News People Garry Linnell: Why politicians should take a pay cut amid the coronavirus pandemic

Garry Linnell: Why politicians should take a pay cut amid the coronavirus pandemic

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Lengthy queues formed outside the country's Centrelink offices in the days after coronavirus restrictions were imposed. Photo: AAP
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Songs and phrases – no matter how stirring and how profoundly they affect our moods and emotions – are sadly no different to bread.

All of them carry a use-by date. And then they go stale.

You may remember when Molly Meldrum breathlessly announced on Countdown in 1979 that a new American rock band was about to become bigger than The Beatles.

For 15 minutes The Knack became just that.

Four decades later their hit single My Sharona is only used for inducing comas and curing constipation.

In 1981 the world embraced the Men at Work song Down Under.

It was played on rotation every hour for weeks on end.

It soon became the most annoying earworm of the decade.

But when it comes to setting a record for nauseating repetition, We’re All In This Together must now rank as the undisputed world champion.

If you haven’t heard this tedious refrain on television – or seen it pop up in endless postings on social media – then you have clearly not been in isolation and deserve a hefty fine.

It reeks of insincerity and is about as genuine as a Gucci handbag at a car boot sale.

It’s a facile expression that could only be possibly admired by those sitting smugly at home surrounded by mountains of hoarded toilet paper, bingeing on Netflix and regarding their courageous battle with coronavirus as similar to their grandparents’ struggle during the Great Depression.

Sorry. But we’re not all in this together.

And it begins at the top.

Last week the latest Roy Morgan survey on Australian employment found that more than 27 per cent of Australia’s workforce – 3.92 million people – were either unemployed or under-employed.

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There were long queues at Centrelink officers across Australia. Photo: ABC

Hundreds of thousands of others have either taken significant salary cuts, or are about to.

If we were all in this together you might think our federal politicians, so sensitive to any change in the public mood and its voting intentions, might have joined as one and declared they were taking a pay cut.

But no.

When the subject was raised in Canberra last week it was treated with the sort of contempt normally reserved for sweaty backpackers partying at a Bondi Beach hostel.

“I think MPs and public servants are working very hard now,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said.

“I’m not sure how this sort of suggestion would help. In the context of the budget challenge it’s essentially at the margin.”

Well, Mr Cormann, why don’t you lean in closely with that tin ear of yours and we can tell you why it matters.

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Mathias Cormann said he was uncertain how a cut to his salary would help the coronavirus effort. Photo: AAP

A call for a pay cut for politicians during this pandemic has nothing to do with budgetary savings.

It has far more to do with that most important and compelling ingredient in politics – perception.

A 10 or 20 per cent temporary salary cut for our federal MPs would be a profound acknowledgement of the pain being suffered by so many Australians who have lost their jobs and now face losing their homes and hopes for the future.

It would be a repudiation of all the cliched accusations that our representatives love nothing more than having their snouts in the trough.

It would be a unique public relations boost for an occupation so often denigrated for its self-interest.

And it might – just might – become a critical turning point toward establishing a new relationship between the electorate and those who are elected to serve it.

Despite what Senator Cormann thinks, a call for MP salaries to be cut during this critical time is not a simplistic pollie-bashing exercise.

Who could begrudge Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s annual salary of about $550,000, particularly at a time like this?

There are CEOs paid four or five times that amount who enjoy comfortable lives with far less accountability, scrutiny and expectations.

Who could dispute the workload experienced by an average backbencher on a base salary of more than $211,000?

But if our federal and state parliaments are willing to enact regulations that, while striving to keep the nation safe from coronavirus, trigger a catastrophe in the workplace, then surely they should feel honour bound to experience some of the resulting pain.

Yes, unprecedented and in many cases extremely generous economic stimulus packages have been launched to assist many of those affected.

But whenever you next hear that insipid We Are All In This Together, just remember it is the shopkeepers and bartenders and cafe owners and waiters and airline stewards and cinema ushers who are really in it together.

Don’t kid yourself that wrestling with another bag of popcorn while lounging in a beanbag is life on the front line.

Instead, consider yourself part of the cheer squad for those who are fighting the real battle in our nursing homes and surgical theatres.

And as for our politicians who stubbornly cling to their salaries and wage conditions?

Sadly for them – and for us – the song remains the same.

Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine