How much paid help for independent MPs?

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David Solomon argues in Pearls and Irritations

Finding out how these advisors actually occupy their time would be the first task of a body such as the Remuneration Tribunal.

The argument about understanding legislation is actually quite flimsy.

There’s a lot wrong with the system that provides MPs and Senators with advisers and other office helpers, not least that it is run by the government and particularly the Prime Minister.

That means decisions about staffing for MPs are influenced – and largely determined by – purely political considerations, and not the actual needs of parliamentarians or the contribution that might be made to improving outcomes for the public.

So in the past decade or so, the extra staffing allocated to independent MPs (additional, that is, to the four staff members who are based in, but not confined to, their home electorate offices) has depended on how the Prime Minister of the day felt the need to coddle up to those independents she or he had to deal with.

Julia Gillard, for example, thought one Canberra-based advisor was sufficient, even though her parliamentary situation was more precarious than those Prime Ministers who were her immediate predecessors. Her successors, in somewhat more comfortable positions, nevertheless conceded more staff for those independents – Malcolm Turnbull gave them three each, Scott Morrison bumped it up to four.

Morrison’s legacy was to create an expectation among the present greatly expanded cross-benchers that they had an entitlement to four such advisors, in addition to their four electorate-based staff.

No way, said the new Prime Minister as he headed off to more pressing concerns such as the war in Ukraine. It will be one Canberra adviser each – though he made it clear that though this was his preferred position, he was open to negotiations. Will conceding just one more for each of the independents be enough?

This isn’t the way the issue should be settled, nor is it a sensible political approach. The salaries of MPs and Senators are determined by an independent Remuneration Tribunal, first established in legislation by the Whitlam Government in 1973. Before then Sir Robert Menzies as Prime Minister had on three occasion in the 1950s established ad hoc committees to provide advice about parliamentary salaries, but sometimes legislated for changes without doing so.

However so-called ‘entitlements’ for MPs such as access to office accommodation and expenses including a notorious printing allowance (worth over $100,000 a year) are decided by the government of the day.

Now, however, it is taken for granted that the Remuneration Tribunal will decide what salaries and allowances are paid not just to MPs and Senators but also to federal judges and many senior officials and statutory officers.

However so-called ‘entitlements’ for MPs such as access to office accommodation and expenses including a notorious printing allowance (worth over $100,000 a year) are decided by the government of the day.

The government also decides (under existing legislation) on the conditions that apply to the employment of staff. Such decisions may be influenced by political considerations of the kind that persuaded Prime Minister Morrison that the independents should have four Canberra advisors, or by the need to save money – an argument now being used by some of Mr Albanese’s ministers.

The independents argue that they need additional support to deal with legislation and other parliamentary duties. To which the government has responded that more people will be employed by the Parliamentary Library to provide this assistance to the independents. Briefings on legislation are also made available to MPs and Senators by government departments.

The argument about understanding legislation is actually quite flimsy.

The argument about understanding legislation is actually quite flimsy. The Parliamentary Library is far better equipped with specialists in the whole range of policy and administrative areas covered by legislation, as well as with lawyers able to decipher the wording adopted in legislation, than the staff an MP might be able to hire.

And contentious legislation is also likely to be given a detailed examination by a parliamentary committee – a likely destination, for example, for the government’s proposed integrity legislation – assisted by even more expert analysis.

While there is a rational argument for MPs to have staff who can provide assistance in this way, there would be real value in discovering what it is that these additional staff actually do. Whatever their designation, there can be no doubt that their primary purpose is to help the MP be re-elected. And it is assumed that the more paid staff the better, though an argument could be mounted that each of the teal independents triumphed because they were able to inspire and muster a huge force of volunteers.

One distinct area where those advisers in Canberra are employed is media relations.

That doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for questions from an inquisitive media pack. It means searching out journalists in the press gallery and elsewhere to try to get them to ask questions or use quotes or otherwise promote their employer’s views and interests through the media.

And given that parliament actually meets so rarely – six weeks are scheduled between now and the end of the year, including a week of estimates hearings – those advisors will be spending relatively little time trying to understand bills that the government produces.

Finding out how these advisors actually occupy their time would be the first task of a body such as the Remuneration Tribunal, if ever a government was persuaded to task it with determining the staffing requirements of the various categories of backbench politicians – that is, MPs and Senators forming the government or the Opposition, those belonging to various minor parties, and independents.

But giving the Remuneration Tribunal that additional responsibility appears to be on no-one’s agenda. Making the decision is one of the advantages of incumbency that a government enjoys. Even if those who may be disadvantaged by a decision carry on about being dudded.

David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.

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