No, me neither. Then how about Mark Cameron, Karen Chhour, Emily Henderson, Marja Lubeck, Liz Craig, Camilla Belich, Ibraham Omer, Teanau Tuiono, Damien Smith, Lemauga Lydia Sosene, Simon Court and Helen White?
They are all current, serving Members of Parliament. Chen, Craig, Lubeck, White, Belich, Sosene and Omer are Labour list MPs. Cameron, Court, Chhour and Smith got into Parliament on the ACT list. Tuiono represents the Greens and Henderson is the Labour MP for Whangarei.
My point in running these names past you is merely to illustrate that there are people sitting in the House of Representatives whom most of us have never heard of. I follow politics reasonably closely and most of those 13 names are unfamiliar to me.
You’ll note that most of the unknowns, if I may call them that, are list MPs and therefore less visible than those who represent actual electorates and who are therefore directly accountable to voters. Electorate MPs need to make themselves known to their constituents and local media because their re-election prospects depend on it. List MPs, on the other hand, answer only to the party machine and it’s theoretically possible that they could sit in the House for several terms and still not make the faintest impact on the public consciousness.
You may also note that there aren’t many National MPs on my roll of anonymity. This isn’t because of pro-National bias on my part (God forbid). It’s simply that most currently serving National MPs, even those in list seats, have been around longer than the wave of newcomers who entered Parliament in 2020, and have therefore had more time to become publicly known. (Labour won 19 list seats in 2020, many of them occupied by newbies; National won 10, of which several went to long-serving MPs such as Gerry Brownlee and Chris Bishop who had an established public profile. ACT won nine new seats, most of them occupied by MPs no one had heard of.)
One of the conclusions to be drawn from this is that MPs in general have become more distant from the public they purport to serve – so distant, in fact, that many of their names are unrecognisable. This is in part an inevitable consequence of electoral reform, and more specifically the creation of the mixed-member system and the expansion of Parliament from 99 to 120 MPs, 48 of whom have no electorate.
One of the claims made for the MMP system is that it has made Parliament a lot more diverse, although it’s likely this would have happened even under the old first-past-the-post system as a result of social and demographic trends. But one downside of the change (one of several, in my view) is that it eroded the direct connection between electors and elected.
We now have two classes of MP: those who are directly accountable to voters, who get out and about in their electorates and hence are publicly visible (at least if they’re doing their job properly), and those who are rarely, if ever, seen outside Parliament and about whom the public knows zilch.
This is not to say list MPs are inevitably doomed to anonymity. Some acquire a high profile because they are hard-working or adroit self-promoters or media favourites (Golriz Ghahraman and Chloe Swarbrick come to mind – the latter to the extent that she was able to win a strategically important electorate) while others mimic flatfish, metaphorically speaking, by concealing themselves in the mud with only their eyes protruding.
But there’s another important factor here that’s rarely examined. It concerns the crucial role of the media in ensuring the proper functioning of democracy, and it was brought into sharp relief by the member’s Bill recently introduced to Parliament by ACT MP James McDowall.
It’s just possible that one reason so many MPs are unknown to the public is that the media have largely abandoned their traditional function of reporting what happens in Parliament. And I mean in Parliament – not outside the debating chamber where members of the press gallery (sometimes known as the wolf pack, but perhaps more accurately characterised as a mob of sheep taking their cue from whoever happens to be the most aggressive among them) wait to ambush whichever politician they have collectively decided will be that day’s target.
We are largely ignorant not only about who represents us in Parliament, but also what they do there. The only time the mainstream media take an interest in the debating chamber is when something happens to excite them, such as a squabble involving the Speaker or the inflammatory hurling of an insult.
It wasn’t always thus. One way previous generations of New Zealanders became acquainted over time with the names of MPs is that the media regarded it as one of their core duties to report parliamentary debates, parliamentary questions and select committee hearings. Look at newspapers from 20 or 30 years ago and you’ll see entire pages devoted to coverage of parliamentary proceedings, all painstakingly reported by newspapers that took their role as chronicles of record very seriously.
The now-defunct New Zealand Press Association, the industry-owned co-operative that serviced daily papers from Whangarei to Invercargill and had its own team of reporters in the gallery, was meticulous about covering the day-to-day business of Parliament. In addition, the small, privately owned South Pacific News Service (SOPAC) provided papers with specific parliamentary stories on request and often pursued issues that were of local interest to individual newspapers.
That was the primary means by which the public learned who was who in Parliament and what they were doing, if anything. It was a guide – an imperfect one, but better than none – to how our elected representatives were performing and what they stood for.
Some papers, notably The Dominion, also published an irreverent “sketch” column reporting on parliamentary proceedings in a way that often revealed far more about MPs’ conduct and personalities than a truckload of Hansard transcripts could ever do. (Jane Clifton was an acknowledged master of this journalistic form and continues to entertain Listener readers with her political insights, all the while seeming to keep her credibility intact despite the delicate complication of being married to Trevor Mallard.)
But that was then and this is now. Much of the time we have no idea what business is being conducted in the House, still less any knowledge of which MPs are making speeches or asking questions. Often we don’t learn about important legislation until its consequences – not always welcome ones – become apparent long after it has been passed.
This means there is a vacuum at the heart of the democratic process. We elect our representatives every three years, and then what? To all intents and purposes they disappear into a void until the next election, with the exception of the handful of activist MPs already mentioned who attract journalists’ attention. The feedback loop that should tell us what all those other MPs are doing is broken.
Yet the right to observe and report Parliament is arguably the most fundamental of press freedoms. The 18th century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke is credited with the famous observation that there were three “estates” in the British Parliament – the Lords Spiritual (bishops), the Lords Temporal (peers) and the House of Commons – “but in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth estate more important [by] far than they all”.
Burke recognised that a functioning democracy must be an informed democracy. It would no doubt astonish him, and those who fought for press freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries, to see that the contemporary media in New Zealand have largely renounced this most basic of press functions.
In a previous era a Bill such as McDowall’s, which was aimed at ensuring freedom of speech in academic institutions, would have been reported. At least some of the MPs who spoke in the debate would likely have been named and quoted. The public might have learned that McDowall and National MPs Penny Simmonds, Simon O’Connor and Michael Woodhouse cared about free speech while several MPs on the other side (Angela Roberts, Jo Luxton, Chloe Swarbrick, Shanan Halbert, Gaurav Sharma and Ingrid Leary) didn’t think it needed special protection in universities. The media would very likely have felt a special responsibility to report the debate because it concerned an issue in which they have a stake, since freedom of expression and freedom of the press are directly related.
As it was, I didn’t see or hear a word in the mainstream media about McDowall’s Bill and its defeat. It vanished without a trace, other than in Hansard. I’m reminded of the tree falling in the forest: if no one heard it, did it make a sound? Or in the case of McDowall’s Bill and countless others like it: if no one bothered to report them, did they even happen?
My guess is that you’re more likely to see a polar bear in Bellamy’s than a row of reporters busily taking shorthand notes of speeches in the House. As a result, MPs largely escape the public scrutiny that should inform our votes. This magnifies an absence of accountability already inherent under MMP, where a substantial proportion of MPs are answerable not to the public but to their party hierarchy. Call them the invisible MPs.
Online platforms (Newsroom, BusinessDesk, Point of Order, to name three) fill some of the gaps in parliamentary coverage, and Radio New Zealand’s The House caters to a small audience of political obsessives. But it’s hit and miss, and the result is that we are arguably less informed about the business of Parliament than at any time in living memory. That can’t be good for democracy.
My apologies to readers who couldn't make the link to my post about James McDowall's Bill work. It seems to have come right with a bit of tinkering.