In yesterday’s Crikey Stephen Mayne was sufficiently outraged by Bob
Carr’s money-grubbing move to Macquarie Bank as to call for an increase
in MPs’ salaries to remove some of the incentive for this sort of
thing. The same logic has led people in America to support billionaires
for public office (even when they are obvious nutters, like Ross
Perot), thinking they will be proof against bribery and
misappropriation.

I think that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem. Look at corporate crooks, like those portrayed in the Enron
movie. They don’t steal because they need the money, like some starving
beggar on the street. They steal because they can. No matter how much
you have, you can always convince yourself that you need more.

It’s the same with the likes of Carr, Wooldridge and Reith. They didn’t
leave parliament as paupers: they take the money because it’s there,
not because they need it. If we have to increase salaries in order to
get politicians to outlaw the practice (a bribe for giving up bribery,
in other words), fair enough, but don’t expect that the increase itself
will help.

More generally, we should be thinking about why we pay MPs salaries. If
it’s supposed to be a financial incentive to attract the best people,
it’s hopeless; we’ll never be able to compete with the private sector.
In any case, I think that the people who need to be offered more money
to enter politics are not the sort of people we should want in politics.

Historically, the reason for paying MPs, which is a relatively recent
development (it was an item in the Peoples’ Charter of the 1830s, like
annual elections, but wasn’t enacted in Britain until 1911), is so that
people other than the independently wealthy can enter parliament.
That’s a good reason. But why then give money to those who are already
millionaires? Instead of increasing MPs’ salaries, how about
means-testing them?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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