02 March 2015

MPs' salary raise: Now you see it, now you don't.

John Key is taking desperate measures to kill the negative public reaction against 5.5% pay-rises for MPs as set down by the Remuneration Authority.
The Government's hastily announced amendment of the Remuneration Authority Act will link MPs' salary increments to those in the wider public sector. It will be retrospective (to block the back-dated 5.5% increase), and will be passed under urgency. Mr Key and his Cabinet may genuinely believe that the Remuneration Authority's determination was unmerited, too large compared with average income trends in the economy, and hence only advancing inequality in society. But this sudden reversal smacks of desperation. A politically embarrassing pay-rise for MPs has to be blocked, it appears, without delay.
Ironically, the Remuneration Authority was set up to make politicians' pay determinations independent of the politicians themselves. Now we see the most heavy-handed political interference possible in a democracy: parliament will just legislate the embarrassment away. Proposing retrospective legislation shows that Key is willing to break constitutional convention to achieve his aims. And yet, no-one has bothered to prove that the Authority got it wrong and made an unreasonable decision. It just sounded bad on TV, that's all. So, Parliament will simply over-ride it, retrospectively. It will be interesting to see if any party dares to vote against the proposed amendment!
It's still a moot point, though, as to how much MPs should be paid. They are not employees; there is no job description and no person specification. They are not hired; they are elected. They work long hours, are almost always 'on call', and sacrifice a lot of family time. They have to 'reapply' for the role every three years, so there's no long-term job security. Mr Key makes a good point that one doesn't go into public life just for the money, but, on the other hand, it is a demanding job that requires many skills. It does seem to warrant a higher income than most of us get.
The Government wants to legislate away the Authority's discretion and to peg future increases solely to the average public sector pay increase for the previous year. This sounds quite reasonable – at first hearing. But one can foresee a problem: If, for some reason in future, it is widely agreed that MPs' salaries have not risen fast enough (say, for recruitment and retention reasons, and given the responsibilities entailed), then Parliament may want to repeal the presently proposed amendment and loosen up the Authority's discretion again. But no political party will have the courage to propose that, due to the inevitable public backlash. As they say, rushed law is likely to turn into bad law.
We want to see our most talented people in Parliament, but the best candidates are not all independently wealthy. So, will the proposed amendment to the law aid in encouraging the best leaders to run for office in the future?


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