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Salaries for politicians? Time for a radical rethink

By Vern Hughes - posted Friday, 6 March 2009


The last politician in Australia to cut MPs’ entitlements was Mark Latham in 2004. When he offered to cut politicians’ super, his popularity soared. John Howard followed suit, and quickly cut super entitlements for all new MPs. When the 2004 election was over, Howard promptly reversed the decision, with bi-partisan support (and quiet relief) from the post-Latham ALP.

Political life is now so dominated by the phenomenon of the “career politician” that it comes as something of a quaint surprise to recall that for most of the history of parliamentary democracy, political representatives were not paid.

It was the labour movement in English-speaking countries that pushed for salaries for MPs, to enable working men in mines and railways to sit in parliament and not starve. No one at the time thought of politics as a “career”. The landed gentry who sat as MPs still had their estates to run. Farmers, journalists and doctors still had their day jobs. Labour men who were miners still saw their role as mediating between the world of parliament and their own socially distinct communities, from which they were taking a temporary leave of absence.

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Somewhere between then and now, all this changed beyond recognition. Peter Costello may or not move onto a career in the private sector, but in the interim he will mark time in parliament until the right career opening presents itself. When it does, he will exit parliament in the same way that any of us might resign from one job to take up another.

It’s just a job, after all. A career like any other.

The notion of “service to community” is a platitude that politicians of all stripes will serve up when asked about their motivation to be in political life. In reality, politics is now a career, which is why party officials, political staffers and policy advisers are rapidly filling the seats in parliaments around the country.

When parliaments are full of party operatives and political staffers, how representative is our democracy?

Julia Gillard may well become Australia’s first female Prime Minister. If she does assume that mantle, it will be as a triumph of the modern day career politician over the likes of the late Ben Chifley. Gillard’s path from student union official, to labour lawyer, to political staffer and chief-of-staff has helped write the textbook on the career politician’s dream run.

Arguments about salary and super entitlements for politicians miss the point. The social composition of our parliaments is narrowing at a rapid rate. Paying more for the services of politicians will not alter this in the short term.

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The complexity of government argument for rule by a political class of “insiders” also misses the mark.

The growth in the functions of government has been driven, in part, by a managerialism in public life that sees political representation and decision-making as akin to that of corporate management. Jeff Kennett was fond of likening the role of Premier to that of a corporate CEO; Cabinet to that of a company board. No doubt Kevin Rudd agrees.

The global financial crisis has put paid to this argument. The ability of good managers to withstand global financial trends turns out to be very limited indeed. The argument that citizen politicians cannot manage the nation’s finances sensibly can no longer be taken seriously when whole floors of suited “experts” in financial management in government buildings have been rendered powerless by global events.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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