You might have seen my post on Facebook recently about the proposal to bring forward the school holidays due to the current Covid/Delta outbreak. Not surprisingly the nere idea of shirting the holidays generated a lot of angst and concern amongst teachers, and I had a few of you get in contact about how they could make their views known to the Government.
It got me thinking a bit about democracy and how it all works. It isn’t just about voting every three years; there’s a whole lot more to it. So grab a cuppa and settle in, cos this is a long (but important) one.
We’re pretty lucky in New Zealand with how small we are. Every MP represents around 45,000 people, which sounds like a lot; but many, like you and me, have probably never had any reason to walk into the local MP’s office with a problem. Compare it to other countries: Australian MPs have 165,000 constituents, and every person in the US Congress represents 750,000 people!
It means that our MPs are far more accessible, so if you want to see them in their office or send an email letting them know what you think, chances are they’ll be pretty good about responding. That’s even more true for us as teachers: we have some unique insights around child development, and often a pretty clear window on what’s going on in our community.
It’s often really easy to just leave politics to the politicians, and only think about it come election time. But literally every day in Parliament our MPs are discussing education; whether it be teacher salaries, curriculum, school rebuilds, ORS funding, pedagogy and classroom practice, or (my passion) professional learning development.
So surely if our MPs, who come from a wide range of backgrounds, are discussing what happens in our classrooms and schools, it’d be good for them to hear from us, right?
The good news is it’s super easy to contact the folks in parliament.
Emailing your MP about something you feel strongly about is as simple as grabbing the email address for your local MP and dropping them your thoughts. If you don’t know which electorate you’re in you can find out here.
Letting them know you live in their electorate, and keeping it relatively short (they do get pretty slammed with people across the country emailing every MP hundreds of times) increases the likelihood they’ll read your email and reply themselves.
If you do want to sit down with your MP and discuss the issue with them, say so. It’ll take a bit longer (often several weeks) to get an appointment, but it can be useful to get your point across.
So that’s the basics out of the way. Beyond contacting your MP, what else is there?
When MPs aren’t in their electorates they’re in Wellington three days a week, about thirty weeks of the year. When Parliament sits, along with the debating chamber which seats all 120 MPs (and tends to get most of the TV attention), MPs also attend Select Committees.
Select Committees are smaller groups of MPs, usually around ten or twelve, who break off to discuss different subjects. There’s a whole range, from Health to Foreign Affairs, Finance to Agriculture. The important one for most of us is the Education and Workforce Committee, where all issues relating to our schools and education system are discussed.
It consists of representatives from across Parliament; the people their parties have chosen as subject matter experts on education and the other matters discussed at the committee.
One of the biggest jobs of a Select Committee is to scrutinise legislation. Before a law becomes a law, it’s a bill. Bills are considered by Parliament (that’s all 120 MPs) and if a bill passes first reading, it’s sent off to a Select Committee to consider. There, that smaller group of MPs take a ‘deep dive’ look at the legislation, and most importantly, seek submissions from the public. Some bills are pretty non-controversial tidy-ups and might get just a handful of submissions, while one going through Parliament at the moment (to ban gay conversion therapy) has attracted more than 100,000.
MPs consider written submissions and will usually invite those who want to appear before the Committee to speak to their submission to do so. Once that’s completed, the bill will be reported back to Parliament, who then decide if it should be passed as a law or not.
So why is this process so important? Simple – it’s very rare for a bill to be reported back to Parliament without any changes. In the vast bulk of cases, the Select Committee will recommend and make changes to the bill based on feedback from submitters. That’s us: the public.
It’s an important part of our democracy, and not one we use anywhere near enough when you consider the impact a few well-worded submissions can have on the final form of legislation, and what that can mean for our families, and communities, and our schools.
Making a submission might sound daunting, but it’s not. It can be anything from a couple of sentences, through to pages and pages of scholarly, foot-noted text. What’s really important is to put it in your own words; form letters and postcard campaigns are largely disregarded by MPs. The most useful and powerful are a few paragraphs, setting out what the person thinks about the bill, and how it might affect them or those around them.
Well done, you got to the end! As a reward, here’s the Simpsons explaining most of what I’ve said above far more succinctly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JQK4bH0J-o