If you pay peanuts,you get monkeys

Let's all take a deep breath. Then let's try to put one or two things into perspective.

Paul Reynolds, the CEO of Telecom, earns a $1.75 million annual base salary (with all sorts of extras - share options, bonuses, allowances - taking his total package into the realm of $4 million-$5 million).

Last year, the company had nine other executives earning more than a million.

Fonterra boss Andrew Ferrier earns a package thought to be somewhere between $3.5 million-$4 million and likewise has a team of henchmen pulling seven-figure deals.

The chief executive of Meridian Energy, Tim Lusk, earns about $1.4 million.

And that's a mere sprinkling.

If one wants to move into the state sector (although all the CEOs of State Owned Enterprises, like Mr Lusk, will be earning very tidy sums), for the year ending June 2008, five chief executives of various ministries were receiving packages greater than $500,000.

Few of these people live their lives in the goldfish bowl of 24/7 scrutiny, every waking hour of their lives and that of partners and families subject to the interrogation that public office brings these days.

Few of them face career termination every three years; few suffer the common disdain of a public unaware of the pressures of their daily existence.

You can probably see where this is heading.

I know, I know: defending the remuneration and expenses of politicians is about as popular as pleading leniency for paedophiles.

One of the foremost tasks of the "fourth estate" is to scrutinise matters of public interest.

The salaries and expenses of our politicians are fair game for that.

And a review into politicians' accommodation expenses, as announced by Prime Minister John Key, is welcome.

Transparency is a powerful disinfectant.

But will the public be any more understanding when figures not dissimilar from those currently existing are ratified - or when salaries are raised to incorporate the controversial allowances? There has been a degree of destructive and unjust hyperbole and hysteria attached to the "debate".

It thrives on the notion that politicians are an idle bunch of self-interested, opportunistic profiteers.

The relevant details of this row have been widely discussed elsewhere.

It is the carping, envy-riddled attitudes surrounding the furore to which I wish to add counterbalance.

For starters, yes, some politicians do little to assuage the stereotypes so readily applied to them, but, as much as a pervasive cynicism and a demoralised concept of public service makes it seem scarcely credible, the motivations of most are informed by sincerity as much as by personal advancement.

Further, the demands on senior politicians, particularly cabinet ministers, are punishing.

Their routines, the travel, the mountains of papers they must read, the meetings and public appearances - all these can eat up 80 to 100 hours a week.

That leaves precious little time for social activities, relationships, family life, parenthood, sleep, and the hobbies or sports most of us take for granted and would not be without.

One such is Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English.

Arguably he has one of the most demanding, and influential roles in the country.

In round terms he is paid $276,000 - which seems a lot, but is less than a 10th the packages of our leading captains of industry.

It is even dwarfed by those of senior public service mandarins.

Some of the bilious commentary concerning Mr English has been as breathtakingly stupid as it has been unjustified.

Beating up on politicians is a time-honoured sport.

Some invite it.

But often it is simply because we resent that "our servants" are paid so much more than us.

We insist on referring perjoratively as "perks" to those extras which in every other profession are simply part of a salary package.

We fail to take account of the demands of their jobs and the calibre of person we need to attract into political life.

Somehow, we imagine that running the finances of the country is a cakewalk, and is a task that can be adequately performed by any Tom, Dick or Harriet.

One or two of our present MPs seem intent on demonstrating they have just come down from the trees, but if we are determined to pay peanuts to our most able politicians, berate them for it, and begrudge them every cent and incentive to stay in a gruelling game, we will get monkeys.

Monkeys at the head of a banana republic.

Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

He has spent time in Parliament as a ministerial press secretary.

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