3 Nov 2019

Whipping MPs for a job: What does a party whip actually do?

From The House , 7:30 am on 3 November 2019

It may be a kinder, gentler Parliament but there are still a lot of whips around the place. But they’re not the ‘cat-o-nine-tails’ variety, they’re people with an odd job title. 

The House chatted through the job with two of the three National Party whips; Senior Whip Barbara Kuriger and Junior Whip Matt Doocey. 

“I call it ‘team management’,” says Barbara Kuriger giving a brief outline.  “What Matt and I deal with is speaking lists, leave requests… and House management. And on top of that there’s pastoral care… and also we’re involved in the Business Committee and a lot of stuff that happens in the running of [Parliament].”

So everything then.

National MP Barbara Kuriger on the Health Committee.

National MP Barbara Kuriger on the Health Committee. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Whips are MPs day-to-day line managers. They do everything that any other boss might do: they dole out tasks, set expectations, and rark up under-performers. 

They also keep discipline in ‘the ranks’. The title suggests that this was once the only task. Whip comes from the fox hunting person who keeps the hounds hunting as a pack. And the Parliament equivalent was making sure MPs voted the party line.

Barbara Kuriger sees discipline as too strong a word for the modern role. 

“I’ve physically got a whip hanging on the wall, but I’ve never taken it down.”  

“...Most people are pretty good. Occasionally we have to work through stuff ‘cause part of the role is ...making sure everyone’s finances are on track. Making sure staff employment and those sort of things are on track. ...Matt talked about enabling people. If someone’s got a query we like to help them with it. Or if someone finds themself in a situation where there’s a little bit of strife going on; how can we help them?”

All MPs’ roles now include managing budgets and staff and various physical offices and not all are equally skilled at this kind of management or at looking after a team of their own.

Matt Doocey sees his role as being an enabler.

“I think these days though it’s probably less authoritarian, and I would actually argue that a whip’s role was more about enabling now. And how do you enable your (in our case 55 strong caucus), all very A-type personalities to come together and perform at a high level.”

National MP Matt Doocey questions a submitter at a Health Committee hearing.

National MP Matt Doocey questions a submitter at a Health Committee hearing. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

While the name might be from the 18th century the role is not so there is also pastoral care. 

“MPs are people too” says Barbara Kuriger. “People have sick family members, they get sick themselves. They sometimes have lost someone or have a funeral to go to, or sometimes they’re just having a bit of a tough time around something. They can come and talk to Matt and me and we can help them through or perhaps make their work a little bit more lenient on certain days depending on how they’re feeling. So it’s just a matter of making sure that the team’s taken care of.”

Matt Doocey intimates that pastoral care is especially important for MPs.  

“Parliament can be a very lonely place at times. And irrespective of what you think about  political parties, generally I find that every person in this place has sacrificed a lot and they come Parliament because they believe they want to make a difference for the betterment of New Zealand. Most people are flying up on Monday, going back on Thursday and leaving family and friends behind. So we’re always mindful of that.”

Whipping is not all about the MPs though, it’s also about managing the party performance in the debating chamber. The whips are responsible for casting the party vote on behalf of all their MPs (and frequently for allies as well). 

And in order to be able to cast those proxies they have to make sure that MPs haven’t left the precinct. MPs have to be physically at Parliament for their votes to count (so they could vote in person if needed). Each party is allowed to have 25% of MPs absent at any time (sick or giving speeches somewhere) and the whips manage that attendance.

National MP Barbara Kuriger in the House.

Barbara Kuriger rises to speak in the House Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Because this is not the USA, parties cooperate to make the place function effectively. Barbara Kuriger says mostly they negotiate with Labour’s senior whip (who tends to coordinate for the governing coalition). The negotiations are often around the practicalities of how a bill will be debated. 

“Whether we’ll take a committee stage as one debate or whether we’re going to take it in 10 parts, those sorts of things. Sometimes we look at the timing of the House and we might get some agreement around how things are going to work. We don’t always agree but when we do agree we work on a principle of when we agree we trust each other to carry out what we agreed to.”

That last part might seem the most surprising for anyone that follows politics internationally; but Matt Doocey points out that they have a role not just as party MPs but also as parliamentarians.

“The public expects for Parliament to run. This is democracy, and we should never forget that people have died for this. …Whips across the House …have the responsibility to ensure the legislative process runs properly, and as efficiently as possible. Although of course we have our political views and our political strategies as a caucus member of National. But equally when we have our whip’s hat on we have some responsibility to ensure the legislative process runs smoothly as the public would expect.”

It goes wider than just the debating chamber. Barbara Kuriger says that sitting on the Parliamentary Service Commission, overseeing the wider functioning of Parliament is both an education and a privilege. The PSC is a cross-party board that helps the Speaker oversee the practical side of the place (catering, security, services, office allocation etc).

National Party Whip Matt Doocey

National Party Whip Matt Doocey Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

One last thing. If you’re watching Parliament on TV and see an MP talking on an old-fashioned telephone, they’re probably a whip. Only whips and party leaders are allowed to talk on phones in the chamber, but not mobiles. The phones are useful for calling MPs to the chamber from offices, but National’s whips are particularly seen on them during question time. I asked why.  

“We’ve got an allocation of supplementary questions every day”, says Barbarar Kuriger. But the Speaker uses supplementaries as a carrot and stick, so the total varies and the whips call the Speaker’s Assistant, Roland, to check the official count. 

“Sometimes we gain questions, we lose questions. Just making sure that they’ve got the same count that we have, so that by the time we get to the last question at question 12 our questioner still has some questions left.”

Matt Doocey explains this from the MPs point of view.

”If you’ve got a primary question. You’ve been working on your supplementaries all morning. You might have been told you’ve got your primary question and four supplementaries and you’re all geared up for that. And then about a minute before your question’s up you see one of the whips walk towards you. You can see their heads drop down a bit [as they] think ‘oh no, am I gonna get cut back’. But equally sometimes we say ‘actually we’ve been allocated more supplementary questions now by the Speaker and in fact you can go from four to five’.”

How about that, whipping can even be generous sometimes.