Democracy, and its costs: Limp signal on councillors’ allowances

Democracy, and its costs: Limp signal on councillors’ allowances

Ireland is not alone in finding it difficult to settle on a fair, yet moderate, scale of rewards — politely known as compensation — for those who put themselves forward for election as public servants.

The roles of the German and Austria presidents are similar — they’re chiefly ceremonial — yet the sums paid to them annually are anything but: the president of mighty Germany gets €242,000 while his counterpart in modestly-sized Austria receives €369,600. Our head of state chooses to take €249,014 of the €325,507 to which the postholder is entitled.

The size of the population over which a president presides ceremoniously is not, clearly, a material factor in deciding how much he or she gets in a remuneration package that will normally include high-end accommodation, cost-free travel and allowances for staff they might or might not need.

There must be other benchmarks, the highly sensitive and confidential nature of which, perhaps, makes their publication in this jurisdiction and others inappropriate.

Arguments about the money received by more than 1,000 local councillors in Ireland, however, can be had, and the responsible minister, John Paul Phelan, is about to start one with a recommendation — stemming from an 18-month lawyer-led government study of the current arrangements — to increase their annual payments to €25,000, up by a generous €8,000.

And, as it’s Christmas, some of their perks — reimbursement for fact-finding trips abroad and discretionary bonuses approved by councils, will remain available, as will the not insubstantial additional payments to mayors and the €50,000 paid to each of the lord mayors of the cities of Cork and Dublin.

These are proposals that will be met with dismay, if not complete surprise, across the country by taxpayers.

A positive is the promise at long last to end the farce which allows councillors to claim reimbursements for expenses without producing verification, a sort of money-for-old-rope racket that fuels the toxic and in a great many cases unfair perception that politicians in both the local and national arenas are in it for all the wrong reasons.

The proposed ban on councillors getting public money for producing and distributing leaflets and posters that are in reality self-promoting propaganda sheets is also welcome, although the promise that these reforms will mirror rules in place for Dáil members fails to re-assure.

The Dáil has rules on expenses and other payments, but the evidence in recent years points to its inability or unwillingness to enforce them.

Running a democracy costs money, and councillors — especially those who are elected as independents— must be compensated fairly for their time and the legitimate costs they incur.

What is definitely not wanted is a situation in which running for office in local government can be practical only for citizens who are wealthy, unemployed or retired.

But perhaps it’s time to remind Mr Phelan of what he told the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government last year: “It is important to bear in mind that the annual expenses allowance is just that — an expense allowance. It is payable on the basis that it offsets costs incurred by the individual claiming it.

The allowance is not, and should not be considered as, an income.” Being a local councillor, in other words, is not a job, and there is no wage. His planned reforms, however, will do little to ram that message home.

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