A real ‘root and branch’ change would pay politicians an average wage

Issue 

Public disgust at Bronwyn Bishop's $5000 helicopter ride from Melbourne to Geelong is entirely justified. However, Tony Abbott's “root and branch” review of politicians' “entitlements” is designed to whitewash, not solve, the problem.

After all, it is not as if we haven't had “root and branch” inquiries into politicians' entitlements before.

The last such review, in 2010, made 39 recommendations but only 17 were implemented — and some of those only in part.

New Matilda has revealed that one of the people leading this review was chairperson of Radio 2GB at the height of the John Laws and Alan Jones “cash for comment” scandal. This is hardly a recommendation for a genuine clean-up of the system.

The perception that politicians have their snouts in the trough is persistent because it is so demonstrably true. Sure, some politicians are worse than others, but the system is designed to encourage rorting.

Bishop has now admitted that she made an “error of judgement”. This, plus the fact that she has studiously avoided releasing the travel claim in question, makes it reasonable to assume that she may have violated the rules.

Periodically, politicians on both sides of the parliament have illegally claimed more than they are entitled to. This is of course outrageous, but the real outrage is the extravagant rorts that are entirely legal. These include the Canberra living allowance that enables politicians to pay “rent” for a house owned by a spouse.

It may be tempting to think that the generous largess bestowed on politicians is a simple result of their being the ones with decision-making power. Undoubtedly, this is partly true.

However, the fundamental explanation is related to the lack of real democracy in the parliamentary system. Australia's parliament rules for the corporate rich. Decisions are made for the billionaires, not the ordinary people.

Corporate money corrupts every aspect of the governing process — from elections to law making — leaving little democratic content. It is impossible — at least in the normal functioning of the capitalist parliamentary system — to form a government without the support of big money.

Exorbitant salaries for politicians and extravagant travel entitlements, expenses and other rorts are essentially bribes to encourage politicians to think they belong in a different world to the people they represent.

It is often argued that politicians’ salaries need to be high because “if you pay peanuts, you'll get monkeys”. However, this argument is back to front. At the moment, we get monkeys despite paying big dollars. If politicians were paid an average wage — as they should be — then we would get better representatives. Only those who genuinely want to improve the lives of the people would be prepared to do the job.

The class bias is clear when you consider the hypothetical example of a Melbourne-based teacher or nurse travelling from Melbourne to Geelong during work time for a professional development course. In such a case, most people would expect the employer to pay the cost of travel.

However, no one in their right mind could imagine that a charter helicopter would be the mode of transport chosen or that the employer would fund it.

The very fact that any politician could consider such a scenario for themselves — or defend it being done by others — demonstrates that they see themselves living in a different world to the rest of us.

This lack of identification with the people who elect them is critical to ensure that politicians are capable of voting for policies — such as health and education cuts — which are so demonstrably against the interests of the people they are meant to be serving.

To turn the situation around, we need to reduce politicians' salaries and clean up travel and other entitlements. The “root and branch” review should be conducted by trade unionists — not business executives.

Beyond that, we need to bring in measures to democratise the government. This would include accountability for elected representatives to the point that they can be replaced if their constituents are not happy with their performance.

Further, the electoral principle should be extended so that more government officials — including senior public servants and members of public boards — are accountable.

We should move to a system of participatory democracy where people — especially at the local level — can meet and directly make decisions that affect their lives, and to whom elected representatives can be accountable.

Socialist Alliance candidates pledge to reject the high parliamentary salaries and to live on the average wage of a skilled worker if elected. This is an important symbol of our rejection of the corruption (both legal and illegal) contained in parliamentary perks. We call on other parties — including Labor and the Greens — to match this pledge.

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