The public often see politicians as big spenders on a plushly fitted gravy-train. Weirdly, the opposite is often more true. MPs get so fearful of the cash-cow image they massively under-fund themselves, their offices, and Parliament.
Ultimately this makes their jobs harder and democracy both less accessible and less effective.
There are many ways that funding-fear bites into democracy. In the most recent example Parliament’s secretariat (the Office of the Clerk), after years of cost cutting without obvious public impact, have finally hit the budget wall and are forced to make major public-facing cuts. Specifically, the broadcast of Parliament on RNZ’s AM network - something that began in March 1936.
An end to radio broadcasts of Parliament
The radio broadcast contract costs Parliament about 1.3 million a year - which is roughly the size of the immediate hole in their already cut-to-the bone budget. David Wilson, the Clerk of the House of Representatives, puts it succinctly.
“That is just a cost we can no longer carry.”
The irony of Parliament needing to cut the radio broadcast is that it won’t save much public money. The network of AM masts and transmitters (which also carry RNZ National) is considered an essential disaster recovery network – something well-demonstrated recently. Without Parliament helping cover the significant maintenance cost of the huge masts, RNZ will have to swallow that cost alone. To add to the irony RNZ’s budget is also frayed to breaking point. Parliament though will get to limp on through another budget cycle.
So, unless this year’s Budget delivers a reprieve, come July there will be no more MPs on the radio. Sorry to everyone who wants to follow Parliament without internet access or needing to sit in front of a TV.
New jobs, no new cash
But even cutting radio seems unlikely to give the Office of the Clerk much leeway. They have the problem of having achieved too much too efficiently and having endlessly found new ways of holding it all together with ticky-tacky until it could no longer endure.
Over the last few years they took select committees online (so you can now interact with them remotely), they took petitions online, they enabled MPs to remotely join both committees and Parliament in a hybrid House via video conference. And despite making it clear that these needed funding, each new service has continued without any new cash, or staff costs or anything really.
At a recent Standing Orders Committee hearing one submitter pointed out that a Parliament relying on Facebook for public access to streamed select committee meetings stored on Vimeo was weird. From memory the word embarrassing was used. He pointed out that even the Welsh Parliament had a purpose-built video CMS where people could access and search committee meeting video and where the Welsh Parliament controlled and owned the content. They even have transcripts.
‘It never has been funded’
I asked the Clerk, David Wilson, about New Zealand’s Parliament resorting to free and entry-level solutions for the country’s premier institution.
“And that's exactly the reason – it is cheap. It's not the ideal solution. And we would like to manage and control all of that content ourselves. But that costs money we don't have, we took on webcasting of select committees with a recommendation that there will be funding for it, but it never has been funded. Likewise, providing for the Hybrid House.”
The Hybrid House is the ability of MPs to remotely join debates in the chamber via videolink.
It’s not just a lack of funding for the electronics, it’s the people who make it all work, Wilson says.
“That draws on staff from other parts of the organisation who do that in addition to their normal job. And then of course … have to work additional hours to catch up. I mean, I think they're very good initiatives. They do help … I like to do those things … it's my job to help Parliament operate as well as it possibly can. But these things don't come at no cost and I think we're just really reaching the point where that’s starting to bite and we can't keep doing all these things with no money.”
I ask David Wilson about the tight budget’s impact on staffing. How many roles are currently unfilled? He says the Office has been delaying replacing staff “because that stretches out the cost a little bit, but it does put more pressure on other staff”. He agrees that that can potentially further increase turnover and also “doesn't provide such a good service to the select committees in the House”.
“I think MPs have actually started to notice. They've commented in a recent survey we did about turnover of some staff or relatively junior staff in senior roles. And that is simply the result of having a fairly tight budget.”
MP salaries, offices and staff
It’s not like the MPs are under-funding Parliament to keep the money for themselves. MPs are notoriously tight on themselves. After years of MPs voting against pay rises for themselves for fear of negative public reaction, the Remuneration Authority was created. Basically, MPs were judged not able to honestly choose their own remuneration. Even now they sometimes stick an oar in and gut their own pay packet as an attempt at a feel good ‘all-in-this-together’ PR move.
Likewise, you might think MPs are brimming with staff and resources, but MP’s electorate offices are poorly enough funded that some are only open on odd days or for short hours. That is because MPs simply don’t fund themselves well enough to provide more than a token service to their constituencies.
This false economy is for fear of being seen as creating sinecures or feathering their nests. Journalists sometimes describe funding for an electorate office as a “perk”. Yes, a few MPs arguably game the system by renting offices to themselves but the purpose is the provision of a service for voters: witnessing documents, providing advice and social assitance, fighting Joe-Voters’ corner against bureaucracy.
Rural and Māori MPs have to scatter their scant funding over sometimes vast areas (though the biggest electorates do get a little more cash to help).
If anything MP’s offices at Parliament are even worse served. Most MPs have very part time staff. I’ve known staff to work for different MPs on different days to cobble together something that approaches a job.
Democracy on the cheap
It’s all a bit amateur. It’s amazing Parliament holds it together as well as it does – mostly through dedication and sheer will, but that doesn’t last forever.
As much as New Zealand prides itself on a make-do, number-8-wire attitude, our democracy deserves better than a Parliament that hires only who it can afford and works with what it can get for free.