“A sea of calm” – MEPs and their groups
Every Wednesday morning at 7.15am when Parliament is in session, a small group of MPs shuffle into a meeting room in the Beehive.
Daylight begins to shine through the large windows. MPs gather for their regular Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, which their group’s co-leader, National MP Simeon Brown, said is a quiet place where they can retreat from politics and spend time together.
“As a Christian, it’s a great opportunity to spend time with like-minded people, spend time praying for one another, encouraging one another, talking about each other’s families, and providing support where we can,” he explains.
Brown’s co-leader is Hamilton East MP Jamie Strange of Labour, who describes theirs as a cross-party group, “run by a couple of gentlemen from outside Parliament who come from outside Parliament and make food for us, and a group of MPs gather to read scriptures and pray. This has been going on for over twenty years.”
“I see it as a sea of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of parliamentary life,” says Strange, a Pentecostal Christian.
The group is open to everyone, he explains, and “it’s totally non-political. We are there to build relationships and support each other as human beings as much as we can. And for myself, I sometimes speak out about some of the struggles I face, and I’m really happy with the support I’m receiving.
He says a key benefit of being part of the group is the ability to slow down.
“In the 45 minutes I have a chance to reflect on my role as an MP and I think to reaffirm the values I bring and just to remind myself why I’m there. When we’re busy, we can often just do things for the sake of things. But it’s really important (to slow down) and different people have different mechanisms. For me it’s spinning where I can slow down and reflect and evaluate what I’m doing, how I’m feeling versus the values I hold in my life. That is one of the advantages and another advantage is the possibility to support each other. At different times in our lives, we all go through challenging times — that’s life — and it’s important to have a support network around us,” says Strange.
After the prayer breakfast, MPs go to select committees or other meetings that are very different from those they attend earlier in the day, which are more about rest and reflection. In the afternoon, these MPs stand in the plenary hall, sometimes strenuously defend themselves, and appear in public spaces.
Brown says the hawkish politics seen by the public is just one side of MPs and one left outside the door when the prayer group meets. When asked how his role as a political attack dog for the parliamentary opposition compares to his Baptist beliefs, the Pakuranga MP explains that “they are different parts of who I am”.
“I’m someone who comes into Parliament to represent an advocate for my community, my views and my party, and I do it in a strong way, because actually we’re not here to eat our lunch, we’re here actually work hard for the people who brought us here to eat, and that sometimes means very strong advocacy, but at the same time we come with different views and beliefs, and many MPs (have) no faith. It’s part of us and it’s important that we spend this time together.”
Groups like this are about human connections that can tell us something about what makes the MEPs involved tick.
Other bipartisan groups that MPs belong to include the Rainbow MPs Group and sports clubs. Then there are the groups within the parties. In the ruling Labor Party there is the Māori Caucus and also a Pasifika.
List MP Lemauga Lydia Sosene is a member of the Labor Pacific Caucus, which meets every Tuesday after the Labor Party Caucus meeting. She says it has been an invaluable help since she entered Parliament at mid-term this year.
“The Labor Pasifika Caucus was a really good support group with knowledgeable, experienced MPs and I really appreciated their camaraderie in terms of leadership and mentoring,” says the Samoan MP.
The focus is on the government’s work program but also a range of advice for the parliamentary journey, from the mechanisms of government and legislative processes to the challenges facing a Member of Parliament’s health and well-being.
“It’s really helpful when you get good advice, kind advice, just to help you decide what your next step is. So you come in and you have parliamentary duties, you get put on a select committee, you also have duties in the House of Representatives. And we like to navigate those paths, but we also like to bring our ethnicity and background and our cultural knowledge and expertise into the role. What I learned from Pasifika Caucus is the intertwining of those and those additional skills.”
Then there are inter-parliamentary groups like the New Zealand-Latin American and Caribbean Parliamentary Friendship Group, co-chaired by Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March.
“It is a group of MPs whose goal is to build peer-to-peer relationships with parliaments in their respective regions. This allows us to build relationships based on topics the group is interested in, and friendship groups can apply for delegations each semester.”
It offers MEPs the opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues in different countries and territories, and he says a recent delegation to South and Central America has reconfirmed how much this country has in common with countries in the region. Menéndez March was part of an interparliamentary delegation led by Parliament Speaker Adrian Rurawhe that traveled to Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico for two weeks last month, with the Mexican-born Green Party MP proving to be an ideal translator for the delegation in these Spanish-speaking countries.
But the Friendship Groups aren’t just about connecting with overseas colleagues – they also help build connections domestically.
“As a first-term MP, to be able to meet with MPs from different political parties and discuss how we can build closer ties with the Latin American and Caribbean region and learn what they are doing without worrying so much about Making divisions along party lines is very useful. And it also allows us to get to know our colleagues better, because Parliament doesn’t actually create many opportunities for us to meet outside our party lines, to really get to know each other as people,” says Ricardo Menéndez March.
“These friendship groups are kind of an opportunity to build a much more constructive culture, and I think that’s also one of the benefits of having these spaces.”