had not made my choice. Fortunately after a few months sulking Cathy recovered her normal pragmatic common sense and became an unpaid but essential part of our team, as part of her Majesty’s loyal opposition. 

I had one of the highest travel costs in our party, without going overseas, because I worked hard. When I did go overseas on two study trips I took Cathy, by cashing in the business fare for two economy. I also paid the extra for one child. Cathy accompanied me to most of the meetings. She was with me to talk to officials and to watch Courts in France (I studied how victims take part in criminal trials). Her MA in French came in handy. She helped stimulate sessions with officials in Amsterdam and the Hague, Strasbourg, New York, LA, San Francisco. Not all partners would be as interested, but I believe we should encourage MPs to involve their spouses in what they do. Marriages fail partly because one partner is growing intellectually in Parliament, while the other is not.

They also fail because of the loneliness of politics. When you’re taking bruises you need a confidant, someone unequivocally on your side. Colleagues are not necessarily comrades and it is risky to confide even to those who you think are comrades. If a spouse is not handy then someone else will fill the spot. Naomi Lange should have put aside her aversion to Wellington and brought her family down.

I also risk the view that we should encourage all MPs to travel overseas, on Parliamentary delegations with members of other parties at least every couple of years. They should travel economy, and get cheap accomodation, but have interesting and challenging meetings set up, and be forced to go by making it a use-it-or-lose-it "privilege". Trips should last at least two weeks.

I was shocked by the limited world awareness of some MPs. There is nothing quite as educative as feeling lost among teeming millions who’ve never heard of you or even your country or party, and have not even a polite interest in hearing your views. That kind of humbling is invaluable for someone who has come to feel that the world revolves around them and theirs. Many on the left have opinions formed and reinforced by determined confinement to their own politically correct circles. Alliance MPs apparently got into trouble if they were even seen talking to us ACT MPs (so we delighted in pretending to be in animated conversation with those we caught on their own in corridors or as lift doors opened).

There are probably also a number on the right who would benefit from more world perspective, though most had travelled extensively. Waking to newspapers full of other preoccupations, and none of yours,  is mind-opening.

The other reason for sending our MPs on walkabout together is so that they remember what we share. Parliament, and in particular MMP party politics, continually focusses the MP on drawing and magnifying the distinctions between themselves and others. If you do not you disappear from a media that wants punch n judy fights for entertainment and little else.

But when MPs get off a plane together in a foreign country, suddenly they are kiwis together. They share more in common with each other than with most of the people they meet. Over a week or two of travel you get to know your fellow MPs in a way that is simply impossible in Parliament or in New Zealand. Perhaps it was different in the days when Parliament was a boys club, where Bellamy’s bar and the billiard room were common meeting grounds. But in the modern Parliament there are no neutral common rooms.

It would be a cheap investment for New Zealand to send them all away in randomly selected groups from time to time, to remind them that what we all share as New Zealanders is more important than our differences. One shared rule could be that what goes on tour stays on tour.

It means a lot in terms of reaching practical accomodations back here. I never thought I could find common ground with Winston Peters, for example. Our first Select Committee meeting together had him leaving in a huff after yelling "toothy twat" at me, for pressing my objection to his breach of standing orders. He was used to people letting him get away with whatever he liked. But Winston was great company. After travel together it was easier to approach him for common causes. He agreed to our joint defence (with Wayne Mapp) of New Zealanders’ access to the independent judges of the Privy Council.

Cathy and I got to know Keith Locke in Geneva. That did not make us friends, but I can respect his courage and decency even while remaining convinced of his nuttiness. We cooperated several times to force Bill changes on Labour, and we voted our party votes together in Parliament (unsuccessfully) against parts of  the stupid bill that later tripped up the Police who brought the Tuhoe terrorism charges.

So here’s to more spending on overseas airfares for MPs, as long as its on tour.’

[I’ve not been a regular watcher of Q & A. I’ve been weaning my self off politics. But I must watch more. Gerry Brownlee was impressive on Q & A on the tricky topic of electricity industry regulation, and Andrew Geddis was perceptive in areas well outside his academic specialties]

Comments

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[…] Perhaps it is easier for Katherine Rich (and me) to put up our heads to defend MPs than it is for others – because as MPs elected after the reforms driven by Rodney Hide’s Read more at http://cli.gs/aNZ1d […]

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well said – will link

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“the best she felt since Jonathan Hunt gave the new MPís spouses avuncular advice..”

The mind boggles.

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  • Bob
  • August 14th, 2009
  • 10:35 am

I agree our politicians should travel reasonably frequently overseas. As they say travel is broadening even more so for politicians. I think it is good when a politician discussing say education can point to what was learned on a trip to Sweden. Equally we hear of people from other countries coming here to see how we do things.

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