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Gordon Campbell on pay hikes for MPs, and year’s end

Gordon Campbell on pay hikes for MPs, and year’s end

At Christmas time, the thoughts of the Remuneration Authority are evidently not with the Child in the manger kind of stuff, but with the somewhat colder Biblical message of Mark 4.25: “To those that have shall more be given, and to those who have not, what little they have shall be taken away.” That used to be a favourite text of the Soledad brother, George Jackson, who added his own commentary to it: “I don’t like this life. I feel that I have been basely used, hated, abused and cast aside, as if it were the natural order of things.”

That’s why I think Mana Party leader Hone Harawira is wrong about wanting to shift the Authority’s pay determination to mid year, to avoid the socially abrasive issue of back-dating the inevitable pay increase - although he’s dead right in saying there should be no pay hike at all this year. To my mind, the Remuneration Authority serves the useful social role of exposing the political mythology of the need for belt tightening by all, and of everyone sharing the hardship during difficult economic times. Many ordinary people and most government departments are being told that even genuine needs have to be met –somehow – out of current budgets. Yet the political leaders telling them this all year always seem happy enough to allow a different standard to be applied to themselves, come year’s end.

As a result, one Christmas reality is this. Driven by the highest unemployment rate for 13 years, record numbers of New Zealanders are queuing for food this week.

"I keep saying every year it's unprecedented ... but I'm almost beyond words when I look out there," said missioner Diane Robertson. "This is nothing to celebrate." More than 100 people were lined up on Hobson St and round a corner into a neighbouring lot yesterday, some since 5am, to receive charity - Christmas food parcels and donated gifts for children….Ms Robertson said the mission's clients were struggling with unemployment and entitlement cuts. "They're losing options."

And the continuing recession was adding people to the queue as those on low incomes fell into the same poverty cycle as beneficiaries.

The other festive season reality is this one, whereby backbench MPs are given an extra $53 each week (before tax) pay increase, with a $932 (after tax) back-dated dollop of cash on top. That’s aside from the $24,000 a year assistance with the cost of their accommodation in Wellington, and a further $16,100 a year for incidental expenses such as gifts of flowers, club memberships, meals and other expenses that can be imaginatively traced back to their jobs. The after tax back-dated payout alone to the Prime Minister this year will come to a very handy $2,594.

Clearly, there is no performance pay ingredient to the calculations done by the Remuneration Authority. In passing therefore, let’s recall a few very special Cabinet Ministers, each of whom we are paying in excess of a quarter of a million dollars a year. ($262,700 p.a. to be precise, plus expenses)

1. Hekia Parata, Minister of Education. The peerless Parata tops everyone’s list of 2012’s worst political performers for her mismanagement of the classroom sizes issue, the ongoing Novopay fiasco, the charter schools experiment, the illegal Salisbury social girls schools closure, the resignation of Education Ministry CEO Lesley Longstone etc etc. A walking liability indeed. As even Cameron Slater has noted, Key would have fired Parata in a millisecond from Merrill Lynch, but her forced exit from Cabinet seems to be being taken as a sign of political weakness that Key can’t afford. (He’s been too close, praised her too highly to back out now.) Meaning: Parata appears to have created a “Too Bad To Fail” category all for herself.

2. Murray McCully, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Has anyone done more damage in a shorter period of time to what used to be the star performer among this country’s government departments? For that reason, I’d rate McCully as worse than Parata, because his incompetence was more gratuitous, and less reversible. (The talent he’s driven out will take a generation to recover, if ever). Amusingly, McCully has become the unlikely anti-hero of a couple of Matthew Hooton’s political romances. This series of NBR articles – it could become a franchise – began with “Right Sizing Just First Step For MFAT” in which the mercurial Minister allegedly puts MFAT on the right track at last, while the even more ridiculous “No Nonsense McCully Rides To The Rescue” casts McCully (in Hooton’s imagination at least) as the fearless ‘no rules’ rescuer of our export education industry from the foul orc-like bureaucrats of the Immigration Service. In reality of course, it was McCully’s own cost cutting shenanigans at MFAT (that included restricting NZ embassies from issuing IS visas) which had triggered the very problem that McCully was later purporting to solve. But that’s vintage McCully for you. First create a problem where none previously existed, and then depict yourself as the saviour who resolves it.

All up, 2012 has been a year in which McCully showed just how much he secretly owes to an earlier, even more iconoclastic diplomatic figure. I’m talking about Rufus T. Firefly of the Republic of Freedonia. Study this clip and note the uncanny similarities of tone and response. No wonder McCully’s removed his moustache, in order to throw future historians off the scent.

3. Judith Collins, Minister of Justice. A raft of contenders for the third spot. Nick Smith formerly of the ACC parish, Steven Joyce’s ill-fated oil and gas exploration El Dorado, Gerry Brownlee’s role in the Christchurch rebuild – which includes this latest ‘hang the expense, let's go to court again’ exercise. But a late run by Collins seals the deal and earns her the number three spot. Due reward for her trashing of the Binnie report on the Bain compensation and shameless attempts to secure a hometown decision on the issue, whatever the cost may be to New Zealand’s international reputation.

Collins’ stocks, though, seem to have risen as a likely successor to John Key as PM, in the wake of the Binnie episode. No one should ever underestimate the extent to which the National Party loves a bully - and lo, the Iron Lady comparisons are already being dusted off for Collins. Not a happy note to end the year on, but Collins is merely the logical outcome of the process. You can only charm, wheedle and sweet talk people for so long (John Key come in, your time is almost up) before you resort to brute power.

There are more pressing problems this week. Amid the last minute Christmas shopping, we all need to find the time and resources to donate to the food banks and charitable organizations who are in the front lines of coping with those suffering the most within our unequal society. BTW, thanks to everyone who has read this column and/or read anything on Werewolf this year. 2013 has to be better, right? Have a good Christmas, and see you again I hope, after the break.

ENDS

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