How to MP: Tips from a ‘great parliamentarian’ 

One of Parliament’s natural orators has left the building after nearly 16 years as an MP. A lot of Parliamentary experience and skill has departed with him. So RNZ’s parliament show, The House, made an attempt to catch some tips. 

On his final day at Parliament, as his office was about to be packed away, Robertson sat with me in Labour’s caucus room to talk MP skills. He’s a good man to ask. Yes, he’s a former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister but he also shone in the House – politics’ gladiatorial ring.

After his valedictory the previous evening MPs from across the House were buzzing. “Did you hear that?” one Nat said as I passed him in the hall, “What a great speech.” He was right, it was. Funny, touching, thoughtful and punchy. Introducing that final outing, the Speaker, a long time political foe, described Robertson as a ‘great parliamentarian’.

“That does mean a lot to me”, he says of that descriptor. He also likes that it highlights a key facet of the role, sometimes overlooked. 

“Ultimately the job title is Member of Parliament. And the debating chamber is where we do the heavy lifting of that job. That does mean a lot to me. And I’ve always enjoyed the debating chamber particularly. That might have come through,” he adds with a chuckle. 

On public speaking

It’s clear that Robertson was in his element speaking in the chamber, but he wasn’t instantly comfortable. 

“It’s not like it all clicked into place straight away” he admits. He still remembers the first proper speech he gave (his maiden speech). “I did think I was going to faint”.

“I always tell school kids that when I was their age, I either wanted to be a lawyer or an actor, and now [as a Parliamentarian] I get to be both.”

“I’ve always enjoyed debating and public speaking. And I think they are pretty important skills; and being an MP, if you don’t have them, you are going to struggle. But for me, I was fortunate that I had a bit of [experience in] that coming in, and so felt comfortable talking.”

It helped that he’d worked in Parliament before becoming an MP, had been a keen observer of Parliamentary Debate, and had written speeches for other people to deliver in the House. 

“And so I guess I had an idea of how that side of the job worked. And I enjoyed it. And I think fundamentally, if you enjoy something, you’ll often end up looking like you’re quite good at it.”

The valedictory address from retiring Labour MP and former Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson.

On speech writing 

Except for the set-piece speeches (their first and last and events like a budget delivery) MPs aren’t actually meant to read out their speeches. They are meant to debate, off-the-cuff and respond to the ideas being raised. Many MPs struggle with that. 

The best speakers can be both funny and devastating with just a few bullet points to work from. Robertson is one of those, but he also writes with great skill. I ask for his method.

“I have a friend… who has a parable about writing, which is of ‘The Madman, The Architect, The Builder and The Judge’. …Most people, when they’re writing something, do that in reverse order. So they sit there and they anguish over whether something should be in, like the judge. Whereas actually, you should reverse the order and just dump down everything that you want to write. …Be the madman at the beginning, and then [design and] build your house after that, and then judge whether it’s good.” 

“So for those bigger sorts of speeches, I just tend to dump down all of my thoughts, and then go through and refine and bring other things in. And that is what I did for the valedictory. And I probably –in a couple of sessions– got down most of what was in the madman’s head, and then refined it. …It was pretty hard to squeeze two decades into 30 minutes.” 

The valedictory address from retiring Labour MP and former Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson.

Going hands free: speaking without notes

Robertson says that for most speeches in Parliament though, it’s different.

“But for the most part in Parliament, I tried not to use notes. And in fact, much to the frustration of my staff, I barely used notes, even as a Minister of Finance.”

The notes free approach allows him to focus on the audience. “Being able to look at people as much as you possibly can, will give you the greatest impact.” 

He remembers Miranda Harcourt quoting John Wayne: “ ‘acting is looking people in the eye and telling them the truth’. And there’s an element of that I think in public speaking that if you can look somebody in the eye and connect, you’ll do well. I also think you’re freer. And you’ve got to be confident to do it. If you’re not confident it’s not going to work.”  

Robertson’s General Debate speeches are pretty unusual in Parliament. For a start they are genuinely funny. Often beginning more akin to a stand-up comedy routine than a debating speech. But despite their dense thicket of barbs, it is not unusual to see political foes enjoying them, as well as party colleagues. He doesn’t take all the credit himself.

“I had some staff who were really good at that stuff as well. And we would kind of workshop some of the jokes and get them ready. But I almost never wrote out a general debate speech in long form, they were usually just words and phrases, which I would then use as part of the routine.”

An example of Grant Robertson’s General Debate comedy stylings, from 2021. He wasn’t always funny; he could also be thoughtful, combative or just withering.

On Question Time

Robertson’s ministerial staff have previously said that he never took Question Time for granted, but prepared thoroughly every day. I asked him how universal that approach is. 

“Well, I think you can tell when people don’t [prepare]. I did. And even when I had been answering questions for six years, I prepared exactly the same way.”

I asked for breakdown of that preparation. He said the primary questions for a given day would be revealed around 10:45am or so. (Note: Question Time begins at 2pm.) He would often be in meetings late morning but would have a quick look at them and send a message to his staff saying “this is what I think it’s about”. (Note: those primary questions would often be very general, e.g. ‘does he stand by all his statements and policies?’)

“We’d quickly work that out, and then I would leave my staff to it until about 12:30 for them to prepare all the answers and material that they want…”

“And then we’d sit down, and the first thing we’d do is just look [again] at the primary [question] and make sure we felt we had the primary answer right. And then we would spend the next 40 minutes working through what [supplementary questions] we thought we were going to be asked, preparing material…” including quickly ringing people to gain more information where it might be useful. “And then every now and then we would practise it a little bit. But by the end, I didn’t really need to do that. It was more just getting the material ready.”

Robertson’s staff have told me previously that sometimes, if there was time, they would all spend a few minutes brain-storming one-liners that might be fun to throw into the mix. 

Ministerial diaries are brutally heavy on meetings and light on free time, so devoting a decent chunk of each sitting day to preparing for a few minutes of exchange is an impressive commitment. 

“But, if you don’t prepare, and you don’t think about the kinds of questions you’re going to be asked, I think it’s a real risk for a minister. Because you often will either look like you don’t know, or you might say something that you don’t mean,” he explains.

Planning for where the supplementaries might take the line of questioning is important. You need to think ahead to make sure you don’t create traps for yourself by the answers you give. 

“I remember when I worked for Helen Clark, she used this ‘decision tree’ model. So basically, she would write it out on a bit of paper. ‘If they say this, then I will say this. If they ask this, then I will do that’. I’m not quite that methodical. But you do need to be doing that if you’re going to do well, I think, in the House.”

Robertson did the same sort of thing in reverse while in opposition, preparing for the various possible answers a minister might give, with various follow-up questions available.

He notes he has recently spent some time training newer Labour MPs on this approach. 

The valedictory address from retiring Labour MP and former Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson.

A plan to rethink Question Time

Robertson is not actually a huge fan of Question Time and thinks it is frequently a waste of time.  

“The Standing Orders Committee [which agrees Parliament’s rules] had a good look at this last year when I was on it, and we didn’t quite get agreement. So it hasn’t really progressed.”  

“I have a view that what we should do is rotate through the [ministerial] portfolios, and have a session where a minister is given an opportunity to perhaps speak for say, two to three minutes.” 

“And [the minister] could choose what they wanted to focus on. And then that minister is then the subject of questioning for the next 20 minutes, or whatever it is. And you could mix it up, because you want to be able to [also] do ‘issues of the day’ [like Question Time usually does]. 

This approach would be built  on the very successful new approach to Ministerial Statements; where a minister briefs the House on an issue and then faces statements and/or questions from an MP from each of the other parties.

“The time they get would encapsulate ‘patsy questions’ as well, so that you don’t have to embarrass yourself as a backbench opposition politician asking ridiculous questions. Just let the minister make statements, because that’s actually all they’re doing. They’re getting up and telling you something that they’ve done lately.”

Note: Changes to Parliament’s rules require a wide consensus before they are adopted. This idea hasn’t gained that agreement, but it definitely could in future. The current approach to Question Time is seldom informative, is hidebound by decades of rules and rulings that have left it focussed on tricksy questions and avoidant answers. It often looks more like Kabuki theatre than governance. Arguably it currently serves neither governments, nor oppositions; while also failing the institutional objective of parliamentary oversight. 

The valedictory address from retiring Labour MP and former Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson.

The crucial Parliamentary toolbox

I asked Robertson about the kind of skills that the new MPs coming through would benefit from learning. He notes three things (beyond the oratorical skills we’ve already discussed), that he also mentioned in his valedictory address. 

“I used …[former Labour MP] Marianne Hobbs as an example of the kinds of things I think you need. I’ll go in the reverse order of what I said. 

“Being empathetic is actually a really important skill, particularly if you are an electorate MP, because you are needing to work on behalf of others. But I think that’s the case anyway, we want everyone who comes in here to be empathetic, to understand the needs of others, and be able to do that. Some people have that as a high part of their emotional intelligence, but I think it’s really important.”

“I like the idea of MPs being intelligent if they can possibly be. I don’t mean that quite as facetiously as it sounds – in the sense that, in order to succeed, you are having to deal with and process an enormous amount of information. And I don’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to be the brightest kid in academic work; I just mean, being interested and able to understand and read and think about how things apply. And having that is important.” 

“And then the third, whatever phrase you want to use, I used the word ‘principled’ when I was talking about Marion. But ‘values-based’, I guess, is another way of putting it. You need to come here with a strong set of values. Now, they may not be the same from different parties. 

“But I think that’s important – that your basis is values and principles, that you have the ability to understand what’s in front of you, and you can be empathetic and understand the rest of the world. They feel like the skills you need.” 

Final thoughts: The debating chamber

When I ask Robertson for final thoughts he comes back to the debating chamber, the bear pit where the public side of political debate takes place. What goes on in the chamber is undeniably important. It is the ‘competition of ideas’ can find new converts, issue by issue.

“I do think the debating chamber is important. And I do hope we keep the spirit of that place to allow people to debate. Some moments of my political career in that chamber I will never, ever forget, even when I wasn’t an MP.

“When I was a staff-member, I was sitting in the gallery when [former Labour MP] Georgina Beyer delivered her speech at the end of the Prostitution Law Reform bill. The emotion in that room as she did that, it changed a vote which ultimately is the reason the bill passed. A person abstained when they were going to vote against it. Just moments like that.

“Marriage Equality is another one for me, which I mentioned during the valedictory speech. And then just from a political point of view, that’s where people can really shine and so I just hope we never lose the debating chamber as a place, hopefully, where people are respectful but certainly also where people give their best in debate.”

Note: We have not included it in this article, but in this interview Grant Robertson also talked about the crucial importance of MPs work in the electorates, and the need for MPs to look after their mental health and wellbeing. Those topics will be addressed in future, with input from other MPs.

Grant Robertson’s valedictory address.

RNZ’s The House – journalism focussed on parliamentary legislation, issues and insights – is made with funding from Parliament’s Office of the Clerk.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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