A €300,000 question - Politicians’ pay cannot be defended

Deputy Martin Mansergh’s Dáil question asking how many people are earning more than €300,000 may have been primarily a public relations stunt to justify the recent increases in ministerial salaries, but it was gratuitously insulting to the Irish people.

It was a patent waste of the time of those civil servants who were engaged to find the answer to the question.

The civil servants had to make a forecast on the basis of figures for 2004, because more up-to-date figures are not yet available.

They concluded that 9,680 people in this country probably earn more than €300,000 a year.

The main public uneasiness expressed over the Taoiseach’s recent salary increase was not in relation to the highest earners in the country, but in contrast with the leaders of much bigger and much more populous countries. It is necessary to compare like with like.

Bertie Ahern is paid more than US President George W Bush, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or such prime ministers as John Howard of Australia, Gordon Brown of Britain, or Stephen Harper of Canada.

It is preposterous that the Taoiseach should be paid more than the American president when he does not have near the responsibilities that Mr Bush has. Comparing the offices and responsibilities of the Taoiseach and President Bush is like comparing beet with bananas.

President Bush is head of state and head of government, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As such his office combines the functions of both President Mary McAleese and Mr Ahern’s. Yet each of them earns more than the American president, even though he is responsible for a country that is more than 108 times larger than this State and has more than 71 times our population.

Bill Gates is only one of many Americans who earns many times what President Bush is paid. Yet nobody would seriously suggest that this should be used as a justification for increasing the president’s salary.

Our politicians should be properly paid in a manner to attract suitable people for the job — individuals primarily motivated by a desire to serve the community rather than a craving to enrich themselves. We should recognise the distinction between appropriateness and extravagance.

When Eamon de Valera called on people to tighten their belts in 1932, he did so after providing proper leadership, by cutting his own salary by 40% and that of his ministers by a third. In the process they provided real leadership.

The current Government, however, is calling for restraint after increasing ministerial salaries well over the rate of inflation. The Taoiseach’s increase alone is more than the average industrial wage of those he represents.

Providing a salary increase above the rate of inflation was not included in any party’s election manifesto. None of the government parties even hinted at any such intention, but they did make other promises, which they have been reneging on in a naked fashion.

This is a sad reflection on our democracy, and pathetic efforts to defend the indefensible are an insult to the electorate.

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