Reducing pay may attract a better class of politicians


OPINION:THE CREDIBILITY of democratic politics depends upon a public perception that the majority of politicians are motivated primarily by a genuine sense of public service rather than by personal ambition for public recognition and/or a desire for a large income or, worse still, the acquisition of wealth. (“Public service” may either take the form of deriving satisfaction from assisting their fellow-citizens with their relationships with the public authorities, or, at a higher level, promoting the public interest through policy-formulation), writes GARRET FITZGERALD

Whatever the general public may feel about today’s politicians, it is I think evident that until the last of our first generation of national politicians left the public stage in the mid-1960s, the idealism of the revolutionary movement sustained our politics.

Whatever criticism one may have either about that generation’s excessive preoccupation with the symbolism of our residual relationship with Britain or about the defects of the economic policies they pursued, no one could – or did – accuse those national politicians of unworthy personal motivation.

The politicians of that period did not pursue self-interest – for they underpaid themselves and accepted conditions of work that no one engaged in public service would tolerate today.

All that said, it is fair to add that during these decades political appointments re-emerged within those limited parts of the public service where the writ of the Civil Service Commission and Local Appointments Commission did not extend. On the other hand, throughout those decades governments of both complexions also tackled energetically both inefficiency and financial corruption that had developed within the local government system before independence, and they also ensured that at the State level politics remained free from financial corruption.

As late as 1973 when I became a minister the combination of parliamentary and ministerial allowances was as low as £7,000, (€85,000 in today’s purchasing power). On appointment my after-tax income dropped by about 40 per cent.

Despite that, I always believed that politicians should in fact be paid somewhat below – although not too much below – what might be the prevailing rate for the kind of responsibilities they carry, the aim being to ensure that people are not tempted to enter politics as a means of financial advancement. (In the last couple of decades we have seen too many examples of politicians at national as well as local level abusing their positions for financial gain)

At the same time politicians should not be so underpaid and inadequately serviced as to discourage able people from contemplating such a career – one that is extraordinarily demanding – and that puts a great strain on family life.

The salaries and conditions of the 1970s clearly needed to be improved – but certainly not in the manner or on the scale of what has happened during the past two decades.

Apart from the infection of politicians by the general public mood of self-interest and greed that emerged during the Celtic Tiger years and its immediate aftermath, other factors have also contributed to today’s disillusionment with politicians.

One of these seems to me to have been the linkage established between politicians’ pay and that of the remuneration of the public service – a linkage that has proved damaging in both directions, each feeding on the other.

There is a case for paying top civil servants well enough to ensure that they can match in ability and skills those employed by private sector interest groups who interact with the State system. I recognise that this argument has been weakened, however, by an effective refusal by the public service to recruit top civil servants from outside the service itself.

At least subconsciously, this linkage must have some effect upon the attitudes of politicians to public service pay claims – the concession of which has been followed regularly by consequential increases in politicians’ pay.

Furthermore this linkage lacks a rationale. In the case of top civil servants high pay has been justified by the importance of attracting to these key positions, (and above all keeping there), able people capable of protecting the public interest. But there is no evidence that there is a significant danger of many politicians being attracted to other careers. Most politicians have always stuck like limpets to their seats. They certainly don’t need to be paid over the odds to keep them there!

The truth is that although both politics and public administration are both forms of public service, they have somewhat different motivations, which at the top level may justify different levels of remuneration.

So, whilst the real level of politicians’ pay needed to be raised above its 1970s level, the process by which, through the linkage of their pay with that of our higher civil servants, the salaries of our head of government and ministers have come to exceed the amounts paid in much larger countries than ours needs to be reviewed – a process that the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has in fact recently initiated.

The expenses of TDs also need to be looked at. Apart from their unduly lavish character, it is disturbing that so much of the increase in their expenses in the last couple of decades has been directed towards their constituencies – just as ministers have also been lavishly provided with civil servants to undertake their constituency work.

Inadequate contact between politicians and their constituents is certainly not a major deficiency of our political system. Such deficiencies lie rather in the legislative process that TDs and Senators are elected to undertake, but in which only some of them seem to participate actively.

In the last two decades politicians not only lost the run of themselves – they also failed to show any consciousness of the huge damage they were doing to their own credibility. This may have been partly because there does not seem to have been any forum in which the issues raised here could be debated publicly, and much media comment on such matters has taken the form of populist abuse rather than serious discussion of what is important to our democracy.