The Prime Minister sounds like he’s determined to end the ability of MPs to earn significant incomes outside Parliament. Kinda, sorta.

“I think it’s time to provide some clarity on this,” he said yesterday.

“I think it’s time to clean this up.”

Well that’s crystal clear, then.

At his press conference yesterday, Rudd was repeatedly pressed on whether he thought there was anything wrong in principle with MPs earning lucrative livings outside of their Parliamentary duties. He repeatedly ducked the question, to the visible frustration of the Gallery hacks.

Of course, he couldn’t, given that he had worked as a consultant during his first term as an MP, making good use of his Chinese connections.

Rudd instead emphasised that it was a practical problem. He had found the workload too much, and had wound down his consultancy, despite it garnering him not much short of $130,000. That was a smart answer. Rudd the eager backbencher discovered that he could serve the good people of Griffith or continue being a highly-remunerated consultant, but not both, so he chose the former.

So, just to be clear, if you’re an ambitious backbencher with your eyes on the top prize, it’s probably not a good idea. But for other MPs, it might be OK.

This is not to bag all politicians. Some of us believe that MPs should be paid more than they currently get due to the long and irregular hours they are required to work and the impact on their private lives. Gerard Henderson makes this case in his “it’s all a media conspiracy” defence of the Coalition today. Stunts like Rudd’s salary freeze only serve to cater to the populist instinct to underpay elected representatives.

But it makes it difficult to argue this when so many MPs apparently have the time to undertake a second job, and in many cases use connections and expertise acquired in the course of their ministerial duties.

An outright ban on moonlighting would serve to eliminate possible conflicts of interest, restore a measure of public faith in politicians, and highlight the primacy of public office. But, unless accompanied by a sizeable, and therefore immensely unpopular, pay rise, it would also make a political career even less attractive than it currently is.

Vaile of Arabia may have rightly copped plenty for his expedition to the Middle East. But all politicians are caught in the same dilemma. “Cleaning it up” might be a lot more complicated than Rudd is letting on.

Peter Fray

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