NZ Election 2020: Value of political candidates' experience in 'eye of beholder' - political experts

As Kiwis approach the ballot box this election, they do so amid a period of immense disruption for New Zealand. 

On top of long-term challenges like climate change, at the forefront of voters' minds will be the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic - that's mounting debt, high unemployment numbers and constant concern about more positive cases emerging.

Big decisions need to be made. 

But how much do voters weigh up the experience of the people wanting to actually make them for Aotearoa? Should the person handling our taxpayer dollars come from the world of finance? Or do we value someone with a fresh perspective in the top portfolios? And can a first-term MP become a minister, or do we value time in Parliament?

"It's in the eye of the beholder. Different voters will have different views," says Grant Duncan from Massey University's politics programme. 

Candidates' experience can be broken down into 'real-life' experience and what they've done in Parliament.

Duncan believes voters on the right of the political spectrum are inclined to place value on candidates having experience in business and agriculture before jostling for a spot in Parliament. Those on the left might be appreciative of candidates who do community and charity work. 

Ultimately, however, there's no legal requirement for MPs or ministers to have any specialist experience. They just need to fulfil the basics like being a New Zealand citizen and on the electoral roll.

That's important, Duncan says, as establishing a defined standard of experience for candidates to reach before becoming an MP wouldn't necessarily allow for a representative democracy.

"Experience counts in any field of life. But it is not unusual for people to be parachuted in and for people to do quite well if they have plenty of talent. There is no science here."

Political parties often make a big deal of the background of their candidates - think of National's claims about its business experience or, more recently, emphasising how its health spokesperson is an actual doctor.

There's also regular jabs from parties at the strengths of their opposition's team. But Duncan doesn't believe voters pay too much notice to that "political rhetoric".

"I think many voters just don't look that deeply, honestly. This is obviously a standard tit-for-tat that will go on as part of the typical political argy-bargy. Are voters really looking that deeply? I don't know how many people are."

"Experience counts in any field of life. But it is not unusual for people to be parachuted in and for people to do quite well if they have plenty of talent."
"Experience counts in any field of life. But it is not unusual for people to be parachuted in and for people to do quite well if they have plenty of talent." Photo credit: Getty.

But real-life experience can be of some benefit. When then-Health Minister Dr David Clark faced criticism earlier this year (he later stood down from the role) there was speculation Dr Ayesha Verrall could take over the role if she's elected to Parliament at the election, despite the fact she would only be a first-term MP. She's ranked 17 on the party list - higher than many current ministers.

Dr Verrall recently came to prominence for authoring a report critical of New Zealand's contact tracing capabilities during the country's first COVID-19 lockdown. The Government took on recommendations from that. 

"The interesting thing was that [the report] was critical of the health systems, Government systems, and yet, she has been put forward by the Labour Party in this election and potentially becoming Health Minister. That is obviously jumping ahead some steps, but if it were to happen, I personally wouldn't doubt her ability," Duncan says.

Bryce Edwards, a political analyst at Victoria University, says there's precedence for first-term MPs becoming a minister. 

He points to Steven Joyce, who took on the hefty transport portfolio in his first term. He would go on to become known as the 'Minister for Everything'.

"It wouldn't be surprising if the next Government involves new MPs that are ministers in that Government," Dr Edwards told Newshub. 

There was speculation Dr Ayesha Verrall could take over the Health Minister role if she's elected to Parliament at the election
There was speculation Dr Ayesha Verrall could take over the Health Minister role if she's elected to Parliament at the election Photo credit: Newshub.

Duncan says Dr Verrall would be supported by the Director-General of Health if she did become a MP and was appointed the Health Minister.

He says it's important to remember that ministers are supported by a large number of officials.

"We have technical advisers to support ministers and to advise them and, I think, we put a little bit too much emphasis on the individual ministers and we forget about this army of people who service them."

Does it matter if the Agriculture Minister hasn't visited a farm? No, Duncan says, as long as they visit one when they become minister and listen to farmers' concerns.

"Ministers do matter and they obviously do have a decisive role, particularly in the context of their collegiality with other Cabinet ministers and with the Prime Minister. But they are not doing all of the nitty-gritty work and signing all the cheques and things like that. There is a kind of missed perception," Duncan says. 

"I am not saying, on the other hand, you can just put a cipher there, just any dude will do, because there are officials doing everything on their part. That's not how it works either. 

"The minister does have an impact on the direction of things and the public servants, to some extent, go along with that. The system has a certain inertia and certain machinery that will work anyway."

Slide towards fresh faces with new ideas

Dr Edwards agrees people from different backgrounds will place different levels of value on experience.

But he thinks, this year in particular, that voters are more influenced by the personality and charisma of politicians.

"I am not sure if people are looking at the experience of Jacinda Ardern apart from how she has governed in the last few years. They won't be looking at her CV. They won't be looking at what she did at university or what she did before going into Parliament, or even her record before becoming the leader of the Labour Party," he said.

"I don't think voters these days are particularly focused on long-term experience. They are not focused on 'has this politician had a long-time in Parliament'. That used to be something voters put a bit more weight on, but at the moment, we are living in an era where we actually appreciate freshness more than we appreciate longevity."

Dr Edwards says there has been a slide towards voters preferring fresh faces over those with years of political experience. No longer does the time someone has been in office indicate the value of a MP.

He notes the rise of "outsiders" like Donald Trump, who gained popularity as they weren't connected to the so-called establishment and presented a new type of politics that shook up the status quo.

Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her 'kind' approach to politics.
Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her 'kind' approach to politics. Photo credit: Getty.

Dr Edwards says that could even apply to Jacinda Ardern. While she was in Parliament nearly a decade before becoming Labour leader, her youth and 'kind' approach to politics - rather than aggressively adversarial - meant she was considered by many as bringing something new.

"She was seen as a young person, someone fresh, who had something different about her. That was an asset rather than a disadvantage of her becoming the leader of the Labour Party and then Prime Minister.

"That's what we are seeing throughout the world at the moment. We are seeing that you don't have to have had a long time in politics before voters are willing to trust you. In fact, the longer time you are in politics perhaps the less they trust you because you are seen as part of the system."

Underlining the point that voters value experience and longevity differently, Duncan says other politicians, like Winston Peters, have built their brand on the depth of their political knowledge.