Blinded by the Lights
I used to work in Parliament. I loved it. Being a bit of an adrenaline junky, I loved getting up every morning and knowing that today if I screwed up I'd be on the six o'clock news. I actually got a kick out of knowing that what I did for a living was so interesting that every night at six o'clock millions of people could potentially watch my handiwork.
That's a hell of an ego boost.
I was doing what I had always wanted to do, and what I had always believed was my destiny. I was the youngest Leader's Press Secretary in the history of New Zealand politics. That looks pretty cool on a resume.
But what irked me, what gnawed away at me, was the utter lack of respect for taxpayers' money. I learnt that there are no property rights in Parliament - unlike any other job, there's literally no connection between the making and the spending of money; it's not earned - it's just always there to spend. Parliament is without doubt the best place to work in New Zealand - if you've got no scruples about spending other people's money, that is.
I got (heavily) subsidised meals. Cheap drinks, free gym, free laundry service (they wash, iron and fold your clothes), free TV (all channels), free library service, and an uninterrupted super-fast broadband dedicated internet server (which I liked the most). If I did a booklet or pamphlet they'd print it, copy it and even bind it. If I needed to mail something, they'd come to me and post it for me. If I worked late they'd put me up for the night or pay for a taxi home. They were quick to tell me that any educational courses I took they'd pick up the tab.
A guy could get quite used to that sort of lifestyle. I know I did.
But let me tell you one story that highlights what sort of a place Parliament is – ‘the story of the lights’. I call it my Hannukah story - after the Jewish festival of the lights.
Here's how it all started. One morning I was in my office. It was my job to read all the major dailies (all free, all sitting on my desk when I arrived in the morning). I was reading the paper - the technical political term is media monitoring - I suddenly found that I was having to squint my eyes to read it. So being the stingy type I e-mailed the occupational nurse to ask if there were any spare reading lamps lying around.
I suppose that was my first mistake.
She never replied, but about an hour later these three guys in coats knocked on the door with a large suitcase with all sorts of equipment in it.
"We're just checking the lighting," they informed me. "Oh, OK."
They then pulled all manner of doo-hickies, whatchamacallits and whizzo electronic stuff out of their case, climbed on tables and onto bookcases, crawled up walls, switched lights on and off and generally trashed the joint. When they were done, the conversation went somewhat like this:
"So, what's the result?" "Well," answered one, "the recommended dosage is 700 mega-googles, and anything under 400 mega-googles is a health hazard." (In case you haven't worked it out, that means the best light level for reading is 700 & something mega-google thingammies). "So what's mine?" "168!"
"So that's bad?" I innocently asked
"Yup - that demands immediate action."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Oh we're not going to do anything - we're just the lighting technical contractors. We'll have to make a report to the lighting engineering contractors. They'll have to put in some more lights."
Anyway, almost immediately (well, in a few days – this is govt after all) and with my eyes quickly deteriorating in the 168 mega-google lighting, some more guys showed up.
"We're the lighting engineering contractors."
"We'll just check out the lighting."
"Oh gee. It's only 168. That's pretty bad you know."
"Yeah. I know."
They then put some lights on two of my bookcases. Letting them do this was my second mistake. The whole process came complete with Tim Allen-style power drilling and loads and loads of wires. I should add here that my office was huge. I mean playing field big – orders of magnitude bigger than the Prime Minister's office. And Really Important too. I had two fax machines, a stereo, a TV and two computers. All for me!
A few days later they came back. Well, two new guys came back.
"Who are you?"
"Oh, we're the C team. We don't think the lighting is much better, so we'll have to put new lighting on the ceiling."
More drilling, and more wires. This time there was even hammering.
I should add here for those of you who haven't experienced our nation's capital buildings that the walls are some special nuclear-blast-proof granite. And what I swiftly realised was that it's actually very difficult to write a Really Important Speech when a guy ten feet away is drilling through special nuclear-blast-proof granite.
Anyway, eventually they finished and left, and cleaning contractor came in and cleaned up the mess.
Now the manager came along. "Oh no!" he screamed, " they were supposed to put lighting over the desk and reading table. This will never do!"
Some totally new guys now came along and took down the lights. Team B arrived and spent three days installing suspended tube lighting all around my office complete with its very own power source. I told everyone who came to visit me that this was a Millennium project. On the third day a photographer arrived and took some photos - the engineers proudly informed me that my room's lighting was the "same sort used in Te Papa and has been nominated for an award!"
Naturally I was overjoyed.
The lighting was now about 2000 giga-googles, and actually quite painful for my previously light-deprived eyes to cope with, but I wouldn’t complain - after all it had been nominated for a BAFTA or something, and Spielberg I was told was keen to use it on his next film. All in all it had taken twelve separate workmen to install the lighting.
End of story. Or so I thought.
Over the next few days I noticed that my room was getting hot. With the new lights and numerous Really Important Faxes the temperature was steadily climbing. When it reached twenty degrees I – stupidly - complained.
Two engineers showed up (from yet another contractor) opened a maintenance door, made several different banging noises, talked knowledgeably about iced water systems and duct sizes, smiled pleasantly, and left. "Everything's fixed now,” they said.
Except it wasn't. It just kept getting hotter, so I complained again. Same reply, same result.
After this scene was repeated eight (yes eight) times I finally spat the dummy. I e-mailed anyone who might care, including the Speaker, and the general manager of the complex – everyone - that unless something was done about the now twenty-seven degrees in my office I'd call OSH and/or take legal action.
Within ten minutes there were eight guys crawling around ventilation shafts, pulling out wires, widgets and anything sort of looking temperature related. Curiously, one of the engineers doing this had previously helped to install my Academy Award winning lighting.
It turned out that the thermostat for my room was located in another room in a different part of the building. That room was cool, so the central computer thought mine was too and kept pumping warm air into my office. Combined with the re-heating affect of my Really Important Communications Gadgetry and the new lighting my office had become a pressure cooker.
It also turned out that this company, unlike its award-winning predecessor, was paid $250 per visit.
Anyway, it all turned out OK. They fixed it all. The next day I arrived to read my morning papers and there was a nice cold office (actually just the way I like it). But my award winning lighting was really bugging me, so I turned it off and went down Lambton Quay and bought myself a reading lamp from DEKA. Cost: $8.99.
I asked around. I work this whole episode cost the taxpayer $7500. That’s about what an average household pays in income tax every year.
And the post-election fate of my office? I moved out the next month and the
Alliance moved in. They now use the room as a storeroom for supplies of pencils, sellotape, etc. And their photocopier.
I wonder if they ever admire the award-winning lighting as they crank out posters for Jimmy’s Bank.
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