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MP careers: NZ’s 52nd Parliament

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

By Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham

Since 2010 were have tracked MPs’ work and education backgrounds. We have done this to help us understand influences on their decisions, and to track our hypothesis that New Zealand politicians are becoming less like the voters than previously.

Employment backgrounds and education are highly suggestive of our personal values, and the values we gain through experience. All of us are shaped by the people and events we encounter. We utilise these values and experiences when making decisions. Politicians are no different in this respect.

Variety of experience and values is useful to Parliament and democratic Government; to embody and represent the public, to appreciate the impact and public desirability of decisions and policies, and to mitigate ‘group think’.

Therefore, we are concerned that each Parliament we have studied is looking increasingly less like the people it represents.

The work backgrounds of MPs have changed substantially even in the relatively short time we’ve been monitoring (this report does not cover our findings on education).

We categorise every paid job of each MP to collate all their experience, not only their main career or qualification.

For two thirds for politicians, it is possible to categorise their employment path in broad categories. For one-third, there is no distinct career, specialisation or path at all before entering Parliament.

This one third of MPs without a career reflects an employment pattern evolving in the wider population and economy, so is in a sense unsurprising and representative.

But a crucial common factor among these MPs is that they had effectively been running a political career simultaneously with their employment. They were involved in party politics at University, and continued as Party volunteers, campaigners and officials in early adulthood. They gained Party nominations and employment as Party researchers their 20s or 30s, and then eventually entered Parliament during these years.

The other growth employment category during our period of research is work in jobs related to “government”. This category is largely positions employed directly within central government agencies, where the work is “political” and not specifically trained. We’ve excluded professions such as teachers, doctors, and scientists.  20% of MPs in the current Parliament have previously worked in government jobs. Labour’s experience in government employment increased from 16% in 2015 to 26% in this Parliament. This jump was fuelled by the intake of new Labour MPs, where 21% of work experience was in government. National’s experience in government work increased by 1% point to 19%.

Employment in the business world is still the single biggest category of MP work experience (24%), but now only marginally over government employment. It has been falling over the course of our research, and government employment has risen.

The dominant work experience in each party is:

  1. National: Business (25% of all jobs held by all party MPs) and government (19%)

  2. Labour: Government (26%) and business (14%)

  3. New Zealand First: Business (27%), Education (18%) and Police/Military (18%)

  4. Greens: Union and activism (43%) and Business (29%)

The dominance of Labour MPs with experience in central government work and the Greens’ experience in activism is poles apart from the lines of work and everyday experiences familiar to New Zealand First MPs.

Yet, based on the share of employment experience, the Labour-New Zealand First-Green coalition has MPs with the broadest range and diversity of skills, knowledge and experience.

Labour has significant groups of MPs who come from education, legal and media backgrounds, and includes a strong contingent of Maori MPs, who have often held senior leadership and governance positions within Maoridom.

Labour has the largest number of MPs with experience in government jobs (17), forming a quarter of its caucus. But the second largest category of Labour experience is in business (14%).

The Greens are dominated by MPs with employment backgrounds in union and activism (43%). But in contrast, are the party with the largest proportion of MPs from the business sector (29%).

The scale of activism of Green MPs would appear incongruous with the backgrounds of its current coalition partner, New Zealand First. But there is common ground across the Greens and Labour in people who have experienced the challenges of starting and running businesses.

Both National and New Zealand First can stake a claim to be the party of business.

National’s main source of MPs is the business sector (25% of all pre-jobs held by all party MPs) and government (19%).

New Zealand First has the largest proportion of its caucus with business experience (27%), followed by employment in education (18%) and Police/Military (18%).

Data and Graphs

We collect and correlate data on employment history from as many sources as possible; current and historic official biographies, news stories, speeches and social media.

We categorise the data to draw out the “main career” of MPs before Parliament. This is employment covering over half their working life, and/or in line with their qualifications. Where there is no definable career, we categorise employment as “multiple”. This is our “main career” count.

We then count group every full-time job held within broad categories to assess the total range of employment experience, not just careers. This is our “multiple backgrounds / all employment” count. In this count employment can be categorised across multiple sectors. For example, a management role in a forestry business would be categorised as experience in “business” and “agriculture”. We do not yet count part time work, although part time work undoubtedly has an impact on personal experience and self-positioning.

All parties – multiple backgrounds.

Labour 2015 cf. 2017

National 2015 cf. 2017

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