The Famous Five, a famous farce!

January 17, 2019

Enid Blyton had her Famous Five. Our parliament has the forgotten five, an obscure band of underpaid Coalition backbenchers ­quietly working away in a bygone tradition of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Conservative Party has long called for reductions in public expenditure, including the introduction of a pay freeze for our politicians and senior public servants and the reintroduction of the debt ceiling. But as The Australian's Adam Creighton explains, Canberra is anything but austere: 

The forgotten five have languished alone, on the government side of politics, on $261,700 a year since entering parliament.

Forget the often reported standard backbench salary of $207,100. MPs receive a vehicle allowance of $19,500 a year and an additional $35,000 electorate allowance, which are also paid and taxed as salary. Then there’s 15.4 per cent super.

Nevertheless, hardly anyone puts up with this. It turns out 96 of the 104 Coalition members of the federal parliament are ministers, former ministers, committee chairs or deputy chairs or holders of some other parliamentary ­office that bumps up their salary. In other words they are, or have been quite recently, on the government teat.

You’re not going to ask too many difficult questions in parliament if you might lose your 11 per cent bump as chairman of a committee, or 5 per cent as a deputy whip. And you won’t say boo if you’re a minister on a 58 per cent pay bump, earning about $380,000.

Section 65 of the Constitution mandates that the number of ministers “should not exceed seven in number … until the parliament otherwise provides”. It’s a shame about that second part. Boy has the parliament otherwise provided, to the tune of 600 per cent more in fact.

There are 42 ministers in the Morrison government. Just seven made up Edmund Barton’s in 1901. That means more than 40 per cent of Coalition MPs in the parliament are ministers. There are ministers for sport, cities, seniors — portfolios that, apart from being silly, don’t even have corresponding ministries to support them. There are three defence ministers in ­effect.

The bulk are baubles awarded at the discretion of the leader of government, and quite nice ones too, given even the 11 assistant ministers earn about $313,000.

It’s not just the salary, ministers have higher pension entitlements. “It accrues at the rate of 6.25 per cent of the additional salary for each year the office is held. Put another way, each day as an office-holder attracts a benefit of 0.0171 per cent of additional salary … the additional pensions in respect of those offices are aggregated,” the handbook states.

One almost admires the parsimony of the first Whitlam ministry, in which Gough Whitlam and his deputy Lance Barnard shared 17 ministries. That’s productivity.

There are only eight backbenchers within the Coalition ranks, including three former committee chairmen (Andrew Wallace, Jim Molan and Ted O’Brien) and the forgotten five who have not held any office.

The extraordinary growth in the executive, even within parliament, is making a mockery of the separation of powers, notwithstanding the present government’s tenuous grip on a majority in the House of Representatives.

At some point the creation of additional ministers becomes embarrassing, not least because it’s tricky to fit everyone on the frontbench in parliament. But never fear - create a committee. There are 66 committees on matters including charity fundraising. There’s even a standing committee on senators’ interests, which has clearly excelled given how few have missed out on pay bumps.

Committee chairmen are decided by the prime minister’s office and the leader of the government in the Senate. Obviously, irritants are likely to miss out, which helps hopefuls in line.

So, who are the forgotten five? In the House of Representatives, of the 74 Coalition MPs only ­Nicolle Flint, Chris Crewther and Trevor Evans haven’t held offices yet. In the less crowded Senate, Amanda Stoker and Steve Martin are alone among 30 Coalition senators in making the cut.

They have time on their side, though. All except Martin are 40 or younger. Unless they lose their seats in the election, all are surely bound for at least some form of committee largesse.

As the pace of substantive legislation slows, the real power of government has become clearer: appointment. It’s the power to appoint favoured individuals to ­sinecures not just in the bureaucracy but within parliament itself.

The explosion of ministries and committees has undermined parliament’s ability to function independently.

It’s become a costly rubber stamp, making question time an expensive farce. A Coalition “backbencher” has, apparently, more than a 90 per cent chance of being a minister or a committee chair or parliamentary office holder. It was and would be similar under Labor.

In the British House of Commons, when a Conservative member for Toad-on-Trent stands up to ask a question, the conservative prime minister could well expect a bollocking. In that house the number of ministers is dwarfed by the number of backbenchers.

That’s as it should be. In Canberra, banal sycophancy from our so-called government backbenchers is the order of the day. It would be in the interests of our democracy if the forgotten became a much larger group.

To read Adam Creighton's full article, click here.

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