Since I left the Dáil in 2002 I have been loathe to condemn the pay and perks of politicians. This reluctance was based on inside knowledge of life as a public representative.
Instead of job security, they are permanently vulnerable to the whim of the electorate. Unsocial hours and endless availability to the public take a real toll on personal and family life. People don’t go into politics to make money.
Populist tabloid journalism tends to pander to cynical voters. Now mainstream media are equally condemnatory, and equally contributory to the disconnect between the political class and the public.
Part of the failure to approve the Lisbon Treaty referendum was attributed to an anti-politician vibe. On the other hand, the present economic morass is unprecedented and there can be no doubt that some of our politicos have lost touch with reality.
The necessity to review and cut public expenditure has exposed an unacceptable level of excess. The Irish political gravy train is out of control. In first class we have the Government. Our cabinet ministers are the best paid in Europe. Is Cowen worth more than Obama?
An additional €100k is paid to them collectively in monthly expenses. They employ 216 constituency and private office staff at a cost of over €10 million per annum. This is primarily to ensure their personal re-election.
We have 15 junior ministers. Their staff and transport cost €8 million a year - excess baggage in this compartment. Real jobs exist for about 10 deputy ministers. Incredibly, the Department of Health has four junior ministers. This is a sick joke. Such a glut causes needless confusion and minimal effective input.
Travelling in second class are TDs and senators. It costs more than €50 million a year to run the Oireachtas. A TD’s salary is €105,000 a year. A generous regime of expenses can equal this salary. Virtually all of this is un-vouched.
TDs are maximising their travelling and accommodation expenses in order to fund the cost of their constituency offices and local costs. This can vary from election campaign expenditure to daily charitable donations.
There are in total 40 Oireachtas, Dáil, select and joint committees and sub-committees. For those who aren’t office holders there is an array of jobs as committee chairs, vice-chairs, and convenors. Their allowances are tax free. There are 166 TDs and 60 senators. In the USA, most states have just two Congress representatives and senators.
Our electoral system forces politicians to focus their energies and resources on being local social and community workers. I recall in the early 1990s, when deputies were granted one secretary each, instead of sharing one among three. Now they have an additional, well-paid, personal assistant.
The whole system has become a bureaucratic machine fixated on the next election. TDs have no incentive to focus on national policy issues.
The last opulent carriage is occupied by our councillors. These used to be the backbone of volunteerism in the country. They were the unpaid foot soldiers of Irish democracy. Over the boom years they were upgraded.
Many councillors are paid more than €30,000 per year and have extensive expenses. They are often on myriad boards, committees, and other structures with valuable entitlements. I note €10 million has been set aside this year for those councillors who will not be re-elected in the June local elections.
I will always have the height of personal respect for politicians and their commitment. However, I must be blunt. The present exorbitant regime of remuneration is unsustainable. An increasingly impoverished and hard pressed tax payer and rate payer is bitter and scornful.
Public representatives of all parties should urgently realise that the ‘disconnect’ is converting to disgust and disrespect. Real leadership, across all parties, is required to reform and reverse this runaway train.