The public has a poor opinion of politicians but seems loath to pay more if it meant attracting better candidates.
The Salaries and Allowances Tribunal is embarking on its most ambitious exercise since being formed in 1975 – canvassing community opinion on what Western Australia’s 95 politicians should be paid.
In all, 400 Western Australians from across the social spectrum will be asked for their candid views in a specially commissioned survey on the salaries and allowances the MPs should receive. Business, unions and community leaders are also being approached to contribute directly.
The conventional wisdom is that MPs are overpaid. The increases that result from the tribunal’s annual reviews are greeted with derision in the public arena. Some MPs have even volunteered to pass their increases on to charitable groups, no doubt with one eye on short-term electoral gain.
Bill Coleman, the former head of the WA Industrial Relations Commission, chairs the three-member independent tribunal. The other members are Cathy Broadbent (a chartered accountant) and former senior public servant and Bridgetown shire president Brian Moore.
A frequent comment is that today’s ministerial line up pales in comparison to those of yesteryear. Only last week a long-term political contact provided an assessment of Brian Burke’s Labor cabinet in 1983 suggesting that, man for man (as they were all men), it was bristling with talent. Certainly they were well qualified academically, but it is history now that they laid the foundations for the biggest mess in state finances for years.
And when disaffected Hillarys Liberal MP Rob Johnson says that premier Colin Barnett has to go due to poor polling, who does he suggest takes over? Is Mr Johnson a stalking horse for a pretender lurking in the background? Has he made up with his old party adversary, Troy Buswell, who many see as an obvious successor but who insists he doesn’t want the job?
What is undeniable is that the pool of talent in the present cabinet is extremely thin.
This becomes obvious when a minister has the blowtorch applied to his/her belly, usually due to some departmental gaffe for which no consultation has taken place.
Even up to a decade or two ago, the relevant ministers would be expected to handle problems that emerged within their portfolios. The premier of the day usually stepped in to announce the really good news. Of course when the news was bad it was a different story.
Today, very few ministers are equipped to manage the glare of the public spotlight when things go awry. It is inevitably left to Mr Barnett to take over; just think sharks, although heads are still shaking over how he agreed to be filmed holding up a giant shark hook.
It’s not much different on the Labor side, but Labor’s not in government.
Some critics say that, far from being overpaid, the financial rewards for a seat in Parliament House are no longer there. Salaries haven’t kept pace with rates elsewhere and the superannuation benefits are not consistent with a job that only carries a four-year guarantee from one election to the next.
The accompanying table helps make the point. Salaries for WA MPs, including backbenchers and the premier, have increased by just 48.6 per cent over the past 13 years. By comparison, federal MPs’ rates have more than doubled. State public servants are well ahead, too, particularly in administration, police, teaching and the judiciary.
Both sides of politics seek to have at least one lawyer in their line up to take up the attorney-general post in government. There’s obviously a big salary gap there as well.
Perhaps the pay helps explain why fewer professionals in their 40s are putting their hands up for a career in politics. But it’s not only the professionals. Why would a skilled worker from the Mid West or Pilbara seek Labor endorsement anymore? In fact blue-collar rates are enough to cause many workers to change their voting preference from Labor to Liberal anyway.
Yet how much better would WA be served with more MPs who have graduated from the school of hard knocks before being elected, rather than the present rush of ambitious, wet behind the ears tertiary graduates determined to make their mark?
Surely members of the Burke cabinet, with all the experience they have subsequently acquired, would be better equipped to do the job today. Even Mr Burke’s ministerial enfant terrible, David Parker – a minister at 29 – recently acknowledged he might have been a bit young for the job.
The tribunal’s consultations could back the case for a significant jump in MPs rates, but that would inevitably attract the usual howls of horror.
In the end, it’s a value judgment.