If you were to ask people what the biggest problem with politics and politicians are, excessive pay and expenses would surely be near the top of the list (though it would be a long list). However, rather than the usual moan and rant about greedy politicians, I’ll take a shot at coming up with an idea on how to solve the problem. Politicians need to be paid but still remain in touch with ordinary people, so here’s how I think we can reform the system.
It is crucial that politicians can relate to ordinary people and are seen as their true representatives and not as elites with interests of their own. Excessive pay undermines the authority of parliament and government and makes the important business of running the country much more difficult. The last few years have released huge anger at politicians who were not seen to be suffering with the rest of the population but rather merely lining their own pockets. Therefore it is clear that politicians pay be reduced considerably so that people get involved with politics to help people rather than just for the money. Politicians should be seen as our equals and our representatives rather than our superiors.
I believe setting politician’s wages equal to the average wage is the best level. This means that politicians will prosper with the rest of the country but also suffer with them too. Politicians are meant to be the people’s representatives, but how can they do this if they are paid far more than most people will ever earn? If it is good enough for the average person, then it is good enough for their representative. Politicians must be aware of the consequences of their actions and of the challenges that most people face. There could also be a sliding scale so that Ministers receive double the average wage and the Taoiseach triple (or something along those lines).
The second big issue is that of expenses. There’s nothing wrong with politicians being compensated for expenses involved in their work, especially for country TDs. However, the expense system has been discredited by widespread abuse. It is very easy for politicians to treat themselves to top luxuries and have the taxpayers foot the bill. John O’Donoghue was merely the most blatant example of abuse. So if politicians need expenses, what is the fairest way to it?
Well politicians naturally need travel expenses, so why not give them a travel card similar to those given to pensioners? Technically it wouldn’t cost anything (as the buses and trains would run anyways) or at most quite little. If public transport is not good enough for politicians, then they now have an incentive to improve it. If the government thinks that public transport is good enough for the rest of us, then they can use it too. Accommodation expenses can be dealt with by taking an unused hotel (of which there are plenty) and turning it into dormitories for politicians when they come to visit parliament. This avoids politicians claiming expenses for an entire house when they only need a room. This would save money for everyone. With free rent and free travel, politicians would have no more need for expense accounts and therefore no more room for abuse.
In fact I think the political system would function better and have more authority if politicians only used public services. The government regularly praises the state of the health service and schools so they would surely have no objection to a requirement that they and their families only use public services? If they do not believe that public services are of a high enough quality, then the solution is to improve them, not to save themselves and leave the rest of us behind. Using public services brings politicians closer to ordinary people and allows greater understanding, instead of the aloofness of the current system. Politicians would be able to see the consequences of their actions on the ground and with a human face. It is harder to justify the appalling situation where patients are crowded into corridors on trolleys if a politicians’ family has to suffer it too, rather than availing of the luxuries of private healthcare.
We need a stronger sense of community in Ireland. We need to stick together and pull together for the common good. But for this sense of solidarity to be present, we need everyone to be in the same boat. We cannot have a few public figures prospering while the rest of us are struggling. This only breeds resentment and disillusionment. If on the other hands politicians are the same as the people they represent and not fabulously wealthy, then politics can be something we can trust and believe in. It needn’t be seen as a scam for a handful to line their pockets at our expense, but rather as a group of people who understand us and share our problems. That would be true political reform.