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I once despised Australia’s ‘pollie pension’, but there’s a bargain in funding MPs for life

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Ian Allenden/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Ian Allenden/Alamy Stock Photo

Disgraced former New South Wales Nationals MP Michael Johnsen is in the news once again this week, as he’s embarked on a new business venture. Johnsen’s choice of post-parliamentary employment obliges some serious civic consideration about the income streams of ex-politicians.

Reflections on this issue have been provoked by reports that Johnsen has “put out his shingle as a government relations and strategy adviser.”

The former member for Upper Hunter was made to resign after an ABC investigation alleged he was trying to organise a sex worker to service him in the parliament building. If true, his proficiency at “government relations” could, perhaps, be judged as uneven. Similarly, one questions the “strategic” expertise of an elected representative credibly alleged to have shared with the same sex worker a video of a man masturbating in a Parliament House toilet during debate of a reproductive health bill.

Related: Former NSW Nationals MP accused of sexual assault rebrands as a political consultant

What Johnsen is advertising through this website, however, is not a nuanced facilitation between commercial projects and the standards expected of public governance. It’s something more direct. After launching the site with pictures of himself with the premier and other senior cabinet members, the website touts Johnsen’s 13 years in office as one that delivered “$1.9bn in capital investments and $345m in community grants”.

There are those of us who still believe that government should exist in service to the common good, rather than as a mere brokerage of competing commercial interests – yes, even in the state of New South Wales. But if it’s shocking that any former MP is now trading commercially on their insight, experience and networks of government contacts, it shouldn’t be.

In fact, our own civic expectations have perversely encouraged a culture of post-parliamentary employment that far beyond Johnsen could actually tempt former representatives to sell out the public they have served the very moment their bum leaves a soft leather seat.

Reader, I was one of many who once despised the old federal “pollie pension”. It used to pay out parliamentarians at 75% of their salary upon retirement. Publications like Crikey deemed it had “dreadful optics”, and John Howard abolished it in 2004 for all new members entering the federal parliament. A Labor government in Victoria abolished a similar state scheme the same year.

Seventeen years later, perhaps it’s time we appraised the message that was sent with these decisions. The idea ex-politicians should be obliged to seek an independent income after parliament has created a political generation who go into the job aware that they’ll have to fend for themselves on the other side of it. Could the obligation to keep one eye on that horizon possibly compromise their performance in government?

There is no suggestion this is the case with Johnsen. It’s entirely on those who are uncomfortable with his shingle-hanging to accept he is obliged to earn a living.

A cultural expectation has been seeded that politicians should pursue financial independence after office. This has now flowered into a reality in which ex-MPs who still do receive the old pension can combine their income from it with a corporate career.

Perhaps we should ourselves think through just who might be willing to purchase the unique skills and insights of, say, a former senior minister of the crown, and for what purpose. By withdrawing that pension, we structurally encourage ex-MPs into employment with everyone from fossil fuel interests to foreign-government-backed corporations.

Well, that’s if our theoretical ex-MPs can land these opportunities. It’s an ongoing scandal in this country that agencies that are supposed to seek out diverse and expert decision makers are increasingly seen as juicy pastures to be wandered by income-seeking ex-MPs who lack whatever corporate interests value. Have board appointments become mere “jobs for the boys”?

Far be it for me to suggest that there are also underperforming MPs across all parties engaging in the worst kind of factional warlordism to keep their seats and so retain a salary no one would ever pay them elsewhere, but there are also underperforming MPs across all parties engaging in the worst kind of factional warlordism to keep their seats and retain a salary no one would ever pay them elsewhere.

I could easily spit out a list of serving MPs whom the idea of funding for life grates against my values of fairness, my ideological convictions and my taste. Yet the sensible democrat within insists that I can’t help but think regulating post-parliamentary roles to the strictest of public-interest standards and introducing a reformed pollies’ pension may render government decision making more transparent, minimise perceived conflicts-of-interest and un-gum desperate ticket-clippers from what should be machinery of efficient governance.

There’s surely something noble and nation-building about designing a pollies’ pension system which could fund ex-politicians to find appropriate roles of continuing public service to Australia.

To my mind, there’s an even greater bargain for the nation to be had in paying out those others to simply take the money, and go away.

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