Modia Minotaur

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

When Howard Blinked

One of Mark Latham's major achievements during his short time as leader of the ALP was to finally put an end to the era of ridiculous parliamentary superannuation. Putting aside whatever you think of Latham, he was undoubtedly a clever politician, and never more so at the time this occurred. In a sense, the ALP was leading from Opposition - instead of taking the traditional route of condemning the government's policies, it offered its own policies and urged the Government to endorse them. MP superannuation is the prime example of the success of such a technique. Well, no more.

Change within political processes is always difficult, because those who hold positions of power generally gained them within a system that has benefited them. This is why such things as factional domination are so hard to defeat. But when it does occur, it's particularly courageous. That's why the change back in 2004 was so surprising. Not only did Howard blink, but it was his own future MPs who stood to bear the brunt. It's said to have caused Howard a fair amount of backbench pain at the time (but this was in the days before backbencher tension within his government didn't exist, as far as the media were concerned).

In any case, it's all over now, thanks to a bipartisan push and, in part, the quite idiotic argument that lower super `may encourage corruption'. This is nonsense. I'd like to go to my employer and argue that I'm going to start skimming a bit off the top if he doesn't give me a payrise.

The other argument - and it's an old one - is that a lower paypacket will dissuade `talented people' from entering politics. Firstly, a salary of over $100,000 per year, plus benefits such as ComCars and travel, aren't exactly teenager-in-a-Spotlight-store conditions. And secondly, I agree entirely with Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan's assertion that few people enter politics with an eye on the cash. This is illustrated in an ironic sense by someone like Malcolm Turnbull, who would clearly do better financially in the private sector but is more interested in fighting for his beliefs (some of which are pretty revolting, of course, but I generally have more respect for those who stand up and fight rather than sit down and whinge). Despite the usual palaver about lazy politicians interrupting their busy four day week to take a quick three week junket, I have never known a politician who didn't work harder than nearly anyone else I know. A sixteen hour day is not uncommon for a Minister; nor is a seven day week. In fact, it could be argued that if a person did want to become a politician simply because of the benefits, they're not the sort of person we want fighting for our rights anyway.

Yes, job stability for politicians is relatively nerve wracking, in the sense that the potential is there to lose your job every three or four years. However, such a turnover is hardly unusual for today's market, when staying in a private sector position for more than five years is considered extraordinary. It should also be noted that the same applies for ministerial staff, who work under some of the most extraordinarily restrictive industrial conditions in the world. I do not exaggerate - the right to sack a political staffer is absolute, and the right to recourse almost nil. When employed, such staffers acknowledge that they are out of a job should the member retire, change portfolios, or pass away. There's no gold at the end of the rainbow for them.

As the 2004 decision acknowledged, the current system of super is a relic of a time when there were no immediate prospects for former politicians, most of whom were expected to serve into old age rather than retiring after a decade or so. Today, as numerous examples illustrate (Roger Wilkins, formerly of the NSW Cabinet Office and now of Citibank being the latest), politicians and senior public servants can look forward to a long and lucrative career outside politics. I am not remotely convinced that anyone who is passionate about politics would set that passion aside for a glittering life as a chartered accountant. We shouldn't have to pay for the illusion that financial incentives are all that's required to improve the standard of Australian democracy.


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