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.