Australian Parliament House

Is it time for performance based pay for politicians?

Australian Coat of ArmsPoliticians seem to love the concept of performance based pay to the point of obsession, especially when it comes to public servants, including teachers.

This raises an interesting question. In light of all the issues we had experienced with politicians in recent times around their parliamentary behaviour and performance, and use of entitlements, why stop at the public service? Why not introduce performance based pay for our pollies?

Politicians’ favourite mantra is to say, if voters don’t like what politicians do, they can vote them out at the next election in 3 to 4 years’ time. Let’s extend that logic to a general workplace situation and consider if an employee suggested an employer doesn’t need to evaluate their performance annually because they could just be fired in a few years’ time if the employer is not happy with them.

Swapping politicians is a bit like changing banks. Sounds feasible, logical, and there is even a reasonable mechanism in place to do it. In reality, it is a much harder proposition, especially when the alternatives are just as bad, if not worse.

It may also be that voters see potential in a politician and they think he or she is an excellent addition to Parliament and would like them to continue to serve, but think they are failing to live up to their full potential – Malcolm Turnbull, I am looking at you … In such a situation performance management appears to be a far more sensible option in the first instance, rather than having to wait several years, and with the only option available is removal from Parliament.

Consequently, I can’t see why we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, try to put mechanisms in place for the annual performance evaluation of politicians by their electorates, to determine their respective pay-grades for the following year.

We have the technology to offer voters the opportunity to evaluate their representatives on an annual basis, and adjust their salary and entitlements accordingly.

The upcoming review of the entitlement system would offer a perfect opportunity to consider how we evaluate the performance of our Parliamentary representatives between elections. How their remuneration and entitlements should respond to their performance, and whether entitlements should be simply ended and replaced with higher remuneration designed to cover travel and other expenses.

Imagine a system where each year voters could decide whether over the next 12 months their representative should receive 100%, 85% or 70% of his or her remuneration and entitlements, based on their performance during the previous year, as evaluated by their electorate. This could be done, over a period of a week or two, perhaps using an online system, overseen by an independent body, which could also oversee the use of any entitlements.

I suspect the money saved would more than pay for the design and implementation of the process. Even in the unlikely event that over time most politicians achieve the full satisfaction of their electorates, and no further tangible savings are achieved, the cost of maintaining the system would still be a small price to pay for a more efficient and productive political class, focusing on the public interest rather than self, or party-interests.

The scenario imagined above may prove to be an unworkable method of managing the performance of our politicians. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or that there isn’t another workable solution. Politicians are willing to take extreme steps to achieve their political goals – our treatment of asylum seekers is a testament to that, illustrating where there is a will, there is always a way.

Ongoing, regular performance management is an everyday part of life in all types of employment and professions. There is no reason why the most powerful and significant public service positions should be exempt.

Looking at the current state of politics, the only feedback the electorate can provide every 3 to 4 years through the electoral cycle had proved itself to be insufficient.

While we are taking a closer look at our political, and remuneration and entitlements, systems we should also open up a discussion about the desirability of introducing so-called recall elections into our electoral system, and whether the current level of politicians’ remuneration is sufficient.

A recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected representative from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. Recalls are initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition. Given the number of paralysed and dysfunctional governments we had in recent history, the threat of a recall election could be a powerful incentive to encourage better performance.

As for remuneration levels, it does appear we don’t pay our politicians too generously, especially considering the responsibilities we place upon them. CEOs, and other C-Suite executives, of companies often take home a million or more in annual remuneration, while our average federal politician, responsible for helping to manage the nation, receives around $200,000 plus entitlements.

For many that will sound like a substantial pay-packet. But considering what the role entails, a $200,000 salary is arguably inadequate and it perhaps explains, but of course does not excuse, the abuse of the entitlements system.

There is an old saying that had stood the test of time: ‘You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.’

Looking at the political shenanigans lately, you could be forgiven to think our Parliament is occupied by a troop of monkeys.

Perhaps it’s time to shake the tree.

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