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Why leaders must be paid more

March 31, 2007 14:36 IST

The world treats its leaders shabbily, no doubt about it. Only when a Finnish journalist joined the European Union did it become known that any clerk in Brussels took home fatter pay packets than Finland's prime minister. Now, Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong has promised a wage review on April 9 because business earnings (to which ministerial salaries are linked) have soared while he and his colleagues don't get a cent more than what they did 13 years ago.

Sooner or later, our betters will unite to demand justice. Rulers of the world have nothing to lose but their power. They will blackball blacklegs like Commodore Frank Bainimarami of Fiji, not for riding roughshod over democracy but for pushing through a 30 per cent pay cut. Such anti-union conduct is not to be tolerated even from Japan's Shinzo Abe who has done the same. It's just as well Jawaharlal Nehru isn't around. He, too, would have merited disciplining for claiming he didn't need more than Rs 50 a month.

Rulers are not monkeys to be paid peanuts. They are martyrs to one man one vote, sacrificial goats to parliamentary democracy. So, why this carping that Tony Blair's $170,556 is above average British wages? What matters in a globalised world is that his European counterparts draw more. Moreover, the world doesn't watch them kneeling before a woman who tells him what to ask and what to answer, and won't let him scramble back to his feet until he has planted a smack on her hand.

There's also wife Cherie. Her lawyer's fees, speaking fees, travel and what have you place a serious burden on Blair. He's a generous man, is our Tony, and gave himself a 40 per cent hike. But how can he stop that pushy Gordon Brown, manoeuvring for his chair, if the missus wears the financial pants in Number 10?

Canada is another contradiction. It seems anomalous that Stephen Harper, the prime minister, is paid three times more than the president of Canada's southern neighbour. But George W Bush doesn't have to look across the border for instructions. He tells the Organisation of American States what to do. Nor can Harper send a detail of Canadians to burn down the White House as they did once before. But Canadians can show they are at least monetarily independent. If Harper's Conservatives win a decisive majority in the snap federal elections he is considering, he might make a political point by raisinfg his wages to five times that of bossman Bush.

John Howard also needs consoling. It's a geographical secret that Australia is nearer the United States than Canada or Britain; it must be since Howard is more obedient than Harper or even Blair. So the Australian prime minister's $137,060 should raise no cavil. But many Australians feel the money, and certainly any increment, should come from the American exchequer, not Australian taxpayers. After all, Howard serves Washington's interests, especially in Iraq, more diligently than Canberra's.

Money does not bother us in high-minded India. We have always known it costs a great deal to keep our leaders in poverty. Someone has calculated that each Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha member costs an annual Rs 32 lakh (Rs 3.2 million), taking into account salary, office expenditure, travelling concession, daily allowance, train and air fares, free trips, hostel rent, electricity and telephone.  That means Rs 160 lakh (Rs 16 million) for five years which works out to a whopping Rs 854 crore (Rs 8.54 billion) for 534 parliamentarians. That is the price of being the world's largest democracy.

There are also, of course, those little extras from gas and telephone connections, sanctions and introductions. Who said the Licence-Permit Raj was dead? It's good of Lalu Prasad that as railway minister he promises to let the government also make money. But, somehow, I can't imagine Manmohan Singh asking for more.

That's again happening in Singapore. The last time was in 1994 when the benchmark was set -- ministers would get two-thirds of the median income of the top 48 earners in six professions. Goh Chok Tong, then prime minister, dismissed the resultant annual S$22 million wage bill as "small beer."

The alternative, he warned, was "an incompetent and corrupt government." That's just it! Vanessa Teo Toon Lin says in the Straits Times that Singapore's government is not the world's most competent and honest. Transparency International places it fifth, after Finland, Iceland, New Zealand and Denmark.

The Finns have no business being first with their prime minister's paltry emoluments. It's presumptuous of New Zealand, too, since Helen Clark draws NZ$25,000 less than even Bush.

But Singapore's Lee (like predecessor Goh) isn't thinking of Bush. He complains that ministerial takings have fallen 55 per cent below the business benchmark. Not that top tycoons wallow in tranquility. Enron might never have happened if the bosses had drawn even more but are they ever satisfied? J R D Tata used to say that the maitre d' in the Taj's Chinese restaurant, seconded from Beijing, was paid more than him.

That could be the new benchmark. The alternative is perilous. We can't do anything about our rulers. But, thwarted, they might abolish voters.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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