Bigger carrots needed for a stagnating democracy

The question of whether or not we pay our politicians enough in Australia has been asked and re-asked so many times in recent years that it has practically become a cliche. Like all good cliches, this one made the Sunday papers yesterday, courtesy of a column from Melissa Fyfe. It would all be a bit ho-hum really, except for the fact that the point Fyfe is making is still a damn good one.

Despite all the questions asked about how much we pay our pollies, I don’t think we have seen any conclusive answers emerge about whether we pay them enough. This is no doubt partially because the issue is a divisive one indeed. Those who view politicians in a generally negative light – perhaps the majority of the population on a bad day – are for obvious reasons reluctant to consider the possibility that we should be paying our pollies more. Every news story that emerges about the admittedly quite considerable allowances our members of parliament also serves to reinforce the perception that politics is all about snouts being neck-deep in the trough, first and foremost. When one considers all the issues of the day and the possible measures that public money could be spent on, the dire financial situation that our politicians supposedly find themselves in is certainly quite a way down the priority list, if indeed it represents an issue at all.

For me, it really is quite simple. Do we value the health of our democracy? Yes. Should we be interested in increasing the size of the talent pool and competition for preselections? Yes. Would our democracy be better if more people were involved or interested in becoming involved? Yes. Do the benefits that the average politician receives really weigh up against the considerable costs they incur, such as having effectively a 365-days a year x 24-hour job, sacrificing family time, and enduring media scrutiny on a day-in day-out basis? Frankly, it is difficult to see how this could be the case.

If we want the best to run our country, perhaps its time to consider paying members of parliament a salary that is genuinely competitive in today’s global job marketplace and commensurate with the responsibility that public life entails. We don’t pay our politicians peanuts right now – certainly in comparison with the average wage – but we should be looking to pay our politicians whatever reasonable amount of money that will most effectively encourage people to engage in our democracy. The alternative does little but limit the size of the talent pool available to serve the nation, and ensures that many of our best and brightest remain ensconced in the private sector, selling off their brilliance for the sake of a decent life.