Big pollies get big payrises that you didn’t vote for
Did you see the news during the week that the Tax Commissioner, the Defence Force chief, the Auditor-General and a couple of other bureaucratic high-fliers are to get pay rises of up to $300,000 a year?
The Remuneration Tribunal has decided on the one-off increases to boost their pay packets to a tidy $800,000—in line with what other public service bosses and corporate regulators receive.
Well, hold onto your hat because another salary hike is in the pipeline, this time for federal members of parliament. And given the Tribunal’s apparently generous mood, it’s expected to be big, too.
At the moment, the annual base salary of backbench MPs and senators is just under $140,000. The expectation is that this could jump to $250,000. Some MPs think there is a chance it will be considerably more.
That will mean whopping increases for Ministers, and the Prime Minister, too. Also, for the first time, shadow ministers are likely to receive payment for their portfolio responsibilities.
And this time, no matter how hostile the public reaction, the government will not be able to stop the rise or cut it back in a populist gesture to appease voters battling to make ends meet.
Previously the Tribunal had only an advisory role.
That meant that, in 2008, the newly elected prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was able to cancel a pay rise for parliamentarians, on the ground that they should set an example in wage restraint.
But the law was amended earlier this year to prevent that happening again. Whatever the Tribunal decides cannot now be tampered with by the pollies. They no longer get any say in setting their own pay.
This follows a report from a committee headed by former senior public servant Barbara Belcher arguing that parliamentary salary determinations “should be implemented without the intrusion of politics”.
The committee also concluded that the Remuneration Tribunal should go back to basics, taking a fresh look at parliamentary salaries following a proper work value assessment.
In light of all the recent bickering and bitterness, Australians could be forgiven for thinking that Labor and the coalition never agree on anything. But they agree on the pay issue.
Introducing legislation to implement the Belcher report’s central recommendations back in March, Special Minister of State Gary Gray said: “The current situation has resulted in outcomes on parliamentarians’ salaries being determined by political considerations, to the detriment of considered and informed decision-making on appropriate remuneration.”
Former Howard Government minister Bronwyn Bishop, enthusiastically backing the bill on behalf of the coalition, told the House: “I have recollections of situations where you could end up as a minister and the secretary of your department was being paid an enormous amount more than you—yet your head was on the line every day.”
The legislation sailed through both Houses with overwhelming bipartisan support.
If you’re wondering why MPs are so happy to rely totally on the Remuneration Tribunal to set their pay, you need only look at its annual report from a couple of years ago.
“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that parliamentarians, especially ministers, are not paid appropriately for the work and responsibilities of office,” it said. “The continuing difficulty for parliamentarians is that the public, reinforced by the media, tends to be sceptical about any proposals for improvement.”
The Tribunal added: “It is evident clearly that, notwithstanding modest annual salary adjustments, the long-term trend has seen a reduction in overall benefits. At the same time, the responsibilities and expectations of government and of individual members and ministers have undoubtedly increased.”
With a decision on new parliamentary pay levels likely within six months, it is small wonder there is a buzz of anticipation around Parliament House.
Because governments have been gunshy about raising parliamentary salaries, MPs have been recompensed to some extent in other ways—the provision of taxpayer-funded overseas study tours, for example.
The Tribunal will probably roll the cost of such perks into the base salary figure. The electorate allowance MPs receive may also be reclassified as salary.
But the work value assessment will be the key factor in determining how much extra MPs get in their pockets.
There has not been a proper examination of the work and responsibilities of parliamentarians, or an assessment of what it is worth, for something like 40 years.
But the Remuneration Tribunal has been gathering information for the best part of a decade. Since the Belcher report it has hired consultants and stepped up the investigation.
The Tribunal is starting virtually from scratch. “There is no job description, no duty statement,” the Belcher committee said.
It conceded that, despite MPs facing a demanding level of work, community activity and disruption to private life, “the Australian public has a traditionally distrustful attitude towards its representatives.”
The Tribunal itself has said it is unlikely a parliamentarian will resign because of low pay. But it argued: “It may be the case that, over time, fewer citizens will seek to serve in elected office, or that diversity in representation will diminish.
“Individual circumstances may cause some elected representatives to seek means to augment their present incomes, or their incomes in retirement, with consequent distraction from their principal elected responsibilities.”
The Tribunal obviously wants to give MPs a hefty rise, and the views of a public that holds politicians in low esteem will no longer be an impediment.
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