My title is a bit harsh, because they are not all fools, but I want to illustrate an absurdity.

Increasing the numbers in parliament will not increase the talent pool.  Doubling the number of cricketers in the Indian cricket team achieves nothing if the extra players are not good cricketers.  And adding 10 more politicians similarly achieves nothing except extra costs, unless the parties preselect talented candidates. If Labor and the Liberals don’t change their preselection practices, numbers are irrelevant.

In fact increasing the numbers in parliament will actually ensure that the least talented remain – people like Graeme Sturges and Brenton Best.  Are we prepared to reduce the health budget just to keep these two in parliament?  Because that is what increasing the size of parliament really means.  Increasing the numbers also removes any pressure to reform preselection practices, so we lose the only leverage we now have.  If we keep the numbers low, then we put pressure on the Parties to preselect better candidates.  Don’t expect change immediately, but it will happen.

The reason Labor is having second thoughts and now supporting the Greens on this issue is because Labor are facing an electoral rout and in consequence will be reduced to perhaps 5 members.  The same number as the Greens have now.  People like Best and Sturges know that their only hope of keeping their seats is by increasing the size of parliament.  And if we increase the size of parliament it is easy to see who will get the additional seats.

For her part Lara Giddings knows that being in opposition with only 5 or 6 seats will put her in the same position as the Greens are now – with such limited resources that she will not be able to function as an effective opposition and thus have difficulty regaining power.

The answer to this dilemma is not to increase the size of parliament but to increase the resources available to Oppositions.  Give them a decent increase in funding.  It would be much cheaper than increasing the number of politicians and it would be a controlled expenditure – so it couldn’t blow out.  This should be done immediately and we shouldn’t wait for the next election.

You are told that an increased parliament will mean that not as many minders and hacks and friends and relatives will be needed on the government payroll.  But do you really believe that more politicians will use fewer staff?  Do you really think that?  More politicians really means more family, more friends and more allies will be asking for jobs.  There is no way there will be fewer staffers and I am sure the $3 million suggested cost of the increase will blow out significantly.  So stop playing around with the numbers.  The size of parliament has gone from 30 to 38 to 35 to 25.  Stop concentrating on numbers and concentrate on quality.

I saw one newspaper editorial saying that Ministers were overworked – that we need more Ministers as well as backbenchers.  I can tell you from personal experience that that is also wrong.  I worked in intimate association with a good mate who became first Primary Industries Minister, and then Deputy Premier, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice.  What did he say to me privately?

That it was a doddle. 

He couldn’t believe what a cruise the jobs were. 

In fact when he became a Minister he continued all the private jobs he had previously done – jobs that took up a lot of time and which I’d asked him to give up.  He didn’t give them up and to my chagrin proved to me that he didn’t need to. 

He easily continued running his hotel and bottle shop.

He easily continued his property interests and in fact oversaw substantial private building programs at the same time as being a full-time Minister.  And remember that he lived in Burnie and had the huge additional time of driving up and down to Hobart once or twice a week.  If a person who was Attorney-General and Deputy Premier and Minister for Justice, Planning and Workplace Relations could spend up to 14 hours a week in travel to and from work, and run private businesses as well, then the job of Ministers based in Hobart must be pretty cushy.  The fact is that the actual work of being a Minister in a small State like Tasmania is not great, and the workload is not an excuse for appointing more Ministers.

Just look at a Minister’s diary.  I had access to my Minister’s diary and can tell you from first-hand experience that a large part of the work they do is not Ministerial work, it is working to get re-elected.  If the Ministerial workload gets heavy on occasion, then they have the flexibility of dropping some party political and public relations work.  Lara Giddings herself demonstrates that being Tasmanian Treasurer is not a full time position even though it was regarded as such under Michael Aird.  She has another full time position as well – being Premier.

Another fantasy is that paying more will lead to better people being attracted to a political career.  The argument goes that if you pay peanuts, then you will get monkeys.  But the fact is that we seem to get a surplus of monkeys no matter what we pay.  This goes back to the poor preselection processes of Labor and the Liberals.

People who argue that politicians should be paid more are simply wrong.  Tasmanian politicians used to serve completely voluntarily, without payment of any kind, and at that time we had much more impressive people in parliament and government than we have today.

In fact there was big debate in the Tasmanian parliament in 1872 about whether politicians should even be given something for expenses such as postage, travel and accommodation.  I personally think something for expenses was always warranted, but now that they have it they abuse it, and they get a big salary as well.  It’s well known by insiders that many politicians have paid off their mortgages with the travel allowance that is given to cover hotels and meal bills.  It’s a simple rort that most are guilty of – claiming the accommodation and food allowance and then staying with friends and relatives.  Or buying a second home and staying there and using the tax-free money to pay off the mortgage.  I wish that we all had that perk!

In contrast to the alleged need to pay politicians more, some talented politicians have been very willing to serve for free even when substantial money was on offer.  President Kennedy was one.  He and others have actually refused to accept their salaries.  A noble gesture.  Kennedy had many faults, but when he said “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, it rang true because he believed it and acted it himself.  Good people are not deterred by the money – they are deterred by what they have to go through to get elected, and what they have to go through once in parliament.

By 1893 members of the Tasmanian House of Assembly were receiving a token salary of £100 a year – about $20,000 a year in today’s money.  At that time the State was in a depression similar to today and public servants were being sacked.  The Premier of the day suggested that members of the House should give up their salaries:  “The time has come,” he said, “when Tasmania should announce to the world that payment of members had ceased within her borders.”  A politician named Sidebottom opposed the suggestion and said that there was no way he was giving up his salary.  Another member said that he would support the Upper House salaries being abolished, which raised a cheer.  The Attorney-General said that he would support a 50% reduction of pay to parliamentarians.  In the end they settled on a 25% cut to their salaries for one year.  All our present Premier says, is that she is prepared to limit the increases in their salaries.  Politicians’ salaries under her will rise while public servants are sacked. (Merc 10/8/1893 p4)

The former system of limiting politicians’ pay to a simple honorarium to cover true expenses such as travel is a good one.  There are very good reasons why we should reverse the creep of the last century and substantially reduce politicians’ salaries today.  For example, I sometimes get the impression that Tony Abbot would kill his grandmother to become Prime Minister!  Would he act the same if the job was paid a quarter as much?  Perhaps he would, but that would then prove that money is irrelevant to attracting candidates and we could lower salaries as I say.  And as I have already pointed out, Lara Giddings is doing two jobs at present.  She is Treasurer and Premier.  So if being Treasurer is not a full time position, as she has demonstrated, then shouldn’t it be paid as a part time position when it is next filled by someone who has no other duties?

The truth is that the people you want to attract to politics are people who are not motivated by money, but by public interest.  Under our present system we have Ministers who would never have dreamed of such wealth as they have now, had they not gone into politics.  What would Bryan Green have done, for example, if he had not become a politician?  He would have been a pattern maker.  That is what he trained for.  What salary could he expect?  Perhaps $50,000 if he was lucky – a quarter of what he gets now.  So he has a huge financial incentive to cling to power. 

Who would make a better PM – Tony Abbot or Malcolm Turnbull?  I think that the answer is Malcolm Turnbull.  Would salary make any difference to him?  Not at all.  He is wealthy already.  It is not money that has attracted him to the job, but a belief that he has something to offer.  I am sure that ego is a part of it too, but that is human nature and not necessarily a bad thing in his case. 

So I believe politicians’ pay should not be raised, it should be substantially reduced.  I would happily take $50,000 a year to serve as a Minister – and I believe I would be a better Minister than the current crop.  In fact I would do it for nothing for one term.  The high salaries are actually an obstacle to good people being preselected, because the high salaries create a venal competition for the positions.  As was said in the House in 1872 when they first discussed giving members a small allowance for expenses:  “If payment of members were introduced, honourable members (unless they were exempt from human weaknesses) would be very unwilling to give up their seats!”  And so it has proved.(Merc 20/12/1872 p2-3)

The Treasurer of that day, Thomas Daniel Chapman, a great man in my estimation and a poor one, noted that the budget would not stand the imposition of payment to politicians.  The money would have to come from somewhere, and he felt that it would be immoral for the House to pass a law to take money from their constituents to give to themselves.  He actually went personally bankrupt and in consequence had to forfeit his seat, yet he still did not support payment to politicians.  Amazing integrity.How times change!

Today the budget is also under great stress, so how can the government save money?  It is really such a simple thing to achieve that it is astounding that it is proving so difficult for our Premier.

If you know a public servant, and I am sure you all do, then you know someone who has told you a story of waste in the public service.It is a nearly universal experience.  We all know public servants and we have all heard of the waste.

So how easy would it be to just ask the public servants how to save money?  A piece of cake you would think.  But no-one is asking them!  All Lara has to do is work out a way of tapping into this enormous pool of insider knowledge.  And I’ve already told her how to do it.  Don’t accept the advice of the Permanent Secretaries – order them to make cuts without loss of services and at the same time empower all the advisers to talk direct to public servants in their departments off the record.  Make the advisers in effect a pool of efficiency experts.

They will get an avalanche of good ideas and cost-saving measures and avoid having to sack a single front-line service provider such as a policeman or nurse.  It’s so simple.  And I know it is possible not only because I know many public servants myself and have heard stories of gross mismanagement and waste, but because when Peter Hoult was Secretary of Justice and Roy Ormerod the boss at Workplace Standards, they allowed me to talk direct to my departmental colleagues. 

Those public servants were a treasure trove of information and it was not only enlightening for me, but it was an exhilarating experience for them to know that their ideas could be communicated directly to their Minister’s Office.  Everyone won.  And isn’t that the best course of action – one that makes us all winners?

First published: 2012-02-06 05:04 AM