Belfast Telegraph

MLAs should forget money and try to earn some respect

There's no point grumbling about MLAs' salaries. It's just the price we pay for devolution, says Alex Kane

In one sense, Alasdair McDonnell making a public fool of himself on the subject of MLAs' pay is not all that different from other MLAs who are doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

Some of them are saying that they don't think that now is the time for a rise, but none seems to be saying that they will refuse the rise.

The blunt reality is that the general public is nearly always of the view that politicians are overpaid.

And, let's admit it, our MLAs do pretty well: a basic salary which is already over twice the average salary; a very generous package of expenses; mileage allowance; and subsidised meals.

There seems to be two main arguments in favour of increasing their salaries.

The first is that they don't earn as much as their Scottish and Westminster colleagues.

Maybe so, but there are more MLAs per head of the population here and they have less work to do in terms of legislation.

The second argument is that the only way to attract the so-called brightest and best is to offer the sort of salaries that they get outside politics.

But what happens if you raise the salary to the sort of level needed to attract those people and they don't get selected or elected? Also: why is it assumed that someone who is a well-heeled barrister, doctor or businessman would make a good politician?

Some MLAs have tried to argue that salaries should be linked to performance. But how do you even begin to monitor, let alone measure, that performance?

Indeed, what would be the benchmarks for high performance? The number of speeches you made? The number of people who came to your constituency office? The number of questions you asked? There is no way in which pay can be linked to performance.

One possibility would be to link an MLA's salary to what he/she was being paid prior to election. In other words, if you were earning £35,000 before election, you would get that, plus an increase of maybe 5%-10%. And, if you were earning £200,000, you would get that, plus a similarly modest increase.

Under that sort of arrangement, no one could be accused of going into politics just for the money.

Of course, that would never be acceptable, because it raises the problem of people getting paid different salaries to do the same job.

So what about giving them all a very good salary, but limiting their term of elective office to a maximum of three consecutive Assembly lifetimes?

The reality of politics is that many politicians go into it intending to do good, but stay in it simply to do well - for themselves.

Many of them enjoy it for all the wrong reasons. They love to be recognised in the street and get their regular media fix. They love the faint air of glamour that attaches to the job.

Most of them will never be very good at the job and will be happy to bumble along as backbenchers and lobby fodder. That's the nature of the game and that explains why it attracts the people it does.

So there's no point in the public complaining about their salaries and how useless they all are. And there's no point in them pretending that they work hard and deserve high pay because there is no job-security.

The debate over their salaries is actually utterly irrelevant against a background in which electoral turnout continues to tumble and respect for them is at an all-time low. Anyway, whatever they go into politics for, it's certainly not for love or personal popularity.

That said, a lot less pious platitude and disingenuousness from them about their rates of pay would be widely appreciated. They should just consider themselves privileged and do their best to earn our respect.

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