A political intern's perspective on political pitfalls
|Political Animal Crackers
Politics as a public profession is all-too-frequently demanding. It requires dedication, commitment, clarity, strategic and analytical thinking, and a robustly defensible set of moral, legal and public opinions and values. A democratically elected political representative (ideally) must be able to withstand every imagined sort of scrutiny, and still be someone that ordinary people can validate their entrusted choices by. A formidable job description.
As an intern for a national politician, I was provided with fascinating glimpses into the background to such a highly challenging form of public life. As well as with many opportunities (varied and colorful) to expand my horizons, to sharpen my intellectual skills and communication techniques further, and to give myself a unique strength of voice. I don’t belong to a political party of any kind. Neither am I a political activist in the traditional sense. However, for quite a considerable part of my life, by personal choice, and professional design, I have been greatly interested in social justice and human rights issues. I was ‘discovered’ by my politician boss, after I corresponded with him in writing. Impressed by my political insights, political intuitiveness, and cool headedness, we met together, and he began to offer me some work on some basic, background research that would inform his legislative stances and directions.
A lot of my political research involved the lengthy and often considerable reading of a wide range of background documents and papers. Fortunately, as a college student, I was no stranger to the demands of required reading. I also had to become wise to figuring out which information applied, and which material that I could confidently discard. Initially, I wrote advisory papers for Tim (my politician boss) to read, and for him give me his feedback on.
With time, my detailed research all came to a head, as relevant legislation came up for proposed amendments, through political submissions, and then for the required readings and final debates in the House of Parliament. So, I had to familiarize myself with making my final presentations to a wide range of nationally-elected politicians. Tim’s political party was the main party in a coalition government with several minor parties. It was a center-left (liberal) coalition. However, just because I was working with the ruling political party, was no solid basis for assuming that my suggestions would be taken seriously.
The New Zealand central government works under the political system of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP). MMP is a reasonably new introduction to the New Zealand political system. It has been around since 1996. Such a system now means that there are a huge variation of elected politicians, many with vastly different backgrounds, stances and ideologies. As the late, New Zealand historian, Michael King described it, “...a far wider range of political and philosophical views was represented than had occurred under the first-past-the-post system. All these ingredients would make political management a more taxing task than it had been previously.”. (p.494). So, I wasn’t just persuading Tim’s side of the political spectrum. I had to work towards convincing the majority of the politicians who were responsible for reviewing and agreeing on the proposed legislative changes. Lobbying was about much more than siding with a specific governing party or combination of political parties.
If there’s something that you learn rather quickly doing this sort of work, it’s how and when to simply keep your mouth shut, and to sit back and observe quietly. Invariably, there’s a lot of ‘ear-bending’ that takes place, as well as many closed-door conversations. From time-to time, there’s also the circulation of confidential, media-embargoed, and/or sensitive material. One has to be mindful of the potential implications of making certain decisions in relation to the types and sources of information that you come into contact with on a fairly regular basis. Not just the potential meaning and implication of the choices that you make in the ‘here and now’. But, also the ability to pay special and particular attention to the future consequences of all that you do.
My small and simple role as a political intern was everything that I had imagined, as well as everything else that I wasn’t quite prepared for. It certainly wasn't really anything all like the glamorous dramatization of “The West Wing”. It is, in all reality, mostly painstaking, difficult and challenging work, undertaken behind the scenes, without any fanfare or recognition whatsoever.
People intern with politicians for many different reasons. Some are already members of a political party, and who want to gain some foothold or assurances of moving up in the ranks. Others, use their experiences as a stepping stone into political science or diplomatic careers. My own reasons were more personal and sociological. I wanted to get a glimpse through a window of opportunity that I may never otherwise have had. I am surely better as a person for that, and I found out what it’s really like to be in the service of, as well as at the fragile and ever-changing mercy of the masses.
King, Michael, (2003) “The Penguin History of New Zealand” Auckland: Penguin Books. (pp. 488-495)