(I wrote this essay originally as a podcast about 3 months ago but the current fire crisis compels me to revisit and slightly update this point because it is even more relevant now then it was then)
The last 20 years has seen the value of our political class drop dramatically. In the literal sense of how much work they do for our nation compared to how much we pay them. The value for money that we get is possibly the worst it has ever been and shows no signs of improving soon.
It can look at times like our country runs just fine on auto-pilot, but if the institutions of leadership in Australia are so diminished that they barely perform the basic functions of their role, what happens when a emergency occurs, and the institutional memory and practices are so rusted and broken that our leadership has no ability to respond?
This is not a hypothetical question; this is practically the situation we now face. A governmental system so choked up with corruption, nepotism and incompetency that the gears of government have clogged to the point of inoperability. When the country is running on autopilot, it’s not the biggest issue, but when a crisis looms, like say, the imminent collapse of our environment, that clog is going to have devastating consequences.
And even without a crisis, there are many things a country needs to actively do to provide itself with a future.
And the number one thing a government needs to provide a future for its people, is a specific value, and it’s one that might seem surprising at first. But it is of paramount importance. That value is humility.
One of our better leaders was Gough Whitlam, he got a tremendous amount of work done in a short period of time, and even if you didn’t agree with his policies, no one could have accused him of not doing what he genuinely believed was in the best interests of his country.
Compare that Scott Morrison. A man who became prime minister after he helped facilitate coups against both of his predecessors for no apparent reason. Then once he became PM, effectively shut down parliament between August of last year until the election in May this year.
Since then he has worked to cut the number of parliamentary sitting days, given himself a pay rise, ignored every petition and report that counters his own beliefs, has worked almost solely on creating an incredibly convoluted and wholly unnecessary religious discrimination bill (that only focuses on Christians) reopened a breathtakingly expensive offshore detention centre to house just a single family, (that no one wants imprisoned anyway) and now the unbelievable clusterfuck that is his jaw-dropping negligence in the face of an unprecedented climate emergency
Can anyone say with a straight face, that Scott Morrison has earned his pay? He has brought us to the lowest point I have ever seen in Auspol and the trend indicates that every day will continue to lower the bar further.
I have facetiously mentioned in the past that our government isn’t even worth minimum wage. But what if we entertained this idea?
First of all let’s talk about why we think our politicians deserve to be paid 200-400 thousand dollars a year. I get the logic of course, you want to attract the best people to the top positions, in theory that is great, but I think when we have a look at the front bench of our government, we can see that something has gone horribly wrong. There is no usable metric where these people could be considered the most competent people in the country to hold their positions.
Paying our politicians more is not increasing the quality of our politicians. So, the next most logical question, would the quality fall if they were paid less?
But I think we already have the answer to this question too, you just have to look at low paying professions to see how that works out, I think you would struggle to find a nurse working 12 hour shifts that would ever lower their standard of care from being underpaid.
And isn’t that really the mentality people working in government are supposed to have? Isn’t public office a duty? Where you are charged with looking after your nation and giving it direction to a better future? In fact, I think you could argue that the big pay politicians receive is bringing forward WORSE people, people who only pursue the job because of the money, who will turn to endless nefarious means to stay on it. Which I would argue is exactly what has happened.
When combined with the modern realisation that there really are no real-world consequences for corruption, it is easy to see why narcissistic, self-serving people would be attracted to these positions. And if these positions are full of amoral opportunists, the people we want to attract just open the door, see it is full of screeching idiots, close the door and walk away. I mean how often have we seen bright eyed, wholesome people enter politics and only a few years later leave it looking disheveled and morose?
The big pay is not working to attract the right people, it seems in fact, that it is an active detriment to getting them.
For the good of the nation, that sense of public duty really needs to return. But how do you translate that into reality?
This is also not a hypothetical question. Our politicians NEED to understand how their constituents live.
And maybe there is a practical way to make that happen.
Our country would benefit if politicians spent some time on minimum wage. This isn’t a punitive thing. It’s a practical way to get our politicians back in touch and to stay in touch with their constituents. What if we started a tradition where our politicians had to spend one month a year working for minimum wage?
This would have two effects, first, it would humble our politicians and remind them they serve their country not themselves. By spending a whole month of the year working for essentially just the duty of their office, they can be practically reminded about why their position exists, and the humility that is so important to good decision making can be effectively applied to them.
But the second and most important effect of this idea, is that they can never forget what it is like for the most vulnerable people in their electorates to survive day to day. Because our politicians will be working for the minimum wage, they themselves have set, they will have practical lessons about how their decisions impact the most vulnerable people in society.
To complement this idea why not tie parliamentary pay to the minimum wage? Perhaps a multiplier of no more than 10x whatever the current legal minimum wage is. This would stop Parliament wasting time discussing their own pay rise, and would force them to help our most vulnerable people before they help themselves.
If we could introduced these two ideas we would bring humility back into our political practices and we would see the quality of our politicians and the health of our democracy begin to improve overnight.