Scandal: Councils spending too little on staff Christmas parties

Yesterday Newshub revealed something shocking and disheartening about the spending practices of our local councils. Hayden Donnell registers his disappointment.

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Councils often get a raw deal in New Zealand. Every time one thinks about spending a dollar on a cycleway, Mike Hosking splurts out an enraged column calling them the reincarnation of Pol Pot. If they so much as allow a developer to build more than one house per square kilometre, a crowd of Boomers materialises to yell abuse. Don’t even mention what happens when they try to get fewer people to die.

But every so often a true council scandal is unearthed. Yesterday Newshub uncovered one. In a piece under the headline ‘Revealed: Councils spent more than 100k on 2018 Christmas parties’, it showed New Zealand’s councils had cash splashed $106,305 on staff Christmas parties last year.

Several councils, including Auckland and Wellington, refused to give details of what they’d shelled out, but even the scant details we were given were appalling. Invercargill City Council spent $4749 on a Christmas party for its 400 staff, at an average cost of $11.87 per head. Northland Regional Council spent $718 between 211 employees. West Coast Regional Council spent $1168 on its BYO party, $156 of which went toward buying fish and chips for children.

This is a disgrace. New Zealand’s councils should be spending far more than $106,305 on Christmas parties for their staff each year. An average of $11.87 per head is barely enough for a bottle of Lindauer Classic Brut, let alone a nice sausage. They didn’t even spend $200 on fish and chips for the children, for God’s sake! It is absolutely messed up that, at the end of a long year dodging blog rants from Leighton Smith, local body employees have to line up at a cash bar with a tissue full of crumbling chocolate cake from Countdown. They may annoy some of us sometimes, but council workers are technically human. They deserve to at least be able to hold a party somewhere other than a staffroom where an IT guy just microwaved a bowl of fish. 

If anecdotal evidence obtained exclusively by The Spinoff is anything to go by, this is not a one-off issue either. The practice of skimping on parties is rife across the public service. A Ministry of Justice employee said their Christmas parties have had a budget of $20 per head for the last three years running. That has consistently bought curry of unspecified origin, cold ham, and pudding “which no-one ate” at a packed Wellington restaurant. “Had to buy our own drinks, except we weren’t allowed to start drinking until 2:30pm (it started at 12:30pm).”

A nurse at a DHB said her annual Christmas party was held in their workplace cafeteria, where everyone got one pre-cooked sausage in bread, coleslaw, an apple “and maybe a lolly”. “Don’t even think about going back for a second sausage cause you won’t get one!” she said.

A worker for a rural district office of a central government department said her Christmas function involved getting $20 each toward a meal of “mainly chicken drumsticks” at the local aero club. “People left by 8pm because we had to buy our own booze and a number of the staff had to be up early the next morning for a field operation. We also get a calendar,” she said.

One public servant said she was taken to a buffet lunch at a local hotel. Dietary requirements weren’t catered for, so vegans had to eat lettuce, and alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed. “We had to make up for the total price the ministry paid for, so had to pay another $20 on top. Then back to work after an hour off!”

Meanwhile, a council worker described receiving a pair of cufflinks emblazoned with the council’s coat of arms as the gift at their leaving party. Their new job at a South Island council has a budget of $29 a head for Christmas parties, which buys “Xmas ham, a roll, some cold vegetables and a mid-range sav blanc”. You can drink three glasses “if you’re quick”.

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The benefits of spending on parties and other workplace social events are well-established. Employees with friends or social connections at work are happier, less stressed, more loyal, healthier, and more productive. Skimping on the workplace wellbeing of public servants is nothing less than a betrayal of the New Zealanders who pay their salaries through our tax dollars. It means we’re paying for less productive workers who are more likely to burn out and quit their jobs, leaving us to foot the bill for training and recruiting their replacements. 

Thank goodness Newshub has uncovered this terrible decision-making by our councils. In light of these revelations, council bosses need to take a good, hard look at themselves, carry out a line-by-line review of their budgets, and find a way to shell out thousands of dollars on a crate load of prosecco for staff. Here is my proposal: those little prawn things for the parking wardens; roast duck for the rubbish and recycling team; Christmas mince pies for the people in consents. 

It’s a change we need to carry out if we’re going to ensure the efficient and cost-effective functioning of a vital wing of our public service. One thing’s for sure: we can’t afford for things to stay as they are now.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.



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