Monday, December 19, 2011

A thought on politician's pay rises

I get annoyed at people's knee-jerk reactions to things. Half the letters to the paper seem to be written by rusted-on ideologues who made up their minds what to think about 40 years ago. With modern technology they can probably snap out a letter to the paper within seconds of any issue arising, without even needing to stop and weigh it up.

One subject bound to get people baying at the moon is pay rises for politicians. This has a particular resonance in Tasmania, where you still see "40% NEVER FORGET" bumper stickers, relating to a whopping pay rise our representatives voted themselves back in the 90s.

For a long time I have subscribed to the "pay peanuts, get monkeys" argument. If you want good people to go into politics, you have to offer to pay them something like they would be getting in their alternative occupation. So to get doctors, lawyers, CEOs and other successful people to down tools and enter parliament, the salaries have to be in their ballpark. We all know individual politicians who are venal, greedy and generally unpleasant, but I have always preferred to think that people who enter the system mostly do so for good reasons, and don't deserve to be tarred with that brush. I have argued that in the main our politicians are worth their salaries. I haven't had many mates.

I was mounting this defence at a barbecue today, in a debate with a couple who are fairly comfortably off themselves, but think politicians' pay rises are a disgrace. Then for some reason I started thinking out loud, (which is always dangerous), and questioning my own argument.

The peanuts argument assumes that "good" politicians need to be lured away from their well-paid and high-status positions as consultants, directors and managers, overseeing complex and sophisticated businesses, with many staff under their control. Because that's supposedly the best practice for governing.

But managing is what the public service is for! It's an old-fashioned idea, but it is the bedrock of the Westminster system. Elected ministers develop policy, with the advice of apolitical public servants, who then put the resulting policy into effect.

You do not need to have been a highly-paid Top Person to be a good politician. The next top parliamentarians might be currently teaching, or delivering mail, or driving a cab, rounding up cattle on a motorbike, or that lowest status of all occupations, minding children. One of our finest Prime Ministers, Ben Chifley, was a train driver.

Maybe the thing that would attract good people from all walks of life to a career in politics would be a change in the nature of it. For instance, some respect offered from one side to the other. Where are the collegial friendships between political opponents that used to be a feature of Australian politics? They exist, but have to be covered up because they are seen as liabilities instead of strengths.

So - I have changed my mind about the peanuts and the monkeys. The pay is not irrelevant to who you get representing you, but it's not what everyone should be talking about. It's just easy, and people like things easy.

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