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Gordon Campbell on the wage hike for MPs, and Paul Robeson

Gordon Campbell on the wage hike for MPs, and Paul Robeson

Hard to tell what is more infuriating. Is it the 5.3% increase on the already bloated salaries of MPs, or their pantomime of outrage at being gifted with such a wonderful back-dated bonanza? As usual, Prime Minister John Key has busily tried to distance himself from the political fallout, even though he happens to be the main beneficiary of the Remuneration Authority’s generosity. Finance Minister Bill English says with a straight face that it would actually be very hard to give the money back. Surely, he can’t be serious. (Ordinary taxpayers send money back to the government all the time, in the wake of IRD returns. We could show him how it's done.) And even if it were true, it would actually be very easy for English and any other guilty colleagues, to give the extra money away. There are any number of food banks or homeless shelters who would be able to put the money to good use.

So… after all the talk about the evils of income inequality it comes down to this. A whopping backdated 5.3% pay increase for MPs on already bloated salaries – to the tune of an $8,200 annual pay rise for backbench MPs, and a $23,000 annual pay increase for the Prime Minister. In the same week, the minimum wage was raised by a miserly 50 cents an hour, to $14.75. That’s how much we value, say, the minimum wage workers who care for the elderly in rest homes. And are we investing in the future? Not so much. As the NZ University Students Association has pointed out, students and other citizens on state support got only a tiny 0.51% CPI adjustment on their allowances this week, thereby boosting the maximum student allowance from $174.21 to a $175.10 per week – a total weekly income that is considerably less than the amount some MPs will be pocketing merely from their pay rise alone, not to mention their existing sky-high incomes. During this same week, the housing allowance for students living away from home was kept frozen at $40 a week.

That freeze is going to mean the perpetuation of genuine hardship. “While MPs are giving themselves an extra $192 a week,” New Zealand Students’ Associations President Rory McCourt says, “students in Auckland are expected to pay their average rent of $220 a week with a $40 accommodation grant.. Just last week TradeMe revealed a 9 per cent hike in average New Zealand rents for the year to January.” [On MBIE Housing Data figures the average student rent in a three bedrooom flat in Auckland rose to $218.16 last year, up from $209.90 in 2013.]

So… while the housing crisis in Auckland escalates, MPs are being handsomely rewarded for their abject failure to address it in any meaningful way. Every year, this farce over MPs salaries is played out. Key wrings his hands and does nothing. English clears his throat and says it's actually very hard to do anything. Well, the way to fix it is to fix it. Bring in a bill to change the way MPs are paid. A few years ago MPs moved at lightning speed when it came to gold-plating their own superannuation package. They could act with similar speed again on this issue, if the government saw it as a priority.

How should it be done? As Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman has suggested, legislation should be passed to index the pay rise for MPs to the rise in the median income. If that mechanism had been in place right now, backbench MPs would have got an increase of $1,300 a year, not $8,200. Why, this solution is so easy, even Bill English could manage it.

Footnote : Or we could raise the minimum wage significantly, and boost taxes on those earning over $150,000. That seems to be working pretty well in Minnesota.

The Rock Star Economy ? Not So Much

Remember that ‘rock star economy’ meme? Interesting to note that in this Bloomberg survey of the global economies that are being projected to grow the fastest over the next two years that New Zealand doesn’t feature, not even in the top 20 list. This week, President Barack Obama did identify the economy that in his opinion, is the “envy” of the world when it comes to economic growth and reducing poverty. Not New Zealand. It is Peru.

Paul Robeson, Reclaimed

The Wellington Fringe Festival theatre production of a play about Paul Robeson is one more sign that this great singer and activist is now being rescued from the memory hole to which he was consigned during the Cold War. During the 1930s and 1940s Robeson was arguably the most well known and beloved entertainer on the planet. As a Communist, he was protected only so long as the Soviet Union was seen to be an ally of the US and UK in the fight against Hitler.

However, once the Soviet Union became the Cold War adversary of the West, Robeson came under attack, his records stopped being played and were disappeared, his concerts were attacked by thugs, his passport was seized…. and in the course of only ten years, he was disappeared from US history.

The story of Robeson’s persecution – and the recent revival of interest in him as a great artist and humanitarian – can be found in the current issue of Werewolf.

Sometimes you feel discouraged, and feel your work’s in vain ? Robeson knew that feeling, and he dealt with it in “Balm In Gilead”. His stirring Spanish Civil War song “The Four Insurgent Generals” is also worth your time…

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