The ‘grey area’ of political and non-political work done by parliamentary staffers

When politicians talk about ‘grey areas’ in separation political from non political work done by the staff of MPs they to an extent are correct – much of what an MP does has political connotations. But I think that MPs and parties have also used ‘grey areas’ as a way of excusing pushing boundaries on what work staffers can do. I know that at times these boundaries have been deliberately exceeded.

This can get tricky for parliamentary staff, whose jobs caan be reliant on the political success of the MPs they work for.

Misuse of parliamentary staff is one of the issues raised in the allegations of bullying and inappropriate use of staff made against National MP Maggie Barrie.

NZ Herald: Bridges says Barry management was no cause for concern, welcomes advice on definition of ‘political work’

National Party leader Simon Bridges said there is “an area of grey” in terms of what constitutes political and non-political work by parliamentary staffers and he welcomed scrutiny by the review into bullying at Parliament.

“Where there is a parliamentary purpose, it is clearly acceptable,” Bridges told the Herald.

“But it is really important the Parliamentary Service ensure that MPs and staff know where the line is so that the rules are followed.

“That does require Parliamentary Service to make sure they are educating and showing us the way.”

That’s putting the responsibility on staff. They should be clear about what sort of work they are required to do, and what sort of work is outside their job description.

He was commenting in the light of claims by a former staff member of North Shore MP Maggie Barry, that staff were expected to conduct party-political work such as writing the MP’s regular column including on the Northcote by-election and pamphlet for a National Party conference for over 60-year-olds.

Electoral law expert Andrew Geddis…

…says that MPs pressing their staff into doing political work gave them a far greater advantage in elections than non-MPs and the situation may need closer scrutiny.

“Taxpayer funding to hire MPs’ staff is given so that they can do their jobs as elected representatives, not to help them win re-election,” said Geddis, a professor of law at Otago University.

“If it gets misused for party purposes, sitting MPs get a massive advantage against their unfunded challengers.”

This is one of many financial and logistical advantages for sitting MPs and established parties. Free travel is another.

This can get tricky. Bridges was criticised for clocking up a big travel bill in his tour of the country earlier this year. It is important for the Leader of the Opposition communicate and connect with people around the country, but this is also a form of preliminary election campaigning. And their staff are involved in this.

Another electoral law specialist, Graeme Edgeler, said staff were allowed to be political to quite a large extent and it would boil down to what been in their employment contract.

A press secretary working for the National Party would be writing political press statements attacking the Government and calling for, say, Minister Iain Lees-Galloway to be sacked.

A primary role of an opposition MP is to criticise and attack Ministers, so staff helping with this are an integral part of the political process.

That would be a parliamentary staffer paid by Parliamentary Service doing a clearly political job.

“You are allowed to employ people to be highly partisan…according to parliamentary rules, the employees that you have can be expected to be highly partisan.”

He said there would be limits about how partisan a staffer could be and that assisting an MP for a parliamentary purpose would exclude seeking votes for the MP or fundraising.

Being political is what politicians do, so their staff can’t be disconnected entirely from it.

As Edgeler points out, the biggest issue here may not be that staff do political work, but the imbalance of power and the advantage this gives incumbent politicians over candidates who wish to challenge them – another very important part of our democratic process.

And incumbent MPs are the ones who are involved in making the employment rues for their staff.

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9 Comments

  1. Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  December 3, 2018

      It seems rather bizarre that Parliamentary Services employ MP’s staff. How does that work? Do MPs get to choose who works for them and vice versa?

      Reply
  2. Reply
    • Jeffrey Guy

       /  December 3, 2018

      Good old Kirsty Johnston having another go at taking down one of those hated right wingers. Since the allegations involve secret recordings of the MP made by an employ I’m surprised that other completely unbiased journo Melanie Reid isn’t all over this with faux outrage on behalf of Barry. After all she is given credit for taking down Todd Barclay for the same offense.

      Reply
  3. Gezza

     /  December 3, 2018

    When I worked for the Public Service there was ALWAYS a very clear seaparation between what type of work & publicity material would be done by the Department & the Minister’s Press Secretary & Office Staff – who mainly handled clerical work – & our Ministerial Private Secretaries were seconded from Departments & tended to have a departmental loyalty – altho, rarely, some decided to join the permanent, professional Parliamentary Private Secretariat.

    It was a stressful job for many managing the relationships, but perks included sometimes getting picked up & dropped off at home by Ministerial limousines & some internal travel occasionally.

    The arrival of paid Ministerial political advisers and Press/Communications staff was something that happened, from memory, with the Douglas regime & it is now a feature of NZ politics as everywhere else.

    It is probably harder for Opposition parties, with fewer resources, to keep the clerical/secretarial, & purely political, work clearly separate. I have the feeling the same has become true with departmental policy & comms/PR units. Ministers manage their departments with more direct control than used to be the case pre-Douglas. The Minister is God now, where, when I joined & first came to Wellington, Ministers needed to be managed because some of them were such fucking numpties.

    Reply
    • Gezza

       /  December 3, 2018

      And, when I joined the Public Service as a cadet with UE & good marks in English, History & French – these were the days when CEO’s personally knew many of their regional office staff & managers, most of their staff at Head Office & socialised with them, (paid for by all of us) once a month, had come up through the ranks & been trained at each new stage of their career for their increased responsibilities.

      You turned up for work in time to start at 8 am. At 8 am the Senior Clerk for your unit, across the Public Service, ruled a red line across the sign in/out book & you were docked a bit of your pay unless you had an acceptable excuse. We all stopped work at 4.35 pm & went home unless we were all heading to the pub across the road for a half hour or so before going home to the usual telling off for arriving home late again in that state.

      If you needed a new biro, the Stores Clerk had to be presented with the expired one, you never just threw them away – the shame you endured by asking for the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds on a new biro without ckear evidence of justification was crippling. Everybody knew & mocked you.

      Departmental Heads travelling internally flew the same class as any erk being sent with them or to a specialist traing course run by departmentally experience staff trainers or the SSC.

      What wastage of money there was, was with implementing foolish government directives (that’s not to say they all were – far from it). And with their Senior Executives having no concept of alternative approaches & business redesign, engineering. Accounting for expenditure was universally scrupulous unless it was handed out to government-favoured nebulous entities who often drank the stuff & came back for more & couldn’t tell anyone exactly where the last lot went.

      Reply
  4. duperez

     /  December 3, 2018

    I probably didn’t read enough of the stuff around this but did see Ms Barry’s, “I did not have bullying relations with that employee” generic statement.

    Well, her “The allegations were vigorously denied and disputed and were thoroughly investigated by Parliamentary Service. There was no finding that bullying or harassment had occurred” statement.

    Which could mean there was no finding that staff weren’t expected to do work they shouldn’t have been expected to do. And to the extent of half of the week

    Reply
  5. Zedd

     /  December 3, 2018

    Staffers know what their responsibilities are.. BUT its likely tough to refuse/Say NO !; esp. the likes of Maggie B. who looks like she would have a ‘total hissy fit’ to such

    Reply

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