17/08/2011 - 10:43

Old chestnut gets another roasting

17/08/2011 - 10:43


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Reaction to the latest rise in MPs’ salaries shows that finding a united community position on the issue is as remote as ever.

THE recent 4.3 per cent pay increase awarded to Western Australia’s 95 MPs attracted the usual knee-jerk ‘surprise’ reaction that they should be eligible for any rise at all. Some critics would favour reverting to the days when they weren’t paid in the first place.

That won’t happen; and the challenge becomes determining what a fair salary for MPs is, given the responsibility that goes with the job, and the need to attract people of the appropriate calibre to oversee the running of the state.

Sir Charles Court’s government in 1975 appointed the three-member Salaries and Allowances Tribunal to set pay rates for not only politicians, but senior public servants and other groups, such as the judiciary. It was designed to put politicians at arm’s length from their own pay rises.

There has always been a community divide about MPs’ pay. The noisy sector says they are paid too much and the minority – and some MPs privately – believe they should be paid more.

The premier, Colin Barnett, said the latest increase was too big, suggesting around 3.5 per cent would to be more appropriate. But an analysis of the history of MPs’ pay, including that of the premier, compared with others in the public sector reveals that, since the tribunal was formed, politicians have fallen behind those they are required to direct.

The accompanying table shows that, if the base salary of an MP in 1975 is weighted at 100 per cent  ($16,170), the premier’s salary was more than double (215 per cent) that figure.

Despite the responsibilities of heading the government, and the tenuous nature of the post, several non-elected levels on the public sector payroll were better paid than the premier, even allowing for the so-called ‘separation of powers’.  The best was the chief justice of the day (250 per cent).

Senior public servants back then were generally paid less than cabinet ministers. 

All that has changed. The latest increase takes the salary of a backbencher to $140,311 (100 per cent), and the premier to $325,522 (232 per cent). So Mr Barnett is now well back in the field in the public sector salary stakes, compared with Sir Charles’ day.

He still trails Chief Justice Wayne Martin, the top salary earner in the public sector on $447, 790 (319 per cent), and his fellow judges (277 per cent).

In a ludicrous development, however, the premier has been leapfrogged by a number of departmental heads, even though they are answerable to him and his ministers or, in certain cases, to parliament. The so-called ‘fat cats’ include heads of major departments, who are on $405,353 (289 per cent). 

MPs traditionally had a soft landing when their careers ended, either through voluntary retirement or at the hands of the electors. They had one of the best perks around: an ultra generous pension scheme under which some MPs who had been long-term ministers were entitled to walk away with lump sums nudging the $2 million mark.

But Labor’s Alan Carpenter successfully led the charge to abolish that, and it now more closely resembles community standards.

In its most recent decision the Salaries and Allowances Tribunal noted it was mindful of the ramifications of MPs falling behind in the salary stakes, stating: “The tribunal is concerned that if the present trend continues, the base salary of a member of parliament will represent a barrier to people committed to public service from aspiring to enter parliament.”

For instance, men or women who are established in business or the professions on big salaries might be less inclined to enter politics than ministerial officers, teachers or some union officials. 

The tribunal chairman, Bill Coleman – a former chief industrial relations commissioner – says MPs’ salaries should: “reflect the status of the public office they hold and the demands placed on them in the parliament and their constituency. But the tribunal must also have concern for the economic circumstances faced by the community.”

Regardless, there will always be critics who believe any increase for MPs is too much.

Shopping choice

THE chances of Perth getting general Sunday shopping after the 2013 state election remain clouded, despite the commitment of Mr Barnett to legislate for the change should the government retain power.

Mr Barnett reacted to continued dissatisfaction over the present selective Sunday shopping arrangements, telling the Liberal Party’s state conference the issue would be the top priority in the government’s second term.

He even suggested that the Labor Party would probably support the reform, based on the comments of some senior opposition members last year. But Labor leader Eric Ripper has poured cold water on such an eventuality.

After some initial confusion on the Liberals’ preferred Sunday opening hours, the premier said they would be from 11am to 5pm, giving parents time to accommodate junior sporting commitments and churchgoers adequate time to attend Sunday services. But there was no mention of the once-traditional Sunday roast. Presumably that belongs to a bygone era.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA, which has recently rekindled its advertising campaign to free-up Sunday trading, is not satisfied. It wants action now.

But Mr Barnett says that, with Labor opposed, and his partner in the governing alliance, the Nationals, also against the idea, moving now would be an exercise in futility. In addition, the Labor position is unlikely to change while the union representing shop assistants favours the status quo.

Effectively, he intends to make the 2013 election a referendum on Sunday trading in the metropolitan area. Let’s hope voters make a clear choice, if only to end the existing maze of regulations which enable one shopping centre to trade on Sundays while another a few kilometres down the road must remain shut.   



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