You Gotta Serve Somebody: Is it more accurate to describe MPs as employees of their party? Certainly, the master-servant characterisation works much better in this context than in any other. Without a party, becoming an MP is virtually impossible. Moreover, to become a parliamentary candidate, individuals are not only expected to sacrifice their judgement to the opinion of their party – they are required to.
JACINDA JUST FROZE her colleagues’ income for at least a year. Politicians, she reckons, don’t need any more money. With the average backbench MP’s salary topping $160,000 per annum, most of us would agree. Vehemently.
I say salary, but that’s just for convenience. The truth is, I don’t know what to call the income we taxpayers settle on our political representatives. The word “salary” implies some sort of master-servant relationship. That is certainly the talkback hosts’ assumption when they refer to the members of the House of Representatives as: “our employees in Wellington”.
Except they’re not our employees, they’re our representatives – and being an elected representative of the people is very far from being an employee of the people, let alone their servant!
The English philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is often quoted on what the voters might reasonably expect from their Member of Parliament. In his famous “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” (1780) he wrote: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Less frequently quoted, but even more apposite, is Burkes’ contention that: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”
If only! In the 238 years since Burke delivered his famous speech, the British parliament (and our own) has ceased to be a collection of individual representatives dedicated to the “general good” (if such a disinterested body of politicians ever actually existed!) and has indeed become a “congress”. Not of ambassadors, to be sure, but of political parties. These institutions are, indeed, representatives of “different and hostile interests”; “agents and advocates” for every kind of purpose and prejudice; and for all manner of causes.
Is it more accurate, then, to describe your MP as an employee of his or her party? Certainly, the master-servant characterisation works much better in this context than in any other. Without a party, becoming an MP is virtually impossible. Moreover, to become a parliamentary candidate, individuals are not only expected to sacrifice their judgement to the opinion of their party – they are required to.
This raises all manner of problems, however, because, as the American novelist, Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) shrewdly observed: “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
If the only way to become – and remain – a parliamentarian is by the grace and favour of one’s political party; and if the financial reward for being an MP is in excess of $160,000; then our political parties are particularly well set up to make “their” MPs understand only what the party leaders want them to understand – on pain of becoming instantly, and in most cases, considerably, poorer.
It is probably pertinent to observe at this point that an income of $160,000 per annum places its recipient in the top 5 percent of New Zealand’s income earners. At more than three times the medium income, it is difficult to see how any person in receipt of such a handsome living could long retain any sort of fellow-feeling with those required to live in more straightened financial circumstances. When one is earning such a large sum of money it is difficult to resist the whispered conclusion of one’s fattened ego that it is entirely proper and well-deserved. It is then but a small step to the conviction that the misery of others is similarly appropriate and well-deserved.
The legends live on in the Labour Party of its founding fathers living no better than their working-class supporters, and how prone they were to share with the most destitute of their constituents what little remained of their meagre parliamentary stipends. Such tales would certainly explain why socialism remained for the First Labour Government something much more than a mere rhetorical flourish; and why their ability to understand things was so refreshingly unimpaired.
So, keep cutting Jacinda! The less our MPs take, then, assuredly, the more likely they are to give.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 August 2018.