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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019
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Column: Our politicians are overpaid. It’s time they rejoined the real world.

A new campaign is calling for politicians’ pay to be benchmarked against real jobs. Aaron McKenna explains why the salaries have to shrink.

Aaron McKenna

OUR POLITICIANS PAY themselves well in excess of what they ought to receive.

This isn’t based on some fancy notion of fairness, but on hard evidence to be found in salary surveys. The Real Pay Petition launched this week is calling for politicians to reduce their pay in line with jobs in the real world.

A TD earns 35 per cent more than, for example, a quality control manager in a pharmaceutical company; a well trained individual responsible for ensuring that a packet of Panadol doesn’t put you into hospital. TDs actually earn what most senior directors in businesses do, like operations or marketing directors. People who have commercial responsibilities. What does a TD do? Show up and vote as they’re told and look after their constituency.

Compare the pay of a government minister to that of your average company managing director: The minister earns 41 per cent more. What does a minister, who already has a professional staff of civil servants looking after the department, do that deserves that premium?

It may be mentioned that in the private sector bonuses are paid on top of basic pay. But bonuses are rarely paid when a company is in the financial receivership of a bailout, or while substantial cutbacks are being made. Perhaps ministers should be financially rewarded for good performance, and during the boom the rising pay of politicians could be said to have been such a reward. Today, with massive unemployment and cuts to frontline services, that’s not appropriate.

‘At the first mention of vouched expenses or an attack on their salaries and pensions the backs were up’

When our new government came to power it reduced the pay of ministers. Rather than a pay cut this was really less of a pay increase for those being promoted from the basic TD’s salary of €92,672 to the mere €169,275 a minister receives today. The Taoiseach cut his pay to €200,000 per year, down substantially on the €310,000 Bertie Ahern proposed to pay himself in his final days in the office.

Compared to Ahern, Taoiseach Kenny looks frugal. But he still earns more than the Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, and a host of other leaders of nations far larger and less bust than Ireland.

There have been many sickening moments for ordinary citizens to endure since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, but among the least edifying for our body politik as a near whole was watching them fight no harder than for their own pay, expenses and pensions when Brian Lenihan proposed a change to the regime.

Backbench politicians and senior frontbenchers alike were rubber stamping budgets and laws to strip SNAs from schools, pensions from blind people and nurses from hospitals. But at the first mention of vouched expenses or an attack on their salaries and pensions the backs were up.

Our new government has not lifted a finger to the gravy train expenses system. The Taoiseach, Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Sector Expenditure and Reform – supposedly the spearhead of ‘doing things differently’ – are among those who don’t provide receipts for their expenses. The government blocked a move in the Seanad to mandate that independent Senators vouch for their €23,000 per year Leaders Allowance.

The Revenue Commissioners would treat any ordinary person claiming expenses without receipts as a fraud, trying to hide income. Revenue also states that no person may receive tax free expenses for the purpose of travelling to their place of work. Tell that to TDs, who collect an allowance for just such a purpose.

‘It has to be asked if the allowances aren’t too lavish’

Dublin based TDs receive €12,000 a year to travel to Leinster House, conveniently located in Dublin 2. TDs from further afield receive more, up to a maximum of €37,850 per year, to travel to and stay in Dublin. It makes sense to give money to a TD who travels a great distance to Dublin for accommodation, but when the basic amount is set at €12,000 for those who live twenty minutes up the road it has to be asked if the allowances aren’t too lavish. Certainly there should be receipts for every mile travelled.

There are members of the Oireachtas, such as those from Sinn Fein and the Socialist Party, who say that they only take the average industrial wage of €36,000 per year. This is of no advantage to the taxpayer, however, as they give the balance of their salary to their parties to spend campaigning for votes.

They’re also not shy about taking expenses: Gerry Adams took nearly €50,000 in 2011 and Dublin-based Mary Lou McDonald €32,000 in expenses. The Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins took €24,500 and People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett €32,000. It should be said that at least these four vouched for their ample expenses.

The proposal to reduce the pay of politicians is not based on a race to the bottom, or reverse auction politics of offering to do more work for less pay as the presidential election seemed to become at times. This campaign is benchmarking politicians against real work done in the real world: What do politicians do, and what do people with analogous responsibilities or qualifications get for doing that work.

Politicians are continuing to preside over massive cutbacks to services and tax increases. They do not have the moral authority to do so when they are not prepared to touch their own pay, expenses or conditions. Real leaders should be the first, not last, people to take the hardships of austerity.

It’s time for politicians to take a fair share. If you agree, sign the petition. RealPay.ie.

Aaron McKenna is the organiser of the Real Pay Petition. You can contact him via aaronmckenna.com or on twitter @aaronmckenna.

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