Burchell Whiteman is right
published: Monday | December 9, 2002
By Vernon Daley, Parliamentary Reporter
THE CRITICS are already gathering their forces and I'm sure will launch their assault some time this week on Senator Burchell Whiteman.
Senator Whiteman, the Leader of Government Business in Senate last Friday suggested that Senators should be paid more for the critical work they do in the Upper House.
"I know it might be a slightly delicate subject at this time, but I don't mind saying it. I believe we have a right to pay due respect to the contribution of those who sit in this chamber and who do work on behalf of the people of this country," the Senator told his colleagues.
Given the public outcry about the recent salary hike for Members of Parliament, some might suggest that it would have been wise for Senator Whiteman to hold his tongue at least pro tem.
However, I'm among those who think the Senator was right to say what was on his mind. There is never an inopportune time to speak the truth; and the truth is that Senators have for too long been the poor cousins of our parliamentary system of government.
Currently, the 21 Senators each receives $1,000 per sitting. The President gets an additional $56,000 each year while the Deputy President takes home just about $28,000 per annum. If we are serious about operating a modern system of government, how can we justify giving our Senators 'gas money' for their pay?
Senator Whiteman admits that the issue of increased pay for politicians is a delicate one, especially at this time. Well, so is the issue of child labour in Asia. What's the point? We have to deal with these matters, through open, honest debate.
I can just hear the critics raising hell about paying politicians more while education gets worse and crime gallops out of control. There are better uses to which money could be put than to pay Senators, they might argue.
But why do we have to spend money on one at the expense of the other? We should try to pay our parliamentarians more even as we fix the schools, improve the hospitals and bring down crime. Senators play a crucial role in the development of laws and policy and it can't be fair for us to want their services for peanuts.
Even though its members are political appointees, the Senate has over the years developed a spirit and culture of bi-partisan co-operation. The members have heated debates and sharp disagreement, but at the end of the day, the standard of their discourse is usually impressive. This is, no doubt, helped by the fact those who make up the Senate are usually of high quality.
Were it not for the vigilance of Senators, the public would on many occasions be the unsuspecting victims of sloppy legislation approved by MPs. Senators also spend a lot of time on joint select committees reviewing proposed legislation and fine-tuning them before they are debated.
In fact, Senator Whiteman's comments last week, were a reaction to a suggestion from Senator Dorothy Lightbourne that a special parliamentary committee be set up to review legislation on an ongoing basis to see how well they were working.
Senator Whiteman supported the idea but rightly pointed to the additional burden it would place on Senators who would, no doubt, be called upon to sit on such a committee. This is obviously a case of more work, for no pay.
Service, including political service, should not be about financial reward. I don't expect salary to be the foremost consideration in the minds of our leaders. But, we can't allow prejudice against politicians to blind us to the reality that this is a piece of injustice.
Paying Senators more doesn't necessarily mean paying them a regular salary like MPs. However, they should be getting far more than $1,000 per sitting. That's an insult, if you ask me.
This issue has been dragging on for far too long. Senator Whiteman urged his colleagues to ask that the matter of compensation for them be looked at again. I hope they do so as a group and not leave it up to those who feel most passionate about the issue to carry the fight.
The experience of Dr. Oswald Harding, former Leader of Opposition Business, should demonstrate that one voice crying out in the chamber is not enough to have matters changed.