18 September 2015
by Max Wallace

Are politicians public servants?

It is frequently said that politicians are public servants. Are they?

It would appear that while we elect politicians as supposedly our representatives in the legislature, we do not employ them.
Legally speaking, politicians receive their salaries through decisions made by state and federal statutory independent Remuneration Tribunals, creatures of the parliaments, not by way of the legislation that determines the pay and conditions of public servants.

In effect, I suggest, this means politicians are not public servants.

As if to make this point, on 20 May this year the Queensland parliament passed retrospective laws linking politicians' pay rises to public servants' pay rises ('Queensland parliament passes laws linking politicians' pay to public servant wage rises', ABC News, 21 May, 2015).

Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said this was one of her key election promises, the inference being that Queensland politicians were doing rather too well, relative to other politicians.

Her concern was well placed. According to the federal parliament's website page concerning remuneration, from 1 July 2013 Queensland politicians were on a base salary of $194,630, much the same as a federal politician on $195,130. The other annual salary figures for politicians were:

The Sydney Morning Herald 15 September 2015 has reported that Tony Abbott will receive an annual pension of $307,542 if he decides against receiving a lump sum plus smaller pension when he retires.

Depending on how long they serve, other politicians can also leave with generous pensions or packages. If federal, they can receive very generous free travel for the rest of their lives. ("Cutting politicians' perks will not save the budget, says Malcolm Fraser', Sydney Morning Herald 29 April, 2014.)

While in the parliament they have generous domestic and overseas travel entitlements.

Also, consider the Turnbull-Abbott /Gillard-Rudd coups. They demonstrate that politicians are a law unto themselves. Politicians can change prime ministers as they see fit, with no reference to the electorate.

That is a very big deal. They have the power to do that, and we voters are left on the outer. It is very instructive that they can be totally relaxed about this, comfortable in their own awareness.

Andrew Hornery reported the soon-to-be prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and his soon-to-be deputy, Julie Bishop, had a night out on the town just 48 hours before the coup that put an end to Tony Abbott as prime minister ('Bubbly pair toast of the town as the champagne and gossip flowed' Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 2015).

Once elected, it is quite possible for politicians to set about serving their own personal interests with little oversight from, or in collusion with, their parties. One only has to look at the roll call of NSW's Independent Commission Against Corruption to see that is so.

Regrettably, there are many sad tales. In the recent past politicians have been fined or jailed for:

That list goes to the basic truism of sociology: behind the public face, there is the private reality.

But, in ways, politicians do seem to be answerable to the electorate . We can make appointments to see them if we have a problem, and they might write a letter or make phone calls on our behalf.

However, they are not obliged to do that and their staff often act as gatekeepers to keep citizens away from their bosses as they get on with their political agendas.

While this is not the norm, my local member, who declared herself first up as a committed Christian lady in a public forum with other contenders for election, and who was one of those that betrayed Tony Abbott, moved her office from the main street of town to the industrial area, as far away from her constituents as possible.

The obvious retort to the argument I'm running here is that politicians are responsible to us at elections every three of four years. Yes, we citizens get to put numbers on bits of paper every so often next to names of people we know little about, and who we are unlikely ever to meet.

It's no secret they fight among themselves for the privilege of being elected. The many tales of branch stacking so that one candidate gets preselected ahead of others is truly an untold story. The many savage internecine fights on both sides of politics would make for a fascinating book if it were possible to write it within the existing laws of defamation.

These preselection fights are where most of the well-concealed, occasionally reported, real action usually is. They will pull out all stops to win. The election nights that follow for safe seats, are normally just interesting formalities.

If the electorate is a toss-up, dirty tricks often come into play: tearing down or smearing opponents' electoral signs, the worst-ever example occurring in the NSW election in March this year as reported by theSydney Morning Herald 29 March 2015.

Another example was the early morning super-gluing of the lock of an opponent's door on the morning of the election. As the candidate could not immediately access her electoral material stored in the office for the voting that day, she lost valuable time to gather votes.

In conclusion: if you were a Liberal backbencher with a vote for the leader in the recent Turnbull-Abbott coup, who would you vote for if your six-figure generous salary, plus your future superannuation, depended on your re-election, which in turn depended largely on the popularity of the party leader?

It is a political cliché that Self Interest is the only horse you can reliably back.
It looks as though we are their servants, grist to their mill, not the other way round. Their trick is to pretend this is not so.

Isn't this what representative democracy is all about?