Peanuts and Monkeys


‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.’

It is the default position of every craven politician trying to defend another unjustified pay rise. It is also a gratuitous insult to the 95 per cent of Australian workers who are according to the terms set by our avaricious ‘representatives’ ‘monkeys.’

Last month, Federal politicians received a pay rise of almost 7 per cent more than twice the average increase of about 3 per cent for everyone else taking their salaries to $127,000 a year. Not a handsome sum, to be sure, but it still puts them in the top 5 per cent of Australian income earners.

When self-justifying politicians say it is impossible to attract ‘quality’ people into public life with such comparatively modest salaries, what does this imply about the overwhelming majority of their fellow Australians, for whom $127,000 a year is, indeed, a generous pay cheque? The Bureau of Statistics confirms  that the average full-time worker in Australia earns around $52,000 a year.

Are politicians suggesting that teachers, nurses, shop assistants, plumbers, electricians, engineers, hairdressers and medical researchers are not worth luring into Parliament because the market currently values them at less than $127,000? I think, sadly, yes.

When politicians especially Right-wingers try to justify above-average salaries as necessary ‘to attract talent,’ they’re really talking about business executives, for whom a parliamentary salary represents a big drop in pay. These are the people whom economic conservatives and neo-liberals believe, deep in their hearts, are the rightful governors of our nation.

The advocates of generous pay for politicians want a Parliament of management consultants, legal partners and chief financial officers and the occasional orthopaedic surgeon or dentist. But true democracy demands a Parliament that looks like the nation itself, where fitters and turners share the Cabinet table with solicitors and aged-care nurses.

A Parliament that requires big money to attract ‘talent’ and I use the inverted commas advisedly becomes nothing more than a honey pot for spivs and hucksters who have usually failed in business or the professions. The half-million dollar salaries that many MPs crave would attract more fast talkers than deep thinkers or hard workers.

A couple of years ago, West Australian Liberal MP Mal Washer, advocating high salaries for him and his colleagues, said politics needed to attract more than just the ‘wealthy or altruistic.’

But, unlike Washer, I would hope that every MP was altruistic. What is altruism other than the selfless service of one’s community? A parliament of millionaires would not only be highly unrepresentative, but also self-serving. Politicians may differ on ways and means hence the (increasingly narrow) differences in ideology evident in Australian parliaments but selfless service ought to be at the core of every political vocation.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The other great delusion amongst politicians, especially ministers, is that they could command three or four times their current salaries in the private sector. But experience does not bear out such assumptions. I challenge you to name one MP who has gone from the Cabinet table to the CEO’s desk of a major Australian company. Some sit on boards as directors usually for their contacts in government but very few take on day-to-day management of a bank, insurance or mining company.

Most end up as ‘consultants,’ commanding high fees only when the Party in which they served holds office because they act merely as match-makers, knowing the right bureaucrat or Parliamentary Committee Chairman to lobby.

Most tellingly, former MPs only become employable in the business world because of their parliamentary service. Does anyone really believe that former ALP machine man and Senator Graham Richardson, a law school drop-out, could have become an executive fixer for the late Kerry Packer had he not served in the Hawke and Keating Cabinets?

Had Nick Greiner and Wayne Goss not served as Premiers of NSW and Queensland, would they have really ended up chairing Coles Myer and Baulderstone Hornibrook, or running Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in Brisbane. And do you really think Bob Carr a man who did not know how to write a cheque when he was secretary-treasurer of the Maroubra State Electorate Council of the ALP could command $500,000 a year from Macquarie Bank had he not led the very State Government that, over 10 years, shovelled almost $1 billion of work its way?

The point is, to the extent that ex-ministers are employable in the private sector, it is because of the skills and contacts they acquired in politics, not because of anything they brought to politics. And many politicians now use parliamentary service not as the culmination of a successful career but as the precursor to and training ground for a second career in the corporate world.

We are, I fear, heading down the American route, where many Congressmen and Senators advocate and even legislate with a post-political career as a lobbyist in mind.

If politicians, especially ministers, resent earning salaries that are a fraction of those awarded to a bank boss or corporate CEO as indeed they should that is surely more reason to reign in obscene executive compensation using that handy little instrument called the tax system. Might I suggest marginal tax rates on executive salaries (including share options and bonuses) up to 15 times the wage of the lowest paid full-time employee of the company, then 98 cents from every dollar after that?

Lost in the debate about supposedly inadequate parliamentary salaries is the true cost of servicing our MPs. Three years ago, a report from the Australian National Audit Office found that each MP cost the taxpayer $2 million a year.

Most are still covered by the ludicrously generous pension scheme, in which they receive a guaranteed, tax-free 48 per cent of their retiring salary, indexed for life. Ministers are served by a retinue of secretaries, researchers, advisers and chauffeurs. MPs’ allegedly crushing work hours usually consist of light duties, such as five-star dinners with industry lobbyists or community meetings with constituents, who, unlike their elected representatives, don’t expect to get paid for going out at night. The NSW Parliament possibly one of the laziest legislatures in the world, and run by, surely, one of the most mediocre Governments sat for just 50 days last year.

In his book, Age of Consent, George Monbiot argues persuasively that politicians should receive a little more than the average wage of their constituents, precisely because they would feel directly the effect of the laws they pass or fail to pass. If we’re having trouble paying mortgages or rents, or have to choose between a new washing machine or a new fridge, surely they should, too?

Australia ‘s politicians are already a pampered elite. They do not deserve further enrichment.

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