Blue Sky Democracy, Part 9: Expanding the role of the Remuneration Tribunal
A lot of focus is on how much MPs are paid and all their extra allowances, but we don’t pay nearly as much attention to how many staff they have.
Our second little idea aims to make that more transparent and equitable by letting the Remuneration Tribunal decide staffing levels.
Counterintuitively, the smaller the party is in Parliament, the more work it needs to do.
The actual workload of a party is roughly the same if you have two MPs or fifty.
You still need to develop a coherent policy positions on all the bills and inquiries and motions and announcements that come up. Your MPs’ days are filled with local issues campaigns, shaking hands at a school assembly, speaking at a church gathering or helping people with Centrelink or immigration problems.
At the moment, staffing allocations to MPs is a bit haphazard, and almost entirely at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day.
A particularly ruthless government might bribe crossbenchers with extra staff allowances (as the first Palaszczuk Government did for the Katter Australia Party) or strip everyone’s staffing back entirely (as the third Palaszczuk Government did).
The growth of political staffers in Ministerial offices is well documented and interrogated (see Anne Tiernan’s 2007 Power without Responsibility or Yee-Fui Ng’s 2016 Ministerial Advisers in Australia or 2018 Rise of Political Advisers in the Westminster System) but the growth and functions of political staffers for politicians more generally is less well-understood.
But as of March 2021, there are over 2,000 political staffers employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 — of which 641 are highly-paid “personal staff” (pulling in between $105,000 and $180,000 a year between base salary and extra allowances).
This is nearly as much as what an MP gets paid (base of $211,000 a year, with extra allowances and considerable bonuses for every Parliamentary role).
In 2022, each MP and Senator is entitled to 4 electorate staff at the moment. Those remaining 640 personal staff are then granted to different parties and officeholders by the discretion of the Prime Minister and Special Minister of State, the result of informal, private negotiations with MPs and Senators. This allocation unsurprisingly tilts towards the Coalition, with 112 Coalition MPs getting an additional 464 (about 4 each) personal staff.
The 94 Labor MPs in Opposition get an extra 102 personal staff (about 1 each), the 10 Greens MPs an extra 18 (about 2 each), the 2 One Nation MPs and 9 miscellaneous independents and minor party MPs an extra 39 (about 4 each), and the 6 living former Prime Ministers get 18 (3 each).
These allocations don’t seem particularly equitable nor related to any actual workload analysis.
Roughly 400 of those 640 personal staff are Ministerial staffers, the subject of Tiernan’s and Ng’s extensive studies.
These personal advisers were originally conceived as an “alternative voice” to the often-conservative public service “mandarins” seconded to Minister’s offices that provided most of their staff, today fewer than 20% of Ministerial staffers are drawn from the public service, down from over 70% in the 90s.
Apart from brief dips just after a change of government and a peak of 450 in the last year of the Howard Government, Ministerial staffer numbers have grown consistently over the last forty years — from around 200 in 1983, stabilising around 350 for most of the 90s and early 00s, before stabilising again after 2010 at around 400.
Maybe controversially, I think political staffers are useful and do important work for our democracy (although maybe not worth 2,000 of them plus thousands more in state parliaments).
There’s a lot of work public servants shouldn’t do that, theoretically, enriches democracy and grows public consciousness and their political education. Theoretically. But at the moment, and in the face of seemingly endless scandal and grift by apparatchiks, this seemingly endless bloat merits some review.
For a start, half of those Ministerial staffers should go back to being secondees from the public service. Most of those roles would be policy advisers, whose official job it is to review briefs and submissions from their departments and agencies, advise the Minister on whether to action them and, if necessary, advance the issue to Cabinet or Caucus.
But their growth has justified making more work for themselves, and giving themselves more and more power. More than merely facilitating decisions, advisers increasingly decide to make them themselves, and even leech into wanting to review and edit every public output, from reports to media releases to social media posts, a department or agency produces.
These roles would be much better served being returned to the 90s system of secondments.
Some policy roles would need to be retained, since there’s always policy development, research, negotiation and experimentation that have a much stronger political dimension — as do many of the party coordination and communications roles.
But cutting down those strictly policy roles would also have the benefit of putting both the government and opposition on roughly equal footing in terms of personal staff, reducing the massive privilege incumbency brings — or you could go the other way, as Martin Bortz argues, and create a whole Department of the Opposition, a kind of Shadow Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, complete with a full suite of executives and banks of consultancy-brained strategic advisers.
I reckon my idea is easier though.
Once that incumbency bonus has been taken away and some of that power’s been shifted back to the public service, it would be simpler and more effective to move the staff allocation away from the Prime Minister and Department of Finance to the independent Remuneration Tribunal who already assess the workload of MPs each year as part of their annual determinations.
The independent Remuneration Tribunal already has the resources and expertise to determine what’s appropriate for an MP’s pay, travel allowances and communications expenses. They already adjust pay scales for party positions like leader, whip or portfolio spokesperson. Why can’t they decide the MP’s staffing allocation too?
The tribunal conduct annual reviews of the duties and workload of an MP, compare it to other jurisdictions and industries, and determine an appropriate level of remuneration. They do this for public service executives, judges and statutory appointees. It makes sense to cover personal staffing.
Leaving these decisions to Ministers makes the outcomes too inflexible to changing circumstances or left to cynical political ends.
Twenty years ago, no-one had any idea that every MP would need to maintain a constant feed of highly-produced content on five or more social media platforms — but it was still common practice for MPs to need typists to take dictation.
Let the Remuneration Tribunal decide what staff MPs and parties get in their annual determinations.
It’ll be quicker, fairer and more transparent.
In Part 10, we’ll look at Australia’s poor and piecemeal approach to regulating political parties and investigate a different approach.