Opinion: Clarify politicians' motives, priorities before talking wage rises

Dario Cavegn, ERR News.
Dario Cavegn, ERR News. Source: ERR News

The issue of uncompetitive salaries has been a major factor in a number of MPs, some of them high-profile, leaving the Riigikogu in recent years. But could calls to raise MPs' pay be confusing symptom for cure, asks ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

In a recent opinion piece, ERR editor Huko Aaspõllu writes that while it is difficult to improve the Riigikogu's reputation and working conditions, raising MPs' salaries could be done with relatively little effort and impact. I beg to differ. In fact, there is no way to look at MPs' salaries and the national parliament's reputation as two separate issues.

Shifts between public, private sector tend to go the wrong way

After 10 years in parliament, the Reform Party's Kalle Palling, once elected to the Riigikogu as its youngest-ever member, has resigned as MP. Asked about his reasons, Palling cites several, including his own party's internal climate, a burn out, and not being made a minister in any of his party's administrations.

There is a certain absurdity to a 34-year-old politician saying that he is fed up with his job because he was never made minister, no matter how young he was when he was first elected to parliament. Estonia does have a history of young to extremely young politicians and officials in high positions, even in the executive. But to make this sort of steep ascent a justified expectation does seem a bit excessive.

Another very Estonian phenomenon is that, especially where Palling's generation is concerned, high-level shifts between the public and private sectors tend to happen after public careers, rather than the other way round.

This brings knowledge of state procedures to the private sector, but rather little business and other life experience into parliament.

At the same time, it generally isn't a concern in Estonia that a parliament made up of political professionals, most of them with corresponding degrees, might be lacking something where its members are elected early on in their careers and, given the size of their compensation, have little incentive to test themselves in the private sector.

MPs useless beyond politics?

Aaspõllu's statement that "MPs have no particular career opportunities" is almost funny. How far removed from the private sector and the real world are they that the moment they fall off the political conveyor, they have a hard time finding something to do?

The work of an Estonian MP is by no means a walk in the park. The amount of EU legislation alone that the national parliament needs to process and adopt every year is back-breaking, not to mention the sort of research and deliberative work that ideally needs to be put into working on bills, or amendments to existing Estonian law. None of the MPs have staff of their own, there are no personal advisors, no assistants.

The popular view of a parliament as a club of members that occasionally meet to listen to speeches, and then make up their minds and push a button — such thinking certainly doesn't correspond to reality.

Political tactics, MPs' perks, lead to public disapproval, rather than salaries

But there are other factors at work. Where more recent resignations are concerned, both in the case of Palling as well as former Reform Party minister Arto Aas, what cannot be ignored is the fact that well-known names like theirs certainly helped get Reform votes in the general election on March 3 this year, now helping their replacements get into parliament on their coat tails.

In terms of political tactics, this means that both will have thought about moving on to the private sector already earlier, but stayed on anyway to help Reform score more mandates.

It is this sort of political plotting that tends to be perceived as offensive by voters. Adding to this behavior, the typical special conditions enjoyed by MPs are an issue as well. Together, this intransparent and conspirational element and the perks of being a member of the political elite are what people tend to object to, rather than the size of MPs' salaries.

In other words, if political parties were more honest about their moves, and if the Riigikogu could throw out things like MPs' car lease allowances, a raise might even be justifiable before the public. But as long as the horse-trading and profiteering continues, even if just as a matter of perception, any raise will be frowned upon.

Competitive salaries vs expectations facing elected representatives

As concerns the members of the previous Riigikogu that left—a rather impressive list, as Aaspõllu points out—there is nothing strange about a career change after years in the same job. Especially the younger generation here tend to look at their jobs as a cyclical affair: the general feeling is that if you can't make a leap forward (or sideways) every six years or so, you're looking down a dead-end street.

One thing that is for certain is that there can be no such thing as the "poor income" of a Riigikogu member. At that point, the question is inevitable who MPs should actually compare themselves with. If it is other members of the country's elite, with higher incomes earned in the private sector, the question is no longer just one of professional status and work, but also of representation. As a common voter, I wouldn't necessarily want my elected representative to make keeping up with the upper 10,000 a priority.

Which in turn means that faced with the decision whether or not to raise MPs' salaries, the Riigikogu should consider the credibility and also the importance of the individual popularity of its members and parties very carefully indeed.

All things considered, the Riigikogu's reputation can't be seen as something divorced from how taxpayer money is spent on its members. In that sense, raising salaries isn't an easy solution to the problem of a perceived exodus of political professionals.

Fourth estate necessary part of checks and balances

Aaspõllu also mentions the constant media attention and public scrutiny facing MPs. This isn't only a negative thing. Granted, there is a world of difference between gutting a politician's private life for the sake of sensationalist reporting, and holding said politician to a higher standard.

At the same time, voters are absolutely entitled to do the latter. In that sense, media scrutiny is inevitable, and so is broad and often sub-informed criticism. Ideally, an MP's interest in the subject matter of politics, or even just in holding and wielding an amount of personal power, should overrule the negative side of public life.

I don't want MPs who cave in when faced with media pressure. I want to see people in parliament who can hold their own in a fight, and perhaps even demand that the fourth estate itself be held to a higher standard, for instance where they recently hounded a candidate for EU commissioner long enough until she found herself forced to divulge medical information of a very private nature.

Politics isn't intended to be entirely technocratic and tactical. Politicians become administrators only when they are made members of the executive. MPs very definitely do not fall into the category. They are supposed to work and make laws in the image of society, and as such not only handle collisions with the public and its various manifestations, but accept the fact that these collisions are inevitable.

And we as taxpayers don't need to grant them special compensation for something that is part of their basic job description.

Lack of comfortable retirement options

Finally, there are two elements that make the issue of compensating politicians more complicated in Estonia than it is elsewhere. One is the tendency towards early and very quick careers as mentioned before, the other the fact that the places to which veteran politickers could retire are generally sparse.

As the Reform Party, where, for instance, do you park a political heavyweight like Andrus Ansip? The former long-time prime minister and EU commissioner is far from tired, much as was the case a few years ago with his predecessor, Siim Kallas.

At the same time, there are no voluminous and well-earning industries in this country; no cash-heavy banks, and the number of consultants needed by a rather small economy, political or otherwise, is limited.

In the U.K. as well as in Germany, for instance, a politician like Ansip would at some point take up a post on some large company's board of directors. That would wash the needed quarter-million per year into his personal coffers to set him up for good, and ensure a considerably higher income level than he enjoyed as prime minister.

But as something like that doesn't exist here yet, what do you do with such a veteran then? Send him to the European Parliament, is an obvious option. But those spots are very limited in the case of Estonia as well.

Yet the Estonian system produces veterans at quite a pace, conditioned already by the fact that professional politicians tend to rise and peak relatively early. In that sense, the movement of people from parliament into the private sector shouldn't be seen as worrying, but rather as an opportunity.

Because who knows? Once they make it, they might actually rediscover their taste for politics. And given the real-world experience and professional acumen this would inject into the Riigikogu, such a development should be encouraged, rather than seen as a problem.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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