Far be it for this column to defend exorbitant executive salaries, but it seems like the widespread criticism of Ralph Norris’ $16 million pay packet for 2010 is perhaps harsh — in relative terms. That is largely because most business columnists writing about remuneration look only at the last line of the executive’s salary (the one that says “total”), without spending too much time considering how that remuneration is actually paid.

In one sense, Norris’ remuneration is obscenely high, especially given the enormous risks being assumed by retail banks, notably CBA, which has more than 60% of its assets in the form of residential loans. This might not be such a problem if Australia weren’t in the midst of a housing bubble, which some experts claim has led to prices rising by more than 40% above their intrinsic value.

In the CBA’s defence, it can at least claim that the majority of Norris’ remuneration was in the form of shares and the somewhat less shareholder friendly “performance rights”. Of Norris’ salary, $4.8 million was paid in cash during the year, with another $1.8 million deferred until 2011. The bulk of his remuneration related to long-term incentive payments that crystallised in 2010 but largely related to 2007 and 2008 share plans. Importantly, the value of the remuneration was boosted by CBA’s recent relatively strong share price performance — of course, the value of Norris’ remuneration will also fall if CBA’s share price drops. (Unless Norris hedges or sells those shares).

Norris’ 2010 pay packet is a far cry from the salaries received by investment bank heads during the heady days of the recent debt-fuelled financial bubble. In 2008, former Macquarie boss Allan Moss was paid more than $27 million in cash alone. That turned out well for Moss — since then, Macquarie’s share price has since fallen by more than 60%. However, at least Macquarie is still trading — the same can’t be said for Babcock & Brown, which remains in the hands of corporate undertakers despite paying former CEO Phil Green $17 million in cash in 2008.

But it isn’t only banks that lavish cash pay on their executive suite. Westfield, the retail property giant, pays its executive chairman and founder Frank Lowy about $15 million cash each year. This is despite Lowy spending a vast amount of time watching soccer and having a net worth of more than $5 billion. Former Qantas boss Geoff Dixon was paid $5.8 million cash in 2008 and $7.5 million in 2009 — that was despite Qantas underperforming the MSCI Airline Index during Dixon’s tenure and the business being profitable only by virtue of its frequent-flier scheme.

Of course, most executive remuneration pales in comparison to the remuneration received by News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch. Despite enduring a small pay cut this year, Murdoch still collected more than $13 million in cash — last year he took home $24 million and in 2008 received $27 million — this was despite leading the company into a multibillion loss after taking over Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

At least CBA can point to an improved share price and record profitability to justify Norris’ remuneration, the same can’t be said for Asciano, which paid CEO Mark Rowsthorn cash of $3.8 million last year, as well as a $900,000 “re-signing” bonus. Rowsthorn’s remuneration was especially generous given Asciano’s share price has slumped by more than 80% since its 2008 demerger from Toll. While paying Rowsthorn a $1.99 million bonus this year, Asciano announced a bottom-line loss of $788 million this year. Asciano  last year was forced to undertake an emergency heavily discounted rights-issue to allow the company to repay debt.

Norris’ payment is no doubt excessive when compared to ordinary salaries and almost certainly, the actual value he is able to create as CEO — however, when it comes to executive remuneration, it is far from the worst.