There is a case to be made in support of the Government’s decision to give three super junior ministers a €16,000 pay supplement. As Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath pointed out, it would not be fair to give two super juniors a generous top-up, but not a third.
New legislation now ensures that all three ministers are treated equally. On top of their €124,000-plus salary, each one can claim €16,288 for sitting at Cabinet, a supplement that is almost €4,000 more than an Irish pensioner’s annual income.
There is also an argument in favour of paying our politicians well. A competitive salary goes some way towards attracting talented, qualified people to take on what is, to be fair, a difficult job.
And, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin made clear, “there’s either a rate for the job or there’s not”. The issue is the rate for the job — and the timing. It is somewhat ironic that the windfalls for Jack Chambers, Fianna Fáil Government chief whip, Hildegarde Naughton, Fine Gael Minister of State for Climate Change and Transport, and Pippa Hackett, Green Party Minister of State for Agriculture, were announced shortly after MPs in New Zealand took a 20% pay cut.
There is a nice symmetry about the figures involved, even if they go in opposite directions. Three ministers here had €16,000 added to their salaries while cabinet ministers in New Zealand had more than €15,000 taken from theirs. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her government took a decision to cut their pay because they wanted to show solidarity with frontline workers and those who have lost their jobs.
It’s not surprising, then, that there is public fury here about a government decision that failed to capture, or ignored, the mood of the country. The wags and the wits caught something of that feeling with this post: “I could tell you a joke about a salary top-up for super junior ministers, but only three people would get it”. However, the collective disillusionment at this ill-timed, tone-deaf measure runs much deeper than that.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe appeared to make it even worse yesterday when he acknowledged “the grave annoyance and anger” yet continued to defend the decision. He urged people to consider it in the context of the €5bn stimulus plan and the extension of the wage subsidy and the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP). That’s an unfortunate comparison as the ministerial ‘top-up’ tops what most people on the PUP will make in a year if they fail to get back to work.
We’ve already witnessed the sense of entitlement that is stitched deep into the psyche of some political veterans when they put on an unedifying display of disappointment after failing to be appointed to high — and lucrative — office.
Last week’s pay increase further fuels public cynicism. It also makes it clear we are not all in this together. While it’s not a return to the days when a high-living Taoiseach Charles Haughey appealed to the nation to tighten their belts, the decision to top-up any salary at a time when so many people are struggling shows the three-party Coalition’s disheartening failure to read the room.