Poor politicians padding their paychecks

Recent scandals have put the spotlight back on the remuneration and pensions that politicians receive. In the new year a commission will propose new rules, but can we really trust politicians not to write themselves a blank check?

Politicians receive generous pensions and severance pay, so they might be sad to see it overhauled at the end of 2015. That’s when a commission will propose a new system outlining pay and pensions for the country’s MPs, ministers and mayors.

The commission was set up by the former government and is comprised of ex-politicians and former civil servants, but MP Pernille Skipper from left-wing party the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) is worried. Can former MPs and civil servants be relied upon to objectively shape the private financial benefits of politicans?

To draw attention to the issue, Skipper’s party has launched a campaign under the hashtag #pensionshykleri (pension hypocrisy).

She fears that rather than cutting into the hefty pensions and paychecks, the commission will propose even more ‘unfair’ schemes to the advantage of politicians – especially because the government has promised to unquestioningly pass the commision’s proposals at the end of the year.

“I have to admit that I am very sceptical of a pay-and-pension commission made up of former politicians and government officials. I cannot help but think they will understand too well what life is like as an MP and too poorly what life is like as an average Dane. I am all for reviewing the rules, but it looks like political whitewashing when the politicians promise to pass whatever the commission proposes, even if the commission proposes significant rises in pay and or pension rates.”

Currently, MPs can begin receiving their pensions while still working full-time as lawmakers. While the former government raised the pension age for ordinary Danes to 68, they were among five parties to vote “No” to an Enhedslisten proposal to raise the pension age for MPs to the same. The failed proposal means that MPs can still receive a pension at age 60, which Enhedslisten regards as hypocritical.

“Generally, conditions for politicians’ pay and pension rates are remarkably unreasonable when compared to average Danish workers. This gives rise to political alienation when lawmakers cut the unemployment benefits for the whole of society while providing excellent unemployment and pension rates for themselves. The disproportionately favourable rates also mean that politicians have a poorer understanding of what life is like on an average salary, with an average pension – and that is a problem. It is hypocritical when politicians make everyone else work harder, longer and for poorer pension rates while keeping their own rates unfairly high. We believe politicians should take responsibility and create fairer conditions for themselves.”

In Skipper’s eyes, fair conditions mean an MP pension age which is on par with normal Danes, while setting the pension rates closer to that of an average Danish worker

“We are not trying to make politicians have the salary of a health care assistant – although I think some of them would benefit greatly from it – we have just proposed a series of changes to the rules in order to make them fairer. For example setting the pension age to that of a normal Dane and setting the pension rates of ministers to that of a top civil servant.”

Low pay, poor politicians
In a column for the tabloid BT, journalist Peter Brüchmann argues that Danish politicians are actually not being paid enough. The “relatively low” salaries result in less qualified lawmakers and “career politicans” occupying the most important positions in society. He argues that qualified people are lured away from politics by the prospect of better pay in other industries.

“We see far too few directors coming in from the real world of business to take substantial part in the discussion when proposing changes to the labour market,” he writes.

One of the few people to have made the transition from the business world to politics is Malou Aamund, who in 2007 was voted into parliament with the party Ny Alliance, the predessecor to Liberal Alliance. She has now left politics to work for Microsoft Denmark. She disagrees that pay rates explain why there are not more corporate backgrounds in Parliament.

“I do not think that the main motivation to become a politician is, or should be, a high salary. I think, and hope, that most politicians become politicians in order to make a positive difference to their country. When it comes to the small amount of politicians with real business experience, I think that comes down to people fearing not being able to come back to their corporate careers after doing a stint in politics. However, that has a lot more to do with the pressure from the press and being in the public eye than the size of the pay check and the rate of the pension,” explains Aamund.

Voters want cuts
The timing of the proposal couldn’t be worse, suggests professor Jørgen Goul Andersen from the Department of Political Science at Aalborg University. He believes people’s trust of politicians is currently very low, meaning they are unlikely to look favourable, upon any pay increases for politicians.

“The timing is bad because voter faith in politicians is currently very low. The trust was exceedingly high 10 years ago, but that has changed. It will be very hard for the politicians to pass the changes without heavy criticism.”

In a study from 30 years ago, Andersen asked voters what they thought of the salaries of politicians and ministers.

“The voters idea of a fair salary for lawmakers was much, much lower than what the politicians were actually being paid. I do not think that has changed in any significant way over the last 30 years. In a time where distrust is high, this matter is rather controversial,” Andersen explains.

Double pay
The commission’s findings will arrive only months after the September resignation of former defence minister Carl Holst (V), whose short stint as minister were filled with scandal. Besides being accused of misusing public funds, Holst was heavily criticised for accepting a golden handshake of roughly 800,000 kroner after stepping down as Head of the Region of Southern Denmark to become defence minister – a job that pays over a million kroner a year. Following immense pressure from the media, Holst decided to decline around half of the sum.

Skipper calls the former minister’s behaviour “appalling” and is critical of double pay situations where politicians receive remunerations, or pension, while receiving a full-time salary on top.

“I completely understand why people have perceived it as a type of double salary, because essentially it is. I do not think Carl Holst would approve of any Dane accepting unemployment benefits while working a full-time job, which is basically the same thing. However, Parliament will vote to remove the option of receiving remunerations while having an income of any kind – thereby removing the possibility of double salaries for MP’s and ministers.”

Carl Holst will receive another pension of roughly 1.8 million kr. following his resignation as Defence Minister. He served 93 days. M


By Joshua Hollingdale

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