Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler

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Last Minute Lobbying: MPs' Pay

The Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Bill passed it's second reading yesterday. It it expected to come up for its committee stage tomorrow (EDIT: I am now advised that this is not the case).

The committee stage is the opportunity for the House of Representatives as a whole to closely scrutinise legislation. Select Committees do the hard yards of close scrutiny (or at least they should), and it is generally too late to make major changes, or to reverse major policy decisions, unless the government is using the chance to hurry through some changes that should have been notified earlier, or to fix some mistake a select committee either missed, or caused.

However, every so often, the opposition has the opportunity  to ask the government to look again at one or other aspect of a bill. And sometimes, the government listens.

I have already shared my thoughts on the MPs' Pay bill. I don't intend to rehash them. I won some. I lost some. I was pleased to get some recognition of my view that the law does not currently allow mid-term list MPs to be paid (has Paul Foster-Bell, Claudette Hauiti, or Carol Beaumont declared a conflict of interest in the voting on this bill?), and surprised that my suggestion around death benefits for the families of just-retired MPs was not followed, but that time has passed, and I'm over it. However, there are a couple of pretty minor matters that I will take this opportunity to ask MPs to reconsider.

First, is the proposal advanced by independant MP Brendan Horan, that would see MPs' salaries set once per term, just before the election, to cover the whole three years of the following term of Parliament. People would stand for office, and we would elect them, knowing what they would be paid. This seems a no-brainer for MPs. There is no reason why they need annual increases in salary; nor any reason why they should get their pay increases backdated. The advice of officials was that:

  1. While the intention of submitters seems to be to seek to take some of the ‘heat’ out of the issue, fixing the period in this manner may have the opposite effect if it results in the Remuneration Authority making a higher than usual award in the interests of providing for circumstances that may arise in the following three year period

I acknowledge that the officials may be right. We won't really know until it happens (if it does), but given that an election will intervene before anyone gets the increase in salary, my guess is that they're wrong. People will still whine, no doubt, but given that the higher salaries will be going to people we choose to receive them, I don't think we will be quite as aggrieved: it's up to us to choose people we think are worth it, and we'll know what we're paying them before we do.

The second is the proposed penalty for MPs who are absent without leave. I submitted that one wasn't necessary - the penalty for bad MPs is that voters can punish them or their party at the next election - but that if there is to be one, it shouldn't be laughable. The current proposal is that absent MPs will lose 0.2% of their salary each sitting day they are away without leave (ignoring up to three days each year). There are only around 90 sitting days in a year (I counted 93 in 2012), so an MP who skips absolutely all of them for no good reason, will still keep over 80% of their salary. This isn't as laughable as the unenforced $10 per sitting day the law currently provides, but it is still a pretty minor penalty, and is out of proportion with the penalty for suspended MPs (who lose 0.2% of their salary per day of their suspension, not per sitting day). Somewhere around 0.5% per sitting day would bring these closer to parity.

No-one has yet put up an amendment to bring my second suggestion into effect, but it's not too late for an MP to come forward. I also urge the MPs who read this before tomorrow's committee stage to seriously consider supporting Brendan Horan's amendment around a three-year salary.

Finally, and I know I said I was over it, but if someone can come up with a good reason why my proposal to change the rule around the support for the families of dead recently-retired MPs wasn't changed, I would welcome it. The reason there is so stark a distinction in the help provided to the family of an MP who retires at a general election, and then dies the day before that election, and those who retire and then die the day after the election, escapes me. I hope it never comes up, but this just seems mean.

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