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New course gets inside the heart of New Zealand po

Are you a political junkie? If the idea of working in politics and helping politicians deal with the daily issues they face looks exciting and interesting, then Victoria University has just the right course for you.

A new honours programme paper gives students the chance to see politics from the inside by working in Parliament one day a week as an intern assisting MPs.

The programme has been initiated and organised by Victoria University Professor
Stephen Levine who says the course offers the opportunity to gain fresh insights into the workings of New Zealand's parliament and political system.

"Students in this programme have a somewhat different experience from other politics students. By working in a parliamentary office, they become a part of the political and parliamentary process".

The internship programme has its origins in a third-year undergraduate paper. Beginning back in 1979, students worked for about six weeks for an MP, writing their research paper based on the experience. Last year a separate year-long honours internship course was introduced with eight students admitted into the programme.

This year fourteen students are working with a range of politicians from across the political spectrum, including MPs Tim Barnett, Dianne Yates, Steve Chadwick, Ron Mark, Muriel Newman, Bill English, Nick Smith, Roger Sowry, Sue Kedgley, Sue Bradford, Junior Government Whip Chris Carter, Cabinet Minister Steve Maharey, and the Speaker of the House, Jonathan Hunt.

Levine says the interns have worked for all categories of MPs - government and opposition; coalition partners; select committee chairpersons; constituency and list MPs. "As a group, they gain a good a working knowledge of how MMP actually works in practice, within Parliament as a whole and within select committees."

The students do a range of work for MPs, writing speeches or articles, replying to MPs' correspondence, and answering telephones through to examining policy options and in some cases even drafting private members bills.

Professor Levine comments: "The students are available to assist in a range of ways. I want MPs to provide them with the maximum feasible exposure to politics and parliamentary life. The interns become part of the parliamentary scene. The aim is for each intern to experience Parliament through the eyes of their MP".

He says because each MP is different and has different roles each internship is going to be a distinctive kind of experience. Some of the interns have travelled with MPs around electorates, while others have in some cases even attended caucus meetings.

The feedback from MPs and students has been positive. "Some of the students say they never want to leave Parliament. This doesn't altogether surprise me as they are all really interested in politics and how the system works. It's also true that one of my students went into the third-year internship programme 15 years ago and is still working there."

As for the MPs, most of them seem happy to take part. "New Zealand's MPs are not heavily resourced in terms of staff and so the interns can make a useful contribution. Some MPs will contact me requesting interns and it can be difficult at times explaining to them that there aren't enough to go around. Telling MPs that they may have to wait until next year can be a bit of a challenge."

Levine says the success of the programme is already apparent, with Parliamentary Services and the Select Committee office assisting with the programme. The interns have access rights and certain privileges, and in return they sign confidentiality agreements and agree to work subject to Parliament's rules and obligations.

He's also having discussions with the Select Committee office about placing more interns with the office in the future. "They are effectively serving an apprenticeship, and being trained by the office, so when jobs come up - as they do all the time - they will have had the benefit of knowing the system and the people. This should give them an advantage over applicants with no prior experience of Parliament".

Victoria's parliamentary internship programme is already providing students with good employment opportunities. Professor Levine says that of the eight students involved in its first year, six are now working in the government sector. "These students have a first-hand knowledge and experience of the political system, as well as a confidence and a maturity that can be quite impressive."

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