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What's in a backbench MP's package?

opinion

By Q+A producer Tim Watkin

Published: 7:59AM Thursday November 12, 2009 Source: Q+A

Lockwood Smith must be torn apart by all the fuss over MPs' perks. He believes passionately that the MP's life is a fraught one, burdened with a rare amount of stresses, strains and separations. Yet it was he who had the courage to open MPs' expenses and allowances to public scrutiny, which he now says is adding to the stress of MPs' families. It must feel rather bittersweet at this point.

Of course, this will settle down as politicians watch their colleagues suffer and go out of their way to avoid heading down the same (flight) path. But in the meantime, there's some sorting out that needs to be done. And as Dr Smith is now saying that he feels "quite a responsibility to make sure that the facts about how it [an MP's pay] is derived are out there", he should perhaps pull together some facts.

I find it remarkable that no-one yet has been able to put a dollar value on a backbench MP's total salary package. They make $131,000 a year, but what about the flights, cars and other allowances that are tacked on? (Of course, no sooner had I posted that than Fran Mold reported an averaged salary package of $180,000 p.a)

Back in August we asked Dr Smith on Q+A, "if we include expenses, how much does a backbench electorate MP earn?"

He wasn't even sure about the $131,000 figure, but pointed out that there's a $14,000 expense allowance on top of that, plus travel and accommodation, and the latter two vary from MP to MP. But why not crunch the numbers on that? Pull together the total packages of each MP, or at least provide an average. If the public had a realistic number to hang its hat on, and then could compare than to other executives in this country, it may be instructive.

Maybe some information about the day-to-day tasks of the job would be useful, as well. An MP's life isn't easy. They have few days off and spend long periods away from spouses and children. But I wouldn't go as far as Dr Smith does in playing the violin for them. Many senior executives - and an MP has to be considered in that class - spend a lot of time on the road with all the family stresses that entails. Heck, many poorer New Zealanders working three jobs don't get much time with their kids either, and they're trying to hold families together on a fraction of a government minister's $240,000-odd base salary. A lot of us have work encroaching on our lives every day; just try running a small business.

Yes, you can argue that two wrongs don't make a right, and maybe we all need to think long and hard about our work-life balance and our low pay. But a lot of New Zealanders will say, 'why should MPs get special treatment?'

While most New Zealanders have lost their overtime and other "perks" in recent years - in part thanks to the policies of Dr Smith's own party when he was in government - MPs have retained theirs. On or t'other needs to change.

Having said that, I think most New Zealanders want to see politics attracting our best and brightest and recognise that those running the country deserve to earn more than most.
The political reality is that the rules and the public's expectation are out of whack and need to be brought back into line. It's unfair to expect MPs to have to ignore the rules to maintain public favour. Bill English should not have felt it necessary to do away with all allowances, for example. (He should just explain why he moved his home into a family trust at the time he did).

The travel allowances for long-serving MPs seem to be of particular contention. As it stands, all sitting MPs qualify for a rising discount on private flights after one term. But only those elected before 1999 keep the discount after leaving Parliament. Perhaps we've got that the wrong way round. When they're earning the big bucks and serving the public, maybe that's not the time to be taking the cheap flights. Maybe the discount should only kick in once they leave parliament, as a thank you for long service.

That's just an idea. But it should be clear by now to Dr Smith and everyone in parliament that the current system is unworkable. It needs to be streamlined and modernised, and it needs to be done soon.

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