Last weekend's Sunday Star Times ran a story by Kim Knight entitled ‘Credit card scandal – why they spend our money’ which quoted me explaining the apparent increased propensity of New Zealand politicians to be misspending taxpayer money on themselves – i.e to be ‘troughing’, or rorting the system. The blog post below highlights what I was reported as saying and elaborates on my argument that parliamentarians are increasingly ‘career politicians’ largely divorced from any social constituency, and that this affects their orientation towards the remuneration possibilities offered by Parliament and Cabinet. Quite simply, professional politicians are more inclined to be interested in the personal financial rewards and perquisites that come from what they regard as a ‘career’ rather than a ‘duty’. Hence, with a focus on the material comforts and rewards of their ‘job’, it’s hardly surprising that all possible sources of payment are exploited by these ‘professionals’. [Read more below]
It’s no wonder high-profile politicians have gone off course over expenses. Today’s career politicians have a different moral compass than the public servants of old, Otago University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards says. “They see their time in parliament as a job. And in any job, you get the most out of your remuneration.”’ …. “The mentality of a career politician is that they’re there to pay their bills, to save for retirement,” says Edwards. “In previous times, MPs came in later. They had established careers they could go back to.” Edwards says a “sense of entitlement” has driven the credit card scandal. “When you’re paid $151,000 as a backbencher, you’re divorced from the realities of most people’s working lives – people who struggle to pay the bills and who ride the bus. “Those mundane things aren’t you’re daily experience and the people you’re mixing with tend to be more well-heeled. Lobbyists, corporate representatives – those are the people you set your expecations against… your point of relevance changes.” According to Edwards, the Beehive breeds “a cocoon of unreality” and some politicians see their credit cards as a work tool rather than “a people’s card that has been entrusted to them”.
What I was trying to get across in what I said above, was this idea that the whole nature of representative politics has changed in quite a profound way and that this changes the whole mentality of MPs, making them more focused on their own self-interest. The big change has been in terms of the personal backgrounds of the politicians. Previously, MPs virtually all came from backgrounds where they had been in real world occupations and careers - Labour MPs were often wage workers, and National MPs were very frequently farmers, lawyers and in other middle-income professions. They normally only went into politics after first undertaking these long careers, often seeing their time in politics as a temporary change. Once in Parliament, being an MP wasn’t regarded so much as an actual job or profession, but a duty or service to society.
This situation has shifted enormously, and now there is a much greater likelihood of MPs coming into parliament at an earlier age and only having experience in ‘the political world’ of lobbying, local government, PR, parliamentary research jobs, etc. These days it’s increasingly common for MPs to spend only a few years at university and in post-university jobs before going to Parliament in their 20s or 30s. They don’t so much see their position in parliament as a duty but as a career, and with that career they expect to be very richly rewarded with a large salary, allowances, and a super-generous retirement income. Unfortunately for them, however, the public still consider them to be in service of the ‘public life’ and hence don't particularly like it when they grasp all the material comforts that they can get.
With politicians living the lifestyles of the rich and famous, they are essentially encouraged to be distant from ordinary people. They cease to understand or feel the same concerns of the vast majority of the population. What’s more, they become careerists devoid of a strongly-held political agenda.
Political party scholars, Richard Katz and Peter Mair believe that in the west we are witnessing the development of a ‘political class’ in party politics. In their view, politicians are increasingly a self-referential group of career professionals who develop an independent understanding of goals and objectives: ‘the goals of politics, at least for now, become more self-referential, with politics becoming a profession in itself: a skilled profession, to be sure, and one in which the limited inter-party competition which does ensue takes place on the basis of competing claims to efficient and effective management’ (Katz and Mair, 1997: pp.111-112).
Consequently, the MPs - regardless of their party hue - become divorced from party principles and their members, activists, and even their own voters. A good example of this shift is a statement by Act MP Rodney Hide: ‘We bump into our opposition parties in the airport all the time and you end up actually chatting away. There’s a sort of public thing of being against each other politically and all the rest of it, but there’s also a camaraderie in the sense that you’re in the same business’ (quoted in Evans, 1995: p.18). Act Party insider and commentator Simon Carr has also painted a similar picture:
It is a secret society, joined by covert bonds and awful oaths of loyalty (if not to each other). However much they attack their opponents, however different their world view is, however ferociously they represent their constituents’ interests – they have more in common with each other than they have with us. That’s worth unpacking: Jim Anderton has more in common with [Winston] Peters than he does with the homeless, the downtrodden, the huddled masses of Sydenham (Carr, 1997: p.37).
Politics is becoming a career: survey
This idea of an emerging ‘professional politician’ caste is reiterated in a just-released report by Senate Communcations about current MP occupational backgrounds – see: ‘Politics is becoming a career: survey’ (download as a PDF here). The report is written by Mark Blackham, Senate Communication’s ‘Government Relations Partner’ who says ‘the result shows that for an increasing number of MPs, the world of government is their main life experience’. The report is worth quoting at length, as it indicates that this professionalization is an increasing trend:
A survey of the career backgrounds of Parliamentarians has found that their most frequent pre-MP employment experience is within the world of politics and government. The survey by government relations specialists Senate Communications shows that almost a quarter of MPs have worked primarily in government or local government roles before entering Parliament. This has jumped from 15 percent in a similar survey six years ago. What’s more, one third of MPs have worked in a political or bureaucratic role at some time in their lives.
Blackham is particularly astute at recognizing the ideological and motivation ramifications for modern MPs:
The days are virtually over where people enter politics to fix things they find wrong in ordinary life. Now, they are more likely to enter government or party politics at a young age as a career move. The growth of bureaucracy and political interest groups allows many more people to find long term employment inside the world of national politics. MMP has strengthened the ability of political parties to keep their preferred MPs in Parliament – so MPs can choose to make politics a lifetime career. This means that the rarefied environment of politics is the main experience they draw on when making decisions
Remoteness from civil society
The increased propensity for MPs to operate as careerists concerned with their own remuneration is also related to the increased remoteness of the politicians and their political parties from the realities of ordinary people’s lives. In the past when political parties were more mass-based (with significant numbers of members) and class-oriented, they had an organic integration into New Zealand life. One of my central arguments about the changes in New Zealand political parties is that there is a significant and growing decline in the linkages between the parties and civil society. This is a key characteristic of the modern model of parties often labeled the ‘electoral-professional party’. The linkages between parties and voters have been weakened in terms of social cleavages (with less class voting in elections), by means of the weakening relationships with societal groups (with weaker relationships with interest groups, trade unions, business organisations, etc), and through declining membership numbers and participation. Correspondingly, political parties are professionalising and using technology and media and public relations specialists to communicate with society. The parties’ organisational penetration of society has, thus, become shallower, with the result that parties and their representatives in Parliament are more autonomous entities. So whereas in the past an MP was constantly surrounded by – and having to answer to – party members and activists, the modern MP is surrounded by other political professionals (rival MPs, communication advisers, researchers, journalists, lobbyists, etc). In fact the party organisations outside of Parliament in the electorate are virtually dead, only kept alive via the lifeline of Parliament.
This decline of the party outside of Parliament further severs the connection between civil society and the politicians, as it has traditionally been through the mechanisms of the extra-parliamentary party that the public has been able to participate and interact with politics – through membership of the parties, public meetings, the visit of canvassers to homes, and so forth. Modern Electoral-professional parties, by contrast, are substantially removed from the reality of people’s everyday lives.
To a large extent the electoral-professional model moves parties away from acting as the representatives of civil society at a state level. Instead it is being seen more as part of the apparatus of the state itself – MPs are something that belong to Parliament and the Government, not to the community. Typically, the electoral-professional party is organisationally very separate from voters – something above civil society, rather than something inside society. So can it be any surprise that MPs act as self-interested, unprincipled, power-seeking professionals with a sense of entitlement?
Obviously there are no quick fixes that will convert our career politicians into servants of the public. New Zealand political parties are not about to return to their mass membership and class-based traditions any time soon. But one small step to change things would be put MPs and ministers on only the average wage (or something similar). As I’ve argued before in the blog post, Politicians should be paid to be representatives not careerists, serving in Parliament should be considered a representative honour and duty, not just a career, and therefore parliamentarians shouldn’t be treated as being above – and separate from – society via an extravagant pay and lifestyle:
MPs invariably seem to want to be treated as superior than or worthier than the public that votes them in. This relatively enrichment means that they enjoy a lifestyle similar to private sector managers and businesspeople. This is not healthy – the politicians become utterly divorced from the lifestyles of their voters. And it’s not surprising that the politicians take on the same sort of corporate culture. Unsurprisingly, the politicians begin to view themselves as above and beyond the voters...Yet a good argument can made that it is better for democracy and politics if elected representatives are exactly that – representatives, and hence they shouldn’t receive the extraordinary sort of pay that they currently do. Instead of regarding their election to the House of Representatives as a well-remunerated career choice, we should regard it as a significant honour to be called to serve the public. In a democracy, the role of a politician should not just be seen as ‘another job’.
No one’s expecting ministers to live in sack clothes or wear hair shirts, but they should at least live like most people.