Worry about MPs’ pay being too low

FEW issues are so uniting as politicians’ pay. MPs on both sides unite in favour of pay rises and voters of all persuasions unite against. The most recent Remuneration Tribunal ruling, as its happens, came as the Labor Party agreed on a conscience vote for gay marriage and as Liberal Party MP Peter Slipper deserted his party to take up the lucrative position of Speaker.

What’s the link, you ask.

Well, a common derisive comment made about MPs is that they are just party hacks who cannot think for themselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could debate the issues and make up their minds individually on the merits?

Wouldn’t it be good if party discipline was not so tight and MPs could vote on conscience and conviction on all issues?

That view might be superficially appealing, but it is far too naïve.

At present, the threat of party disendorsement ensures all MPs support the party line in Parliament at least 99.9 per cent of the time. Labor expels any MP who crosses the floor. The Liberals notionally have a culture which respects conscience and will not automatically expel floor-crossers. But since John Howard took up the leadership of the Liberal Party, floor-crossing has become rarer and has usually been met with quiet retribution.

Once you take away the sanction of disendorsement, the balance of an MP’s self-interest changes. MPs could vote anyway they liked without fear of losing their seat. Indeed, they could vote or act in their own self-interest.

We saw this with Slipper. Once he lost his party endorsement for the next election he had nothing to lose. He could offer himself as Speaker to a Government short on numbers so the former Labor Speaker could return to a voting position on the floor. Along with the Speakership came extra pay and perks.

Before him, Labor Senator Mal Colston had no hope of another term, so he took the presidency of the Senate at a time a Coaltion Government was desperate for numbers there.

It happened so easily, in both cases. Once the incentive to toe the party line is removed, an MPs vote is open for purchase. The price for an MP to be taken out of the voting equation altogether is the difference between an MPs pay and the Speaker’s pay. It must be a lot less for just one vote on one issue.

Once party discipline is watered down and MPs generally have a “conscience” vote on everything, the votes of individual MPs would be open to persuasion.

I am not suggesting brown paper bags. I am not suggesting bribery or dishonesty. Rather it is a culture of dependency. A big donor supports an MP’s campaign fund and later he or she supports the big donor’s position. Or she supports a corporate position and the corporation later supports him or her.

Without party discipline a few critical MPs can be picked off fairly cheaply and easily. With party discipline the big donors have the much harder task of persuading the whole party. That’s not to say they don’t try. It is just that it is harder.

The picking off of individual Congress members happens all the time in the US and it reflects in their voting patterns which are not determined by a party line.

There was another minor example this week with the passing of a law to relax privacy requirements on video-hiring information. It was supported by big digital businesses such as Facebook, Netflix and digital business associations. Those members of Congress voting for it got 75 per cent more funding from those business organisations than those voting against it.

Members of Congress are utterly dependent on campaign-funding support to stay in the race.

Public-interest data crunchers do their best to expose the links between campaign cash from the big end of town to congressional voting, but it seems to make little difference.

The risk of this dependency corruption is made worse by the fact Congress members in the richest country on earth are poorly paid. They get about $175,000 a year – less than the new Australian pay rate for MPs. In the US they have to supplement their salary by “study trips”, dinners, golf and the like provided indirectly by wealthy donors.

So be careful what you wish for. Poorly paid MPs independent of the yoke of strict party discipline is a recipe for dependency corruption.

As it happens, a free vote on gay marriage won’t matter much. The gay and Christian lobbies are not wealthy enough to pour money into wavering MPs’ campaign funds. But could you imagine if there was a fee vote on subsidies to the coal industry; occupational health and safety in the steel industry; agricultural subsidies; military spending, and so on?

It is human nature that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Far better the public purse pays the MPs well; that the public purse provides a hefty amount of party campaign funding; and that political parties make binding decisions than the system be thrown even more than it is to the influence of the money of the wealthiest citizens and corporations.


Speaking of gay marriage, the constitutional question seems to have gone under the radar. The Commonwealth Parliament might not have the constitutional power to legislate for gay marriage. The Constitution gives it “power to make laws WITH RESPECT TO marriage, divorce and matrimonial causes; and in relation thereto, parental rights, and the custody and guardianship of infants”.

It does not give the Commonwealth Parliament the power to DEFINE marriage. Otherwise it could define marriage as any relationship at all and make laws on anything it liked and the states would have no further role in the federation.

Only the High Court (and sometimes other courts) has the constitutional power to interpret the words of the Constitution. And someone will inevitably take it to court.

Certainly, the Founding Fathers would have envisaged only a male-female marriage and it may well be that the High Court sticks with that interpretation.

If that happens, the Commonwealth would not be able to deal with parental and property rights of gay couples — aside from superannuation which comes under the Commonwealth’s insurance power. The Constitution might have to be changed or the states might have to hand over their powers over gays’ property and children.

By the way, I am here only talking about the constitutional issue. So I don’t get bombarded with accusations of being anti-gay, I should state that as a philosophical matter of rights, I think gay people should be treated the same way as everyone else.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 10 December 2011.

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