The latest announcements by the Remuneration Authority suggesting an increase in parliamentary salaries strikes me as a government department that is tone deaf to the state of the country and the needs of the people.

Most of us are feeling the pressure brought about by a challenging economy, higher than usual inflation and the enforced interest rate increases that come with such changes. At least some, but not all, of our economic malaise, has come about as a result of poor economic management of the country’s financial position. The fault for that lays fairly at the feet of a select group of our political leaders who are now set to benefit from salary increases.

Over recent years, we’ve seen plenty of money wasted. Whether it’s large scale infrastructure projects that didn’t go anywhere, the renaming of government departments, or the large sums of money destined for traditional services that didn’t deliver outcomes or even improvements, even the most willing taxpayer must be left wondering whether the taxes they pay are worthy of their graft.

Remuneration for our Members of Parliament is always going to be a sticky issue. Of course, there will be occasions where increases are warranted, especially where it is necessary to maintain relativity.

Irrespective of the money on offer, I’m not entirely sure why you’d take the job.

For many of our MP’s, the role would be challenging to the point of exhaustion. Our most senior Ministers and MP’s will experience seven day weeks with long hours almost every day. Work days will often end at 11pm and weekends will usually have commitments. Then there’s the visibility that comes with public life, the recognition in the street and the abuse from online warriors. There’s a lot of time away from family and very little in the way of personal time.

At the other end of the spectrum we see MP’s sitting in parliament for six, nine or even twelve years without so much as generating a headline. Every time an election cycle finishes there are valedictory addresses from long serving parliamentarians we’ve never heard of. You have to wonder about the value of these representatives.

I suspect that there are very few MP’s who are in it for the money. Some, but not all, will be able to earn much more in personal income through other pursuits. Many get the calling to parliament not for the income, but for the opportunity or desire to contribute to the country. That’s worthy and desirable. It’s a tough job and we need the people who are there, to be there for the right reasons. Money isn’t one of those reasons.

And so it is interesting that the Remuneration Authority seem to think that now is an appropriate time to increase the remuneration and expense allowances for MP’s. The proposals which suggest salary increases in the order of ten per cent over the three year parliamentary term are not overly excessive. However, the timing is lousy.

Most of us will be aware that there is an austerity programme going through government departments at present. Quite rightly, spending cuts are being demanded by a newish government attempting to balance the books after a few years of reckless borrow and spend mentality. Government staff numbers are being reduced. Some people are losing their jobs.

To be fair to our politicians, the decision to increase their remuneration is not made by them. The Remuneration Authority provides us with an independent system designed to prevent any conflict of interest. That independence notwithstanding, at the moment, most MP’s should be squirming about taking the additional payment.

There is an argument to suggest that our most senior parliamentary members, the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, leaders of major political parties and the like, could all justify being paid more than they currently are. At the other end of the scale, it wouldn’t be unpopular to suggest that the remuneration of a backbencher with little to contribute, especially those who are there solely by virtue of a party list, are unreasonably overpaid.

It doesn’t matter which side of parliamentary debate you may side with, most of us would agree that we seriously need to attract people of better quality and calibre to parliament. MMP in particular has become responsible for the addition of those with minimal credentials other than their membership of, or loyalty to, a political party. It doesn’t make sense to pay those people in the order of $200,000 per year to sit on the back benches and make up the numbers.

Which leads us to the real issue. We should be asking whether we have too many MP’s. Some, including this writer, would prefer to see forty fewer MP’s being paid more money.

Here’s another angle. Perhaps we could incentivise our parliamentarians based on our performance. Imagine if we had incentives around debt reduction or GDP growth. Could an Education Minister be incentivised on student attendance and pass rates. Or a Health Minister have their personal income boosted by a reduction in wait times and successful surgical outcomes?

It sounds silly and unworkable. And it probably is. But paying too many people, irrespective of the outcomes, seems silly too.


This article first appeared on News Talk ZB Plus Fri, 3 May 2024.

Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, a regular NZ Herald columnist and host of the NZME’s podcast, Leaders Getting Coffee.