A nice pithy comment, I thought, in the way that a 140 character limit encourages. I didn’t expect it to be too controversial, especially given the low standing of our politicians at the moment. But, as happens on the internets, I found myself pitched as the opponent of meritocracy, attempting to lower the standards of politicians by discouraging our best and brightest from applying.
I have a lot of writing that I’m supposed to be working on at the moment, so I thought the best way to procrastinate (sorry Antoinette and Geoff) would be to explore this question in a blog post: Do we get good value from our politicians?
Admittedly I picked a very bloody small sample. I didn’t even include our Prime Minister, the most equivalent to the POTUS (Tony earns $470k by the way).
But the discussion that followed covered two points that I want to explore: the first is whether MP remuneration should be considered ‘payment for a job’ in the way that most occupations are. The second is whether increasing MP remuneration gets better outcomes.
Attempting the second will involve a subjective statement on what good value from an elected representative is, but the answer to the first question will provide good guidance.
Is being a politician a job? My interpretation of representative democracy is that no, it is not a job. Members of Parliament are not selected through an interview process on the basis of skills and experience and, important in this case, wages are not set by the market in the way that most jobs (arguably) are.
Politicians are not public servants. People offer themselves to the electorate for more than just money, and are elected for reasons other than being the most technically capable of fulfilling the job description. To argue that an MP’s performance in their job should be measured other than by representation of electors shows a questionable commitment to democracy.
Moving onto the question of how to measure whether politicians pay reflects in outcomes of the political process, I suggest that the main measure is the trust that the community has in the political class. This being a democracy, the main KPI should be representing the views and interests of the electorate within the political system.
This changes over time, but with a reasonable sample we should be able to get through the noise of retail politics.
This leaves us with the challenge of making meaningful wage comparisons across jurisdictions. Ideally I would look at MP base salary as a multiple of Average Weekly Earnings, but I don’t have those figures and to be honest I’m not that committed to this blog post to collate the figures. Fortunately there is an alternative at hand: I’m going to steal ‘Basic salary of lawmakers as a ration of GDP per person’ from The Economist.
If you’ve never heard of the ‘Edelman Trust Barometer’, well now you have and so have I. The salary data is 2013 and trust data 2012, so close enough for our purposes.
Let’s see if higher MP pay (as a ratio of GDP per person) reflects in the level of trust in Government:
Removing the two outliers, the effect is slight. By way of note, the lawmakers of the two most trusted governments, Singapore (67%) and India at (65%) have salaries of 3 times and 7.8 times GDP per person for their nations. The least trusted politicians, of Japan (34%), earn 3.2 times the GDP per person.
On these results the link between pay and performance are weak at best.
Given that the Prime Minister of Australia earns a higher base salary than the President of the United States, with Premiers not far behind, I am confident in restating my view that our mob are overpaid, with little evidence that doing so gives us better government.
This opens the question of how pay in some countries is decoupled from levels of trust with politicians. When people set their own pay rates, or at least the frameworks by which they are decided, perhaps this is not so surprising.
As a side note, and relevant to a joint piece of writing that I am working on, in the conversation following the original tweet the staunchest defender of higher remuneration for Australian MPs came from a colleague in the community sector. I found it disappointing that given the recent attacks from both sides of politics on the people whose interests we are employed to promote, there would still be such faith in our political class. It included assertions that the high levels of pay in Australia are necessary for the good governance we get.
Hopefully, as in my original tweet, the sample is too small.