An article which came to my notice today!
(Thanks to the sender)
Adam Creighton THE AUSTRALIAN NEWS is an award-winning economics journalist with a special interest in tax and financial policy.
He spent most of 2016 at the Wall Street Journal in Washington DC.
He won the Citi Journalism Award for Excellence in 2015, and was runner up in the internationally recognised Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2014
Perhaps the government wouldn’t need to crack down on sexual relations between politicians and their staff if there weren’t so many well-kept staff. The Barnaby Joyce saga has awkwardly revealed how the number and pay of political staff is out of control.
Vikki Campion was just one of 155 senior political advisers employed by the Turnbull government last year. Surprised journalists reported her salary of “up to $191,000” for her digital and social media strategy role. That’s actually a considerable understatement.
Such advisers receive a “private-plated vehicle” allowance of $24,600 and “parliamentary staff allowance” of $31,600 too. So the correct figure for senior advisers is a salary of up to $247,000 a year, excluding travel allowance of course, which for a non-Canberra-based adviser is about $18,000 (untaxed). Then there’s 15.4 per cent superannuation.
The Labor opposition and Greens have about 26 senior advisers as well, suggesting taxpayers have to pony up about $45 million a year for senior political advice alone. It’s the tip of the iceberg. All up there are about 540 advisers spread across the government (442), opposition (95), and other minor parties. These higher paid roles (all six figures) come on top of the four electorate staff each MP and senator receives.
In 2000 the Howard government had 345 advisers, according to the Parliamentary Library, suggesting growth of about 30 per cent. Australian federal politicians had no staff until 1944, when they were allowed a typist. Crossbenchers get advisers now. Last year they each enjoyed three on top of their electorate staff.
Salaries aren’t the whole story, of course. The Australian reported last year that airfares, taxis and untaxed “travel allowance” for the Prime Minister’s 50-odd ministerial staff exceeded $2.13m last financial year or $5840 a day, about 87 per cent higher than Tony Abbott’s staff spent two years earlier. The same documents obtained under freedom-of-information laws also showed the travel costs of the Opposition Leader’s 35-strong team had increased by 66 per cent to $2.34m, or $6,420.00 a day, over the same period.
Cost isn’t a big theme in Canberra, where even the taxis double the fare if they are carrying two or more passengers. And why not? As if anyone is using their own money!
In 2013, the last year the government published the aggregate figures, the total cost for advisers and electorate staff came to $230m. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest it’s above $300m. The Australian has repeatedly tried to obtain the latest figures.
Similar problems emerge in state governments, egregiously in South Australia, where Labor Premier Jay Weatherill had more than 43 full-time personal staff (not far off the PM), according to the government gazette, including 17 media advisers earning between $115,000 and $157,000 a year.
Ministers and politicians clearly need staff, and quite a few more than a generation ago, given the demands of media. But the question has to be asked whether the numbers and pay have become excessive, and potentially corrosive. If the pay is so good, why risk prosecuting change in the public interest? The highest priority becomes keeping one’s job.
Even ministers’ receptionists now earn up to $100,000 In political la-la land that’s considered a low salary, but it also happens to be 40 per cent higher than median full-time earnings in Australia. British and US political advisers are routinely shocked by the remarkably plush conditions of Australia’s political class.
In Britain only a handful of advisers earns more than 100,000 pounds a year, and there are far fewer of them. The British government employed 82 “special advisers” (32 in Prime Minister Theresa May’s office) in 2016; cabinet ministers were allowed a maximum of two. Cabinet ministers in Australia have between 12 and 20 each.
Some allowance needs to be made for the greater proximity of ministers to their departments in Britain. As “Yes, Minister” viewers well know, Sir Humphrey Appleby was just down the hall. In Canberra, ministers have their offices in the parliament, far away from their public servants down the hill.
Even so, it’s not clear the quantum spent on political advice would pass a cost-benefit test. The federal government has more than 150,000 public servants, some of whom are on eye-popping pay deals, to administer policy and provide advice.
We’ll never know how much worse the Nationals’ social and digital media strategy would have been without Campion’s efforts. But even if it were substantially worse, should taxpayers be paying for this anyway? To the extent many staffers are politicians in waiting (just look at the career history of so many MPs), the public is forced to pay costs that should really be borne by political parties themselves.
No one doubts many staff work long hours (I know, I used to be one), but that doesn’t mean the work has to be done in the first place, or paid for by taxpayers. The fact roles can be created, abolished and shifted so easily, as was Campion’s, should be a red flag in any audit.
Nothing much is likely to change. Politicians are reluctant to talk about this because both sides benefit so much. The real power of politicians, after all, is the power of appointment. The more appointments, the more power.
But there are some obvious places to make savings, and boost the public’s respect for the political class. For instance, must staff (and politicians) fly business class for the short flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra? Or why not run a bus between Canberra airport and the parliament, saving many millions a year in taxi fares? The absurdity of separate vehicles and “parliamentary” allowances should be incorporated into salaries to make pay scales clearer.
A future government should also make a hard decision about whether having political advisers in their 20s earning more than some GPs is in line with community standards.
Does this not make one think about the homeless, student loans, understaffed hospitals, inadequate education facilities etc., etc.