Hypocritical journalists are going after MPs, but they won’t find the juicy story they’re looking for, says Barry Cohen
Australia’s Constitution states: ‘Until the Parliament otherwise provides, each senator and member of the House of Representatives shall receive an allowance of four hundred pounds a year, to be reckoned from the day on which he takes his seat.’
Apparently it was beyond the ken of our founding fathers to imagine that ‘sheilas’ would ever sit in the nation’s parliament, and their description of MPs’ remuneration as an ‘allowance’, rather than wages or salary, indicates they thought those who stood for parliament were men of substance fulfilling a noble obligation.
Four hundred pounds, or $16 per week, may have sounded a generous emolument in 1901, until one noticed that the Constitution granted the Governor-General ten thousand pounds per annum.
Fortunately Parliament felt different to journalists, and ‘allowances’ have been adjusted, mostly upwards, ever since. Presently, it stands at $127,000 which the media seems to regard as more than enough. At this juncture I must admit to a degree of self-interest, for parliamentary pensions are tied to MPs’ ‘allowances’.
When I was elected in 1969, the salary of $9,500 plus $3,000 for expenses was reasonable enough. But with inflation running around 10 per cent, it soon wasn’t.
In 1971, Justice Kerr, of fond memory, recommended to the McMahon government that the allowance be increased to $12,500, with an extra $1,500 for ministers. The tabloids screamed ‘$60 A WEEK FOR MPs.’ The editorials pontificated, ‘We realise that politicians should be well paid but now is not the time.’ It has been ever thus.
The Labor Caucus, in a show of egalitarian solidarity, objected to the ministerial increase. Billy McMahon, unusually decisive, told Caucus, ‘It’s the total package or nothing.’ With a mixture of stupidity and courage, Caucus told the PM what he could do with his offer. Unlike the original offer, which had been front-page news, our rejection was on page 28. We still got the abuse.
In 1973, the Whitlam government implemented an amended Kerr Report, increasing the allowance to $14,500. ‘MPs TO GET $100 PW,’ screamed the headlines, conveniently overlooking the fact that journalists and their fellow workers had received annual increases while MPs’ pay had not changed in five years.
Since Federation, millions of words have been written about MPs’ ‘allowances’ without any agreement about what constitutes adequate remuneration. Are they well paid? That depends on whether you are an unskilled worker, a barrister or any of the hundreds of occupations in between.
Of our 226 MPs, 53 are business executives and managers, 39 are political consultants, advisers and lobbyists, ten are farmers and graziers, 43 are party and union administrators, 28 are barristers and lawyers, 12 are state and territory MPs, five are doctors or psychologists, and 36 pursue other occupations.
Almost 80 per cent have tertiary qualifications, including six doctorates, 43 Master’s and 211 Bachelor degrees. The majority would have taken a drop in earnings on entering Parliament. A glance through recent advertisements for professionals indicated there was no shortage of salaried positions well in excess of $127,000.
The Clerk of the House of Representatives makes $321,000, two and a half times more than an MP. I’ve known every Clerk of the House during the past 40 years and an impressive bunch they have been, but I doubt whether they should earn almost as much as the Prime Minister, who in turn receives less than most senior judges.
It wasn’t MPs’ salaries that occupied the headlines of the Australian media recently, but what was going on in Westminster. David Pemberthy in the Australian (23 May) was one of the few journalists who nailed the rubbish written by our local scribes.
‘The impetus for much of the coverage has stemmed from a desire to replicate the extraordinary revelations by Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which is sitting on an absolute goldmine of genuinely breathtaking revelations involving members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where it has emerged that some of the inbred toffs in the British Parliament have been using public money for the upkeep of their country estates, including the maintenance of moats.
‘There is nothing of this scale happening in Australia.’ Amen!
I don’t understand the British system, but I do have a working knowledge of Australia’s, at least until my retirement in 1990, so I am aware that most of what appeared in the local media recently about ‘expenses’ was drivel. After no adjustment since 2000, expenses were recently increased by $4,200 to $32,000 per year. One prominent journalist made the incredibly stupid statement that the expenses were to top up an MP’s salary or spend on raffles. ‘$600 on raffles,’ she sneered.
My experience was somewhat different. My attendance, often with my wife, at balls, barbecues, changeover nights, pensioners’ Christmas parties, Labor party fundraisers, sports presentation nights, speech nights, Red Cross, CWA, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides presentations involved a little more than buying raffle tickets.
Then there were the donations. Every Christmas I sent a cheque to every one of the 21 pensioners’ organisations in my electorate. In 1969 that was $5. On retirement it had risen to $25. Today it would be $50. Then there were the sports trophies and prizes for speech nights.
Journalists also appear unaware that Labor MPs sign a pledge to donate to the party around 5 per cent of their income package — around $6,000 per year. Then there are babysitting fees. Unless you plan to leave your children ‘home alone’, it’s a considerable expense, particularly if you have three children under nine, as we did in 1969.
The situation varies enormously from member to member. Expenses in marginal seats are far greater than those in the blue-ribbon variety. It will be argued that you don’t have to attend the functions, donate to the charities or buy raffle tickets. True, and they don’t have to vote for you either.
The most notable thing missing from this perennial debate is that those demanding transparency from politicians never reveal what they are paid. Funny, that! Journalists will argue that they have no legal obligation to do so, and they are right. But how about morals and ethics?
I was staggered to learn recently from ‘informed sources’ that many of our senior political writers earn between $200,000 and $400,000 per year. That’s well in excess of backbenchers, ministers and in some cases the Prime Minister. And their expenses? Try offering them $215 per night as a travel allowance. We shall wait with bated breath for journalists to show the same transparency they demand of politicians.