Tuesday, 13 January 2009

On holidayz with the Prime Minister

The front page of the Herald yesterday dedicated some space to political maths. In a reasonably gentle poke at the new Government they pointed out that within those much lauded One Hundred Days of Action the agenda included a 28-day holiday:
Nov 19-Dec 22: Swearing-in to the start of a holiday "duty roster" (34 days)

Dec 23-Jan 20: Most ministers on holiday (28 days)

Jan 21-Feb 26: First Cabinet meeting to end of 100-day period (38 days)

Helen Clark, now mentioned as "former Prime Minister", and leader of the opposition Phil Goff are both quoted criticising the timing, given the economic crisis and the situation in the Middle East. The article goes on to note that both the Governor of the Reserve Bank and the Treasury Secretary went back to work last week.

Politicians have families, and in an election year, like last year, they don't see much of them, or their friends, and often their partners and others have to pick up the slack. Holidays for Members of Parliament are often crucial times for their spouses, their children, their parents, and their broader circle of friends and whanau, to renew and recharge those relationships. For the partners in particular, the time the politician has off is time they can be focusing on many of those household and familial responsibilities that the partner carries for most of the year. So I don't begrudge Mr Key his family holiday.

The timing though was probably not the best. And this might not have been an issue at all, if National hadn't made grand promises about their One Hundred Days of Action and how they would save us all from the big bad international recession with a speedy response of epic proportions. Taking a holiday part way through that, when you haven't really done much yet, seems a bit, well, weak.

But when your kids are at school it makes sense to take a decent break now, when they are off for more than two weeks. I sincerely hope that people won't choose to use Clark's criticism to bring up the fact she doesn't have children, yet again; Goff has several kids. I was a little confused that Clark commented at all, and I wonder if she was responding to a request from a reporter, rather than seeking the story herself, given that she was apparently on holiday too.

When I think about politicians taking holidays I actually don't think so much about them. I think about the people they share that holiday with, and what that precious time means for them. We ask a lot of our Members of Parliament and a lot of the people who are close to them. They deserve a holiday too.


Anna said...

I'm in two minds. On one hand, spending time with your family is a right, it helps keep MPs attached to normal life, and it helps address a significant barrier to women's participation in politics.

On the other hand, Maurice Williamson's comments on the Israel/Palestine situation were just so relentlessly stupid. I assume he was the duty minister at the time he was asked to comment, and no one better was available.

Maybe there's a need to distinguish between the stuff which genuinely needs to be done quickly (ie giving intelligent comment on international issues), and stuff that can wait (ie the legislation recently passed under 'urgency'). Might make for a better balance between MPs need for work/life harmony and making sure the democratic process ticks over?

Julie said...

I didn't see Williamson's comments, when did he make them? I must admit to not being surprised.

In terms of the work-life balance of MPs, I think there is a whole heap we could look at. Significant improvements have been made in the last decade, eg Helen Clark aligned sitting time with school holidays, but it still doesn't address the fundamental problem that for many MPs there is too much work to do in sane hours. Witness the number of broken relationships, people with substance abuse issues, etc in Parliament. Still.

Anna said...

Even more so Cabinet ministers - I didn't appreciate this until I was a public servant. I think that some at least must get detached from reality, which aside from being bad for them personally can't help them do their jobs.

Julie said...

That's a good point Anna - the expectations of MPs flow on to their staff. A colleague used to work in a Minister's office and it didn't work out because the expectation was that he would work the ridiculous hours the Minister did. As a father of young children and someone interested in having a life he wasn't prepared to, so that was that.