Are New Zealand politicians overpaid? According to a new Massey University survey, Cabinet ministers are indeed grossly over-remunerated. Voters apparently think that ministers should be paid about $135,000 a year instead of receiving the $245,000+ salary they currently get. This blog post examines the detail of the survey, looks at some of the reasons that politicians are held in such low regard, and argues that MPs and ministers should only be paid the average wage. In effect serving in Parliament should be considered a representative honour and duty, not just a career, and therefore parliamentarians shouldn’t be treated as being above – and separate from – society via an extravagant pay packet and lifestyle. [Read more below]
Politicians are paid too much - survey
According to a nationwide mail survey carried out by Massey University researchers (as part of the International Social Survey Programme), ‘New Zealand’s top politicians would be facing a $110,000 pay cut if the public had its way… The survey of attitudes to social inequality found that cabinet ministers are thought to be paid about $175,000 a year but deserve much less – about $135,000, yet their actual pay is about $245,000’ (See their press release).
There was a socio-economic element to the survey responses to how much ministers should get paid:
Professor Phil Gendall, head of the research team, said respondents in households earning less than $40,000 thought a cabinet minister… deserved $100,000, while those in households earning $100,000 or more thought ministers… deserved $150,000.(See: Top politicians should take a pay cut – survey)
The declining trust in MPs and Parliament
The idea that politicians deserve significant less pay probably reflects a number of factors. One important one is the declining trust that voters have in politicians and their institutions. The most recent New Zealand Values Survey (from 2005) asked respondents about their confidence in Parliament and political parties. Those that expressed either ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in Parliament only numbered 41.4%, and for political parties it was 25.4%. Therefore, the vast majority – 68.6% - had either ‘not very much confidence’ or ‘none at all’ in Parliament, and an even greater proportion – 74.6% - also had little or no confidence in our political parties.
Over the last decade, of course, MP expenses and all sorts of allegations of corrupt practices by politicians have made the public aware that the ‘class’ of people that run our society are infected with a ‘culture of entitlement’. As I blogged about in The Heatley scandal and the parliamentary culture of entitlement, each new scandal and revelation shows that there is ‘an ethical sickness’ in our Parliament.
MPs should be representatives not careerists
The trend in recent decades has been for parliamentarians to go into politics as a profession. Previously our representatives went into politics after first undertaking long careers as farmers, teachers, businesspeople, manual workers, and so forth. Being a parliamentarian wasn’t regarded so much as an actual job or profession, but a duty or service to society. These days it’s increasingly common for MPs to spend only a few years at university and in post-university jobs before going to Parliament in their 20s or 30s. They don’t so much see their position in parliament as a duty but as an occupation, and with that career they expect to be very richly rewarded with a large salary, allowances, and a super-generous retirement income. An increasing social gap has thus grown between voters and their so-called representatives.
MPs invariably seem to want to be treated as superior than or worthier than the public that votes them in. This relatively enrichment means that they enjoy a lifestyle more akin to private sector managers and businesspeople then their constituents. This is not healthy – the politicians become utterly divorced from the realities of their voters. And it’s not surprising that the politicians take on the same sort of corporate culture. Unsurprisingly, the politicians begin to view themselves as above and beyond the voters.
Yet a good argument can made that it is better for democracy and politics if elected representatives are exactly that – representatives, and hence they shouldn’t receive the extraordinary sort of pay that they currently do. Instead of regarding their election to the House of Representatives as a well-remunerated career choice, we should regard it as a significant honour to be called to serve the public. In a democracy, the role of a politician should not just be seen as ‘another job’.
How much should MPs and Ministers be paid?
There is a good argument that MPs (and Cabinet ministers) should be remunerated at something like the average wage. This is in fact a long argued for position on the political left. Ever since the time of the Paris Commune of 1871, leftwingers have argued that elected politicians should be paid no more than a skilled worker’s wage. That seems like a sensible demand.
Incidentally, the Massey University survey on social inequality referred to above, also cites a 2009 Statistics New Zealand Income Survey that says that ‘The median personal income in 2009 was $28,000, the average $35,000’. This gives a rough idea of an appropriate level of parliamentary support. Of course we can quibble over what the exact figure should be – as long as the general principle of consistency with constituency incomes is maintained. We don’t want our politicians living in absolute poverty, but it is vital and democratic that we have them living in a similar way to most of their constituents. This should be a basic demand of any progressive.