There’s something about a wage freeze, isn’t there? Virtually the first act of the Obama presidency is to freeze the salaries of his senior staff. Kevin Rudd has lately been topping up the salaries of his staff — perhaps they wouldn’t need it if you didn’t flog them so hard, PM — but he made a point early on of freezing his own salary and every other MP’s as well. And with Rudd now saying workers need to moderate their wage demands, the chances of the Government approving an increase in MPs’ salaries after July, when the current freeze ends, is approximately zero.

Mal Washer at least avoided the cliché about paying peanuts and getting monkeys when he suggested low pay would ensure politics attracted only “clowns”, “losers”, “screwballs” and “halfwits”. Many Australians would argue that’s exactly what they’ve got now, but he has a point — particularly at the State level, which in policy terms very much looks the poor cousin of Federal politics.

The issue is particularly acute now. It doesn’t take immense talent to manage an economy enjoying a resources boom (see Howard ministry 1996-2007). But it will require something approaching genius to ensure Australia navigates its way through the current crisis with the minimum possible damage to jobs and the social fabric employment underpins.

We need outstanding leadership in public life — from MPs, from their advisers, from public servants — and if we’re not prepared to reward it, we’ll have to make do with whatever screwballs happen along. It would be splendid if more talented Australians followed the example of Malcolm Turnbull and gave up making private money to commit to public life, but we shouldn’t rely on it. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey