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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsOctober 20, 2023

How to survive in the hive

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Beehive staff exiting the building give their brutal, burnt-out advice on how not to end up like them.

The circle of political life is at its most interesting this month. As the public get to know a cast of new politicians, there is a mammoth set change happening behind the scenes as well.

In a democracy, it comes with the territory to chuck out your political staff when you lose office. Political advisers, press secretaries and senior private secretaries are hired within a matter of weeks, with no handover to speak of, and then expected to be the foot soldiers of cabinet’s political agenda.

It’s a big job. As Auckland University politics associate professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment reported in her research project on the human resource management of political staffers, there’s quite a lot that needs to change in the recruitment and support of political staff if they are to be set up for success.

To add to this body of rigorous research, I spoke to some angry, exhausted and anonymous political staff as they boxed up their things. Here’s what they had to say.

So you think you can throw your weight around?

You will be at least 5kg heavier by the end of the term. If you’ve come off the back of the campaign proper, you’re probably already halfway there. Pretend it adds gravitas.

Collecting a sneaky brownie from Coppers on your way to the office? Yeet it. Wellbeing won’t be the reason you take on the job, but it will be the difference between you being able to sink or swim. So, get in the parliament pool.

“Some of the best cross-party relations I witnessed in parliament happened in the gym. You go there to workout, watch the six o’clock news, and sometimes if you are lucky, a socially awkward cabinet minister will ask you to spot them doing weights.”

“Another trick is to hit the gym during question time: you can sweat while your minister sweats and run like you’re being chased by the press gallery.”

“The dress code in parliament is formal compared to just about anywhere else (suit and tie for men). But the combination of sitting all day and the parliament will wear out the seat of your pants quickly (first world problems ahoy). Buy cheap suits with two pairs of pants.”

CV says you work well in high-pressure, high-demand situations?

Everyone has a stress management style. Try to be honest with yourself about your own limits early. Control what you can control, like the way you turn up to work and how you pace yourself while you’re there. There are several rhythms in this building, don’t get sucked in to thinking the most influential people are the ones slamming doors.

“My mother always said you catch more flies with honey.”

“Don’t drink too much. Unless you work for Winston Peters, people will assume you can’t cope with the pressures of the job.”

“The first thing I would see every morning in the prime minister’s office staff kitchen was a fig rehydrating in a teacup. It took a long time for me to figure out what it was. Fibre is king. Keep yours up.”

This isn’t a casting call for The West Wing

It pays to understand the awkward mythologies around political staff before you end up with a nickname like Captain Panic Pants.

In the early weeks of the job, it is not only the minister who is being sized up. Your newly formed office is quickly building a reputation of its own. Your interactions with officials, the press gallery, lobbyists, coalition partners, the PM’s office and the opposition will all build a picture of the mana and influence of your team.

“Gossip doesn’t make you look like you’re an insider. It lines you up as a likely leak.”

“Be honest with yourself about what your role actually is in the system. The hype and prestige of working in an iconic building, supporting high-profile New Zealanders to wield their considerable powers can sweep you away into thinking you’re living on the set of your favourite political drama. … If you’re a staffer, you’re not in your job because you have been off to face a ballot box or been to Government House to get a ministerial warrant. Actors in the system will try and get you to influence things as if you have done those things. But you haven’t. And it’s a trap. Your role is to be unseen, unheard, but effective in how you support those who have.”

“Treat everyone as equals. Politicians are people like you and me. They are not gods, and they shouldn’t behave or be treated as such.”

“It’s good to challenge and go with your gut, but a good minister will know when to change their mind – and it needs to be their call.”

“The Beehive is much more like Yes Minister (or Utopia for younger readers) than it is House of Cards. You’ll be much better served by channelling Sir Bernard Woolley or Tony Woodford than Frank Underwood.”

Now down to the business of governing

You will be thrown into the deep end and time for training and induction is hard to come by. Here are the things you need to do within the first 100 days in office:

“Your bedtime reading in week one is the Cabinet Manual. Sweet dreams.”

“Read your briefing papers. But know that the things you really need to know will be communicated to you in person.”

“Don’t speak to sound intelligent. Learn when to hold your tongue.”

“Don’t be shy to ask for help. Everyone will be flailing about in the first flush of a new government. Everyone wants success, and they’ll be very willing to help.”

“Critique advice from the officials. What’s missing from the analysis? Are there other options they haven’t considered? How will the decisions made actually be delivered and how will your minister know? Build in regular reporting on the things that matter.”

“If it feels like you’re being flannelled or fobbed off, you usually are.”

When the shit hits the fan, as it inevitably will

You can’t prepare ahead of time for the worst stuff, so don’t try. All you can do is be on top of your work, so when your time is needed elsewhere the wheels don’t fall off. Your minister and your team need to have a clear sense of purpose for being in the building. It is that purpose that will steer you through a crisis.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

“Get a whiteboard. Do a fucking timeline. Call stuff out. Have the hard conversations fast. Understand that things can and will likely get worse.”

“Look after your people first. Empathy goes a long way.”

“Trust, but verify.”

How to bounce back

 You will have good and bad weeks in politics and so will the people around you. Figure out the things that will help you get back up.

“When you’re consuming political takes, policies and news media for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and I mean instead of actual food), it’s easy to lose sight of what people out in the real world are thinking and that makes it harder to communicate effectively.”

“Don’t let work consume you. Make sure you spend as much time out of the place as you do in it. The Beehive represents every New Zealander. Don’t let your prejudices get in the way of remembering that.”

“You need to be resilient, it’s not a job, it’s a way of life, don’t expect any social life, or the lunch hours of an 8-to-5 job.  It is an amazing privilege to be in the Beehive and you should take the time every day to appreciate that.”

“Find the people you can trust. There’s a perception that no one in politics can be trusted, but it’s simply untrue. The place is packed with good people across all parties. There are even some in the press gallery. Find yours.”

The last words

“How to survive the Beehive? I think you don’t. It’s one of the most challenging jobs in the country and it will break you eventually.”

Keep going!