Speech

Legislative Council

GREENS BILL: Stop automatic pay rise for MPs

June 20th, 2018

On the 20th of June, Mark introduced and spoke to the Greens Private Members Bill, Parliamentary Remuneration (Basic Salary) Amendment Bill 2018.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: From 1 July, all state members of parliament will get a pay rise of between $4,000 and $8,000 a year. This is not something that anyone has asked for; it just happened. The pay rise is not something that has been justified on the grounds of productivity or on any other measure. It will simply arrive in our pay packets for no other reason than federal MPs have been awarded a pay rise, so we get one as well. The mechanism is well known to everyone here. There is a provision in the Parliamentary Remuneration Act that links state MP salaries with the basic federal MP salary.

When federal members of parliament get a pay increase, that automatically flows on to state MPs. Whilst that arrangement is very nice for recipients, it does not necessarily pass the sniff test in the community, especially when we consider the plight of many of our fellow South Australians who are on fixed incomes, such as those on aged pensions or those struggling on the Newstart Allowance. In fact, according to Ross Womersley, the CEO of SACOSS, this morning on the radio, he advised listeners that the unemployment benefit in its various guises has not increased in real terms in nearly a quarter of a century, yet members of parliament get an automatic pay rise without having to justify it and without asking for it.

That is the question that is before us: why is that appropriate and is there anything that can be done in relation to it? I would note that, of the pay rises over the last decade or so, collectively they have been well ahead of inflation and well ahead of the cost of living. The bill that I am introducing today is, in fact, the third time that I have brought this issue to the council in the last 12 years. Last time was in 2010; the time before that was in 2007. I am hoping that it will be a case of third time lucky.

My recollection of the situation in 2007 is that there were protesting public servants on the steps of the state parliament who were desperately trying to get a very modest pay rise. They were being fought by the government of the day that did not want to give them a pay rise. The irony of the situation, where members of parliament, without asking, automatically get one, and yet teachers and nurses and other public servants have to fight tooth and nail, was not lost on the public back then, and I do not think it is lost on the public now. If we look at public servants, they are being told that they could not possibly get a pay increase of more than 1½ per cent: MPs get 2 per cent. I do not think it passes the sniff test.

I know that members of parliament are not happy with me bringing this motion on. It does infringe one of the unwritten rules of this place that we do not talk about MPs' pay and conditions. I have been warned on many occasions that all I am doing is fuelling anti-politician sentiment, all I am doing is giving a free kick to shock jocks and irate talkback callers, that there is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost because it is impossible to have a sensible conversation about politician pay.

The advice I get is just to leave this alone. I am told that pay rises for politicians are never popular, can never be popular and, unless we have an automatic mechanism such as the one in the current parliamentary Remuneration Act, members of parliament will never ever get a pay rise ever again. There is a grain of truth in some of that because, certainly, those of us who have engaged in this debate over the years would know that as soon as the words 'politician' and 'pay' are mentioned in the same sentence, all of a sudden there are references to snouts in troughs.

Occasionally, someone will come out and talk about peanuts and monkeys. They will be howled down and the snouts in troughs people will be back on the ascendancy. Of course, it is a fraught conversation. I am not saying that politicians are some particular class of worker that should never ever get a pay rise again, I just think that we can take more responsibility for our own fate. I accept that it is a fraught debate, but it is no reason to shirk our responsibility, especially our responsibility to the community, who ultimately pays all of our wages.

I will just comment briefly on the mechanics of the bill. I mentioned earlier that there is a connection in the parliamentary Remuneration Act which links the pay for federal MPs with that which is owed to state MPs. This bill proposes to break that connection. As members would know, the pay for federal MPs is set by the federal Remuneration Tribunal. My bill proposes that state MPs' pay should be set by the state Remuneration Tribunal. They are not strangers to this area. They are the ones who set our electorate allowances. They set the travel allowances for various country MPs. They set the common allowance, which is that quirk of history involving the rolling of various travel and committee entitlements into salary.

In fact, along with the Treasurer, my first ever appearance before the Remuneration Tribunal was in relation to the setting of the common allowance. I made the case back then that I thought it was unfair and unreasonable for MPs to be compensated for things that they never ever lost or ever used, such as the majority of MPs who never catch a bus or a train, yet were compensated $1,500 for losing their free bus and train ticket.

It seemed to me to be quite ludicrous, but I had to accept that the act was against us and the Remuneration Tribunal had no choice but to order compensation for taking away from MPs something they never used. I have caught the eye of the Hon. John Dawkins, a great train traveller—I acknowledge that the Hon. John Dawkins catches the train. My point was that I thought it was unfair.

The bill primarily is about fairness. It breaks the connection with the federal MPs, puts the South Australian Remuneration Tribunal in the driving seat, but goes one step further and requires that, before any pay rise can come into effect, the government must regulate to give effect to that pay rise. The first level of scrutiny about whether, in the particular economic circumstances of a particular time, a pay rise is warranted, comes from the government. They have to decide to promulgate a regulation to give effect to the pay rise. That, of course, gives rise to a disallowable instrument. Then, there is the opportunity for members of parliament, if they do not believe that a pay rise is warranted.

If, for example, we are in another global financial crisis, if people are losing their jobs and if no-one else in society is getting a pay rise, then I think it would make sense. I think MPs have done this before, where they have, through different mechanisms, suggested that maybe this year a pay rise is not such a good look. The only mechanism that is available to me is a private members' bill, so the mechanism I have chosen is: the government has to regulate, and that creates a disallowable instrument.

It is a very simple measure. I will be sure to give members sufficient notice of my intention to bring it to a vote. Of course, it will have no bearing on the pay rise that we will all get on 1 July this year. This has happened too quickly for any change to be made to that arrangement. Certainly, my hope would be that in the future, in say 12 months' time, we do have a mechanism where state office bearers and members of parliament have their pay set locally, not set by people in Canberra, and that MPs do have the opportunity to exercise restraint.

The final thing I would say, not by way of giving formal notice but by giving informal notice, is that this is not the last the chamber will hear from me in relation to MPs' salaries. I still have in my sights the incredible unfairness and undeservedness of many of the loadings that apply to various office bearers in this parliament. I have chairs of committees in my sights: people who do no more work than any other members of those committees yet get $20,000 or $30,000 extra pay. I really think that is beyond the pale. The only reason there is not community outrage is because people do not know about it.

I think there is more work to be done to make the remuneration of members of parliament fairer and more in line with community expectations. With those words, I commend the bill to the house.

For more information see a copy of the Bill

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