Among the many criticisms of politicians that I heard whilst in the Senate, the accusation that they are only in it for the pay and perks, looking after themselves rather than the country and voters, was one of the most common.
Sometimes this arose from dissatisfaction with certain politicians, but more often it reflected disdain for them all. Many Australians are convinced that politicians are paid far more than they are worth. I am inclined to agree with them.
This prompts the question – should politicians be paid at all? Should we treat parliamentary service as a career, as we do now, or is it a form of public service necessitating an element of sacrifice? And if politicians are to be paid, what is an appropriate amount?
In democracy’s ancient home, Athens, eligible citizens all had a civic duty to participate in the governing assembly. There was no salary, although in the fifth century BC an attendance fee was introduced as an incentive.
In the British parliament, on which our democracy is based, service in the House of Commons was unpaid until 1911. Members of the House of Lords, who are mostly appointed, are still unpaid unless they hold an official position. They can claim an attendance allowance plus limited travel expenses, although many do not bother.
Politicians in several US states receive little or no pay for their service. In New Hampshire, for example, state legislators are paid just $200 for their two-year term plus mileage. In Maine, Kansas, Wyoming and New Mexico, state politicians are paid less than what Australian local government councillors receive.
It’s different for heads of government, most of whom are well paid. Top of the list is the Prime Minister of Singapore, at more than a million dollars and over five times the pay of ordinary MPs. By comparison Australia is rather egalitarian; our government leaders are only paid about double what ordinary politicians receive.
But it is the pay of ordinary politicians that agitates people, and on that Australia is generous. A backbench member of the federal parliament receives a package (ie salary, allowances and superannuation) of at least $280,000. State politicians’ salaries tend to be only slightly lower.
This is far more than what most of them earned before getting elected and, more importantly, is much more than what they could earn if they lost their seat. This has a powerful effect on their behaviour.
Not paying politicians would change the types of people who offer themselves for election. In the case of New Hampshire, a 2007 survey found that nearly half the members of the legislature were retired, with an average age over 60.
Perhaps it is reasonable that they be paid something. Being a senator can be extremely busy, as I found. There are not only long days in Canberra but also committee hearings and an endless stream of people seeking help. Most politicians treat it as a full time job and their salary is their sole source of income.
But that need not be the case. While the workload for key ministers is substantial, ordinary MPs have a lot of time flexibility. Indeed, some undertake additional study or write a book, while a few maintain a professional interest (such as doctors) or remain involved in an outside business (as I did).
More to the point, a great deal of the work undertaken by politicians comprises activities designed to help them get re-elected. Being paid a handsome salary with generous expenses while doing this gives them a very unfair advantage over their unelected competitors.
The critics are right – the reason for entering politics ought to be service to the country rather than a lucrative professional career. It should attract people who have done more than navigate their way through a party, work for existing politicians and manipulate numbers to gain preselection. Politicians should have a life outside politics that ensures they are not desperate to be re-elected.
It is difficult to see why political service should be substantially different from serving on the board of a charity or other non-profit organisation, with reimbursement of expenses and possibly an attendance fee. It should certainly not be a better paid job than anything else an incumbent is likely to achieve.
And of course, it should be viewed as a temporary role that will end. And when it does, there should be something to go back to.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats