Parliament could benefit from having more people with real-world experience
OPINION: There has been talk of a possible Cabinet reshuffle lately. There's no certainty of this, of course, but the Government does at least have the luxury of having some very good backbenchers who look ready for promotion. Foremost among them is Alfred Ngaro, a list MP from Auckland, who is widely tipped by National MPs and activists as a certainty for higher things.
I have only met Ngaro once – and very briefly at that. But I have also heard him speak twice. On each occasion, I was impressed with his ability to take and answer questions from the floor. In particular, he was good at acknowledging the concern of the asker, distilling the theory behind the Government's policy and then illustrating his point with an anecdote or two – which is essentially what you are looking for in a political communicator. Maybe it has something to do with his background as a minister (of religion, that is).
If Ngaro is promoted, then you can bet that the buzz from the media will focus on the demographic "first" of his appointment. As the first Cook Islander to be elected to Parliament, he would also be the first person of that heritage to receive a ministerial warrant. And as the National Party is keen to make further inroads into the Pacific community, the Government would not be displeased about that.
However, there is another thing about him that makes him a bit of an outlier in Parliament. Something that probably won't get the attention it deserves. You see, before he became a pastor and community leader, Alfred Ngaro was self-employed as an electrician.
We have far too few skilled tradesmen in Parliament – and probably too many who have spent their entire adult lives in and around politics. There will always be a place for career politicians in Government since, if nothing else, a lifetime in politics can be assumed to impart knowledge about how the system actually works. But an effective Government should also include people who have experience with how things are in the real economy.
It is easy to idealise a past that never existed. Governments have never been dominated by people who have regularly milked cows, delivered mail or worked their way up from the factory floor. Good connections, famous names and cronyism will always count more than they should in a representative democracy. That's just the human nature in action.
Nevertheless, the trend towards aristocracy cannot be denied. Surveys show that around a third of MPs have had political careers prior to becoming MPs and some have had next to no work experience outside of Parliament. Those with experience in business ownership, farm work or union activism are much thinner on the ground than you might expect.
Jacinda Ardern is singled out for criticism as a career politician. This is hardly fair, since she is hardly the only one, but it's noticeable that her defence to the charge is that when she was 14 years old she worked in a fish and chip shop. With all due respect, an after-school job is just not the same thing as enduring the same combination of stress, uncertainty and grind that comes with trying to support a family in the unforgiving private sector.
That's why I think government could do with more people like Alfred Ngaro. In addition to the skills he will have picked up in his as a pastor and a backbench MP, the five years he spent as a self-employed tradesman will give him an insight into the world so many of us live in. This is the world of GST returns, uneven cash-flows, customer complaints, hard to manage work-flows, provisional tax payments, accounting and legal fees, red tape, health, bad debtors and health and safety compliance costs. It is world with which fewer and fewer lawmakers have much, if any, familiarity.
Not everyone in politics needs to have this kind of background – but some of them should.
Of course, small-business experience offers no guarantee of success as a minister. The corridors of the Beehive are littered with the corpses of those who promised much but delivered little. The difficulties of government can prove too much for anyone and whether or not a particular individual can hack it seems to involve an element of random chance.
But if there is a reshuffle, then it looks like Alfred Ngaro will get his opportunity. Chances are he will be assigned to a "social" portfolio – though it would be good if he could also be entrusted with something in the economic or business spheres. Whatever the role, the elevation to high office of somebody who knows his way around a live circuit and a pair of pliers will be very much a good thing.