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OPINIONPoliticsMay 2, 2024

Where else should phones be banned? The most unruly classroom of all – parliament

Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

As the government tries to get the country back on track with a school phone ban, Tara Ward has an idea for where they should turn their attention to next.

New Zealand students returned to school on Monday morning, but their cellphones did not. The government’s new phone ban began this week, meaning all state students’ mobile phones cannot be used on school grounds. The “phone away for the day” policy was part of National’s election campaign, with leader Christopher Luxon promising to “turn around falling achievement” by eliminating “unnecessary disturbances and distractions” in learning environments. He even said as much in a TikTok video, viewed by people on their phones. 

But in breaking news, schools aren’t the only place suffering from falling achievement and unnecessary distractions. Parliament is also sliding down the shitter. This week, all three parties in the coalition government dropped in the polls and a Green MP apologised for intimidating behaviour. Last week, two National ministers were stripped of their portfolios and before that, Luxon vowed to pay back his accommodation allowance after it became “a distraction”. Last year, Labour’s achievement levels were so poor they lost the election. The only thing going up in parliament right now is the pay.

The numbers don’t lie, but you know what else has a number? A mobile phone. On Tuesday afternoon, numerous members on both sides of the House of Representatives were seen distracted by their phones, in what is arguably the most important learning environment of all. The prime minister’s phone sat on his desk in front of him, not away for the day. Finance minister Nicola Willis even stood up and read from her phone, as if to suggest that integrating modern technology into everyday life can make for a valuable educational tool, and not just a way for the prime minister to show the kids his skincare routine

By National’s own logic, those phones are clearly contributing to the falling standards in parliament. Those politicians stared at their tiny screens while their colleagues discussed critical matters of national importance, like the Fast-track Approvals Bill, cost of living and proposed tax cuts. Listening and comprehension also appeared to be in decline, with politicians asking ambiguous questions or giving answers so full of political jiggery-pokery that the speaker of the house insisted the question should be asked again. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Chris Hipkins called out “half the government benches” who were looking at their phones during the prime minister’s exuberant speech about the success of the “away for the day” phone ban. As for the other half of the government benches? They were likely distracted by the mouth-watering contents of a back-to-basics Sistema container being passed surreptitiously along the back row.

What I will say to you is this: I’ve seen classrooms of eight-year-olds get more shit done in half the time, and none of them were sitting in the front row on their phones. These MPs were the unruliest class in the nation, shouting at each other, squabbling across the chamber and cackling loudly, even though nobody had made a joke. Rude! Some even argued with the speaker of the house, former teacher Gerry Brownlee. He made some attempts to keep his rowdy cohort in order, but more often, just sighed and shook his head. 

On Tuesday, Luxon announced that he wouldn’t apologise for getting things done, but imagine how much more productive parliament would be without the hypnotic glow of all that screen time? What could be more important than giving your full attention to sorting out the cost of living? And if they expect teenagers to do it, why can’t these adults exercise some self control and wait until home time to check their emails or jam their gobs with grubby little fistfuls of sweeties?

While campaigning for the phone ban, National promised to “take practical steps to ensure school is a positive environment where young New Zealanders can focus on what matters most”. Back in the House, the noise from the naughty children continued to ring in Brownlee’s ears, while a number of MPs scrolled on their hand-held distractions. “This is well out of control,” Brownlee harrumphed, evidently disturbed by all the unnecessary disturbances. It had become impossible for these New Zealanders to focus on what mattered most. 

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