New Zealand's politicians do get paid a lot—if you are on the average wage. But that's not who they are compared to anymore

 

I'm a bit late weighing in on the issue of MPs' and Ministers' salaries and related "perks". We've already run the gamut of public responses, from expressions of outrage through to a shrugging "meh".

For what it is worth, here's my two cents on the matter.

First of all, running Parliament (and Government too, for they ain't the same thing) costs money. Lots of money. Which means absolute figures like those recently released by the Speaker's Office are pretty meaningless taken by themselves.

Instead, I'd really like to see some benchmarking here. What, for instance, does the Chair of the NZRFU spend on travel and assorted expenses in order to stay in touch with the various provincial unions and the IRB? Should an MP (or a Minister) spend more or less than the Chair of the NZRFU in the course of their job representing the people of NZ? How much more or less? A debate like that might be more useful than simply gnashing teeth at the sheer amount of spending.

Second, a good chunk of the bills paid by the taxpayer are for things that MPs or Ministers really, really would rather not have to do. Sure, flying the length of the country every week, with occasional jaunts to exotic destinations overseas, sounds fun and glamorous. But as someone with a wife, a young child, and very moderate travel obligations on top of a relatively undemanding job, I can attest that most often flying for work is a real pain in the backside. To have to do it regularly for the purpose of hearing about local roading problems, or opening a supermarket, or giving a speech to only seven people, must be soul destroying.

As for the claim that such "work related" travel is just a cover for the real purpose of "having fun", I'm not so sure MPs (or Ministers) really have that much freedom. Look at what happened to Richard Worth when he dusted off official engagements to go camel riding. And I simply don't believe that the party whips look the other way on MPs taking extended breaks from the House for the purpose of R&R. They aren't called "whips" for nothing.

Third, the problem of deciding what is "appropriate" recompense for MPs stems
from a fundamental debate about what MPs are in Parliament as. Once upon a time, they went there as unpaid members of their local communities, each charged with taking their consituents' viewpoints into the melting pot of Parliament for as long as they were tasked with doing so. Salaries, when they finally were introduced in 1892, were set at a low level—sufficient simply to enable an average working man to consider standing for Parliament. Following their service as MPs, however, it was expected that these modern Cincinnatus simply would return to their communities and take up their ploughs.

But by the 1970s the purpose of MPs' salaries and other forms of compensation had changed, in line with altered views of what an MP is. "Representing the people" became seen as a potential career in and of itself, with attendant remuneration designed to attract (or, at least, not deter) the best and brightest from following that route. Consequently, the benchmark was not "how much do we have to pay to enable the manual working class to be MPs?", but rather "how much do we have to pay to make politics as attractive as law, medicine or banking?"

However, even though this latter approach is now somewhat entrenched in the way MPs and Ministerial salaries are determined—with the Remuneration Authority benchmarking MPs' and Ministers' salaries to those of upper-level public servants—the earlier ideal of parliamentary representation lingers on in our politics. We still, in many ways, expect our elected representatives to be "just one of us"; ordinary folk who simply happen to be tasked with the job of running the country on our behalf. That is why politicians are so damned keen to show themselves off in such activities as playing volleyball with young people, or drinking beer in West Coast pubs.

This leads to my final thought on why MPs' salaries and "perks" may attract so much derision. They are a very public indication of a change in our country. Contrary to our national mythology, we are no longer a "society of equals" (if we ever really were such a thing). Over the past couple of decades, the well off in New Zealand have gotten much richer, much quicker, than have average wage earners.

Consequently, our elected representatives' incomes have increased at a much greater rate, and to a far greater level, than that of the average household. To co-opt the language of climate change policy, MPs and Ministers have been "fast followers" here, not leaders. Given how their salary packages are calculated, this is bound to happen; the Remuneration Authority as much as admits it in the explanatory memorandum to its 2008 decision to raise politicians' income packages by between 3.8 per cent and 4.8 per cent.

So when we see backbench MPs starting off on $130,000+ per annum, or Ministers getting $1000 a week towards their housing, it simply reflects what is for many still a quite uncomfortable fact. In today's New Zealand, for those at the top of the pile, these really are not particularly excessive sums. In fact, they probably are almost derisory.

If that fact outrages you, it isn't really a question of blaming "greedy politicians". They're simply the canary in the coalmine of economic policies designed to "reward excellence", "encourage initiative" and "compensate risk taking". But the desirability of such policies is a different and much more complex debate to have—simply sticking it to MPs is so much easier to do.

Comments (9)

by Andrew Geddis on August 14, 2009
Andrew Geddis

More on this issue from the UK, where Tory leader David Cameron reportedly is planning to cut ministerial salaries if he wins office at the next election:

Senior members of the shadow cabinet have in recent weeks become alarmed at private warnings from their leader about the level of ministerial salaries they can expect if the party wins the next general election. High-profile shadow frontbenchers are questioning whether they would be able to afford more than one term working in any future Cameron administration.

...

One said: "The thinking for most was that we would give up our second jobs until after the election, only a few months, and in that period get a loan to cover the lost earnings. But David's plans for after the election have changed that and some of us are wondering whether we can still afford to be in politics. I have friends who are senior lawyers or work in the City and they are earning much more than me."

by stuart munro on August 14, 2009
stuart munro

Given that the MPs are the villains responsible for the economic changes that have both wrecked New Zealand's economy and the presumptions of the decent society, it is perfectly appropriate that they bear the brunt of public ire for their profligacy and incompetence. Nowhere in New Zealand (outside treasury) will you find people doing so pitiful a job, and being so well paid.

Private sector operators on these pay rates behave responsibility or are fired, and quite likely sued to boot.

by Andrew Geddis on August 14, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Stuart,

"Private sector operators on these pay rates behave responsibility or are fired, and quite likely sued to boot."

Well, I guess we do get to "hire and fire" our MPs every three years ... and as they say, a country gets the politicians its voters deserve!

by Adolf Fiinkensein on August 14, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

Pretty good commentary, I thought. Why don't you enquire of the NZRFU and see what the relativity is? The resultant comparisons might make for interesting reading.

Perhaps it is time for a really good shake up of the whole business of remunerating MPs.  Maybe there should be a much reduced salary for back benchers with commensurate increases for associate ministers, ministers outside cabinet, whips and all the other steps along the ladder from back bencher to PM.

It wouldn't do any harm to get a few plumbers and brickies into the house.  But hey, those guys already make $100k per year and work less hours than an MP, so I don't think your average wage earner would actually have enough brains to stay awake during question time.  What's the average wage these days?  Something around $40?  Why even the lowliest unitelligent shit kicker gets paid forty grand these days if he wrks fifteen hours overtime..

The sad truth of the matter is that people of Bill English's and Doug Graham's and Mike Moore's calibre are sacrificing at least $200k per year to 'serve their people' but 'their people' are too stupid to know it and their media too venal to tell them the truth when stirring up trouble will sell more papers.

.

by Andrew Geddis on August 14, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Adolf,

 

According to Statistics NZ, the median weekly income for all wage and salary earners in the June 2008 quarter was $729 per week, or $37,908 a year. As for plumbers and brickies earning over $100,000 a year, some may have done so at the height of our housing boom. But at the 2006 census, only around 8% of the entire population had incomes over $70,000 a year ... so $100,000 is still a rarified figure in NZ terms.

 

Of course, there's always this idea for politicians pay:

An MP's wage should be the average wage. This would enhance their ability to identify with the electorate. It would ensure that only those passionately interested in representing bother, and it would clear out the dead wood the parties' keep in parliament simply to make up their numbers. If an MP wishes to have a higher salary she should be free to attract (and refuse) donations. Donation sources must be public information and then voters can see just who that MP is affiliated to. MPs with a donation income from all sides of the political fence are clearly preferred by the public for their skill set. Those with donation income simply from one side clearly reflect a lobby interest, while those with no donation income should get the message.

Members of the Cabinet need to have expertise. They should be picked on skill and their salaries should be paid accordingly - much as they are now, even higher. This would provide MPs with a choice - up or out. Either get into cabinet, have a career on the backbenches but at the average wage, or leave. A much-improved flow of prospects through parliament would result and it would appeal to those who wish to make a difference, not merely have a parliamentary career.

by stuart munro on August 15, 2009
stuart munro

I love this crap, I hear it so often:

Well, I guess we do get to "hire and fire" our MPs every three years ... and as they say, a country gets the politicians its voters deserve!

Hitler was voted in Andrew, Did the Germans deserve him? Or was his world view in no small part the result of years of log-rolling and militaristic propaganga from the 'marriage of Iron and rye'?

No-one voted for Rogergnomics. It never worked. It was a palace revolution, a sellout. Now, we should respect the scum who did this to our country? I don't think so. In fact I think we should hound them so unmercifully that no government ever contemplates such a disgraceful rort ever again.

Running a democracy is comparatively easy. You do a) what the people want, or b) something in their best interests. We haven't had either in living memory, which is why public respect for MPs is in the toilet. They are a few steps away from civil disorder, and brother, they have earned it.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on August 15, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

Andrew, you should never believe statistics.  I write their insurance and I know what they earn.  What the tax man or the census man sees is far removed.

by stuart munro on August 16, 2009
stuart munro

Coming back to the representatives the people deserve, the matter was treated rather well by Shakespeare:

LORD POLONIUS

My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

HAMLET

God's bodykins, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. 

Not of course that good governance is a matter of MPs' bounty. It is the sovereign right of the people to be fairly and honestly represented. The government they deserve is a matter for celestial rather than earthly judgment, the matter we must concern ourselves with here and now is how well they serve their constituency.

by danniel on March 07, 2013
danniel

I still don't get if you're ironic or you're serious with your post. What I do know is that I don't plan to stay indifferent to this salary inequity. Yes, they are our representatives but that doesn't explain why they have these salaries. I guess they are masters in negotiating a salary...

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