As a construction worker standing for parliament later this month, I was reminded of Charles Jardine Don, a stonemason, who won the then seat of Collingwood back in 1859.
There were no salaries for MPs in those days, so he continued working on the tools at the very Parliament House building he was elected to serve in!
How times have changed.
Today Victorian politicians earn $168,526 a year for a backbencher, rising to more than $300,000 for ministers. On top of this is a long trail of allowances – residential, travel and for electorate staff and an electorate office. There are more obscure perks too, such as free travel on public transport, a subsidised restaurant at Parliament House and even free entry to the MCG.
It’s worse in Canberra. Who could forget Bronwyn Bishop’s $5,000 helicopter ride made at our expense to a Liberal Party fundraiser? Or Joe Hockey charging taxpayers an accumulated $184,000 for sleeping in his wife’s Canberra home?
How can these people be expected to understand the economic pressures ordinary people deal with? The Australian economy is still booming, and a lot of people are on big salaries. But even more are being left behind, as the cost of living, from housing to groceries and power, rises relentlessly.
Politicians on both sides have forgotten this. Promising huge – and welcome – infrastructure projects due in 30 years’ time, or manufacturing desperate scare stories about crime waves, they’re ignoring the basics: commuters packed like sardines on trains and trams from 6am on, the soaring unemployment – up to 25 percent – in areas like Broadmeadows and stagnant wage growth. Many people have slipped back to the desperate position of the 19th century poor: flat broke for days or weeks before the next payment.
If you ask me, nurses, teachers and others like them contribute just as much (if not a lot more) to our state as most politicians do. So why should politicians be paid so much more?
Therefore, I’ve made the pledge that if elected, I'll accept only the wage of a skilled nurse in Victoria, $85,000.
I’ll be pumping the rest of the salary back into community and political causes in my seat, which covers all of Melbourne’s northern suburbs. This will all be independently audited and publicly accessible.
Nor will I be disappearing into the plush interiors of Spring Street. I’ll be out campaigning in street protests and community movements, as I have for the last 35 years.
Ricky Muir had respect from many voters across the political spectrum when he was a federal senator. That was largely because he stood out so starkly as an ordinary worker in an ocean of politicians who were previously lawyers, electoral assistants and the like.
I’ve been blown away by the positive response to my salary pledge amongst folk from all backgrounds. Maybe it’ll start a trend, but I’m not holding my breath. A century and a half later, we still haven’t completed Parliament House, nor the society that people like Charles Jardine Don were trying to build. On 24 November, we get a chance to continue the fight.
Stephen Jolly is Victorian Socialists lead candidate in the Northern Metro region.