Hold us to account, please

As local body elections approach I’m disappointed in some of my Auckland Council colleagues who are acting like, well, bad stereotypes of all the worst things TV warned you politicians could be.  Too much Yes Minister and too little West Wing, perhaps, can make us all extremely cynical about politicians, who are, after all, human beings, and some are definitely genuine.  But the rest give the whole profession a bad bad name.

I’ve been in politics since I was 18, half my life.  I haven’t always been in an elected role, in fact I’ve probably spent more time out of Official Elected Person Land (mostly willingly); there’s plenty of political work (mostly unpaid) to be done without a fancy hat or a title.  During this time I’ve observed a lot of other political people up close, some for a long duration, and there’s all sorts of different modes of operation.  Some are quite dishonest, to be sure, and they annoy me beyond what I can explain without recourse to uncouth curses which would be quite out of keeping with the high standards of The Daily Blog.  Many though are as honest as they can be, as even-handed and open-minded as you get, and hard working indeed.  Not necessarily all of these at once, all the time, but they try.

Integrity is important to me.  Sadly being a politician gets you -5 on your integrity shield without even leaving the house.  When I door knock and say I’m running for council (which is easier than explaining I’m running for the Puketapapa Local Board of Auckland Council, which is one of 21 local boards who have some actually very significant delegated powers like control of local parks, local community facilities, the ability to strike a local rate, etc etc) the wary glaze comes over their eyes.  One person said to me on the weekend, after I introduced myself, “Oh dear”.  We actually ended up having a great conversation, he signed the petition I had on me and we bid each other a fond farewell.  You have to work hard though to get past the initial impression that every politician is really just a con artist who takes your money in smaller amounts and over a longer period of time.

Lots of people have been burnt before, and, once bitten, they are certainly twice shy.  Many remember the Fourth Labour Government, the harsh decisions made against their own manifesto and values which in a way broke New Zealand politics, as we’ve seen a lot of shattered promises since then.  The current one that bugs me the most is the push on charter schools; a policy which did not feature in National’s education policy prior to the 2011 election, and, interestingly, also did not feature in the policy of the Act party who insisted on it (and not much else really) in their coalition agreement with National.  Millions and millions of dollars put into a policy which undermines our public education system, has demonstrably not worked overseas, and was never even put to the voting public at all.  That’s not ok.

I see people, some people, not necessary a lot but probably more than a few, lying in everyday local politics.  And sometimes it is so obvious.  Just be upfront, don’t get tangled up in a lie that is easily exposed or ends up making you look silly quite quickly as you have to make other lies to be consistent.  Many people are bad liars.  I don’t know if it’s a New Zealand cultural thing (having never lived anywhere else) but I am quite surprised often with how blatantly someone will lie and while most people in the room will raise a cynical eyebrow no one challenges the falsehood, or the liar, and the untruth becomes a little bit more like the truth.  We can be too polite sometimes, I think.  Of course it may be that it’s not a lie, but a mistake, or a misunderstanding, or they have something wrong.  Speaking up would help with that too.

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I’ve had discussions with people where they have completely changed their view, with no explanation or logical progression from where they started, within a matter of minutes.  That suggests to me someone who doesn’t have strong politics, or perhaps doesn’t have a lot of reasoning behind the positions they take.  If you don’t know why you think what you think, why you value what you value (and why you don’t value other things) then perhaps politics is not really where you belong.

Then there are the times people state that that is their opinion (and you can almost hear the “so there” that would go at the end if we were all still eight years old).  Yes it’s your opinion, I worked that out thanks very much, possibly because you said “I think” or somesuch at the start.  And seeing as how part of our job as politicians is to offer your opinions, debate them, and then make a collective decision using whichever mechanism is most appropriate.  Just because that is your opinion does not mean that is the end of the discussion.  “Well that’s what I think” does not trump everyone else, otherwise we’d all just yell that at the start and then take a vote on who said it first, or something.  Own your opinion, explain it, expand on it, engage in discussion about the opinions of others, evolve your thinking as the group talk it through, as you hear from the community, as you research the topic.  That’s being good at the job of being a politician.

So I’m sympathetic to the members of the public that shy away from me when I tell them why I’m knocking on their door.  I’m not as disliked as someone who is trying to get them to join Sky or change power company.  But there is a pause, with most people, as I see them think “oh, here we go, set lie detector to extreme sensitivity.”

Many many years ago I met my favourite MP, at the time.  I was in awe.  This person just seemed so amazing, so in sync with my own values and concerns.  Over the coming months as I spent more time around them I found out actually they were quite awful.  Others I have been around have been great when times were good, but then I’ve seen dishonesty and manipulation from them when the political winds blew chillier and they were keen to save their skin.  My observation is that many people who are very involved in politics, particularly institutional politics of some kind like in a party, or Parliament or a large organisation like a Council, become institutionalised.  It can be very hard to keep your sense of perspective and the outside world that your decision affect, especially if your main area of involvement is that one institution.  Even when leaving would be the best thing for them, personally, they fight to stay because it’s been the structure of their life for so long it is terrifying to consider another way of living.  Bit like what sometimes happens to people who go into the police; they lose their friends and connections outside the force because no one Out There really gets what it is like In Here.

Some politicians I have seen have acted with integrity most of the time, with the odd mistake because we all do make them.  . They’ve been consistent to their values, while changing over time due to life experiences and exposure to other people’s ideas and shifting community opinions.  Avoiding lies, asking difficult questions, seeing through large tricky projects rather than going for lots of small easy ones, speaking truth to power when the opportunity arises, really actually listening to people as opposed to just using their talking time as an opportunity to work out what you’ll say next.   It can be done.  I’d say all politicians manage to do some of this some of the time.  And we could all, me included, do better and try harder.

Most people reading this will probably not consider themselves politicians, although possibly interested in politics or politically active.  You can help politicians get better at this stuff, this very very important stuff that is the essence of a functional democratic system.  Talk to us.  Tell us when we get things wrong or make a mistake.  Hold those you know are lying to account, yes at the ballot box but you may want to consider broader exposure than that because if only you know about the lie then only you are holding them to account for it.  Be ok when a politician admits they don’t know or they are not sure; ask them to get back to you, which would make a huge difference because it would mean we can all have a more informed discussion than a series of time-pressured misstatements can provoke when we end up arguing about the accuracy of statements rather than the ideas or research or lives behind them.

Please hold us to account.  Seriously, please do it.  We need it, we need your oversight.  You don’t have to do it full time all the time; if lots of people shared the load a little with this stuff we could see a real change in the behaviour of many politicians I reckon.  The Greens provide something of a model in my opinion – almost all the current Green MPs I would feel would tell it how it actually is if I asked them a decent question.  They’re not perfect, and no one is going to be, ever.  Focus punishment on those who do lie, and are corrupt, rather than scattering it around all with a “what do you expect from politicians” which actually lets the bad ones off the hook.

Accountability is the cornerstone of democracy and it shouldn’t just happen at the ballot box.  In fact it can’t happen at the ballot box, not properly, unless politicians are held to account between times; by the media, yes, but also these days by the citizenry through blogs, twitter, talkback radio, letters to the editor and so much more.  Keep us honest.  You’ll get a better type of politician as a result.


  1. That should be given to ever aspiring (and current) politician to read and digest.

    But as important, every voter should consider your wise words as well, Julie. Because in the final analysis, we’re the ones that put politicians into office. They don’t just materialise out of thin air like a “Star Trek” transporter. So the responsibility lies with us, the public.

    My observation is that many people who are very involved in politics, particularly institutional politics of some kind like in a party, or Parliament or a large organisation like a Council, become institutionalised. It can be very hard to keep your sense of perspective and the outside world that your decision affect, especially if your main area of involvement is that one institution.

    In the mid 1990s I worked for a brief time for an MP and had the chance to observe and experience Parliamentary culture. The first thing I noticed, and quite quickly, was that Parliament could easily be isolated from the rest of society. It was like being inside a nuclear bunker or spaceship, hermetically sealed from the outside.

    No wonder elected representatives lose touch with those who put them into office.

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