Ben Lowry: If we want better politicians we might have to pay them more

Stormont
Stormont

After the breathless anticipation of some people, and the almost aggressive demands of others, our Stormont leaders have laid bare their financial secrets and published their tax returns.

And what has it shown us?

How modestly our political leaders are paid.

Yes, they earn double the average wage or more, but the gap between the average earnings and those at the top in politics is smaller than between average earnings and those at the top of almost any other sphere of life.

It is increasingly clear to me that the western world needs to pay politicians more than we do, because we need to attract talent. The world faces huge problems, some of which I refer to below. We need bright people with wide experience at the helm.

Sadly, that nowadays means we have to pay them well. I say ‘sadly’ because I think that the most important jobs – politics, law, medicine, accountancy, and umpteen other things ranging from teaching to the clergy and, yes, including journalism – should be a draw in their own right. They are fascinating and rewarding occupations.

But the disagreeable reality is that in many of these types of careers, the people involved would not work for an MLA’s salary of £48,000.

Journalism, by the way, is one of the lowest paid white collar jobs. In the spirit of the transparency that is now so prevalent, I should say that my salary has never been as high as that of an MLA.

But we need to pitch political salaries higher to get people who do have such expectations. There was uproar when MP pay rose to £74,900 but it is still well below the £100,000 average GP salary. MPs are as important as GPs.

Not only that, there is a big risk in going into politics. There is a social risk, because people do not like to reveal their views on the world, and there is the distinct risk of losing office in an election.

Yet there is controversy over necessary things such as compensation payments for politicians who lose office. Such loss is one of the ever-present risks that applies in politics but in few other jobs.

Jim Allister, a QC, earned £43,000 last year, Arlene Foster, a solicitor, earned £78k and Mike Nesbitt, a Cambridge graduate, earned £53k.

These are people who could earn more outside politics and so those sums do not square with the deep cynicism there is about politics.

People grumble as if politicians all have their fingers in the till. I recall being at a social function in England at the time of the MP expenses scandal and listening to tut tutting from professionals who would not contemplate working for an MP’s salary – and in some cases not for three times an MP’s salary.

MPs should have argued for their own salary worth instead of trying to make up for it in expenses.

I advocate a system where political pay goes up and expenses come down. We do not need MLAs to have so many constituency offices. Even MPs need little more than a highly competent PA.

The UK is one of the least corrupt countries in the world but if I was to pinpoint an area in Northern Ireland where I wonder about dubious past political behaviour, I would be examining planning approvals over the decades.

Politicians, however, had a limited role and the scope for abuse was not what it might have been. The planning role of councillors has recently been increased but that is happening in an age of much more open decision-making.

Our problem in NI is not corruption, it is our failure to attract widespread talent in politics. There are bright people at Stormont such as Stephen Farry, Alliance, or Peter Weir, DUP, but we need more of them. Low calibre MLAs leads to bad decisions.

My main complaint with politicians is the lack of bravery in the face of populism. Intelligence is no guarantee of bravery but overall decisions do tend to be better.

Politics should not be a high paid position. Avaricious people should look elsewhere for wealth, be they professionals or celebrities. But somewhat increasing the pay of elected politicians might help attract some of the people that we need to run the country.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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