"Overpaid" MPs are the canaries in the coal mine

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.