Federal MP Cathy McGowan says she is answerable to the people of Indi.

Federal MP Cathy McGowan says she is answerable to the people of Indi. Photo: Penny Stephens

Before you get too impressed about a pay freeze for parliamentarians, let me say this: $195,130 - top of the earning pops in this country. In fact, parliamentarians are the 2 per cent.

Yep. That’s near $200,000, the base rate for even the most useless member of parliament, possibly even the one who represents you and your electorate.

These are the people who don’t return your calls. The people who side with their masters and not with the people who elected them. The people who are ministers, who don’t even care about what happens in their hometown. The people who say they will have mobile offices in remote parts of their electorates but then cancel because of a drizzle.

Sometimes the electorate fights back.

In the case of Sophie Mirabella, the people in the seat of Indi decided they did not much like the way she dealt with them and Indi was one seat that resolutely did not follow the national voting trend, marching towards the Liberal Party.

Instead the people elected Cathy McGowan, a conservative with values in line with those in her seat but utterly engaged with her community.

McGowan says she is answerable to the people of Indi.

“Me being elected is a strong indication that they were prepared to change their votes [because] they wanted something different,” she said.

“They keep a really good eye on me and they regularly phone me to let me know how I’m going ... when they disagree with me they write letters to the editor [of the local paper].”

And McGowan is different for other reasons. She says she is scrupulous about declaring her pecuniary interests. Overnight stays. Cars. Anything else that might make the list.

“I’m very happy to be accountable,” she says.

But not all politicians have been able to live up to the accountability and transparency required to be a top flight political representative.

And here are some of the reasons it’s a bigger problem than we may realise.

There are few jobs in Australia that have so little scrutiny before you get them. You lobby to be preselected. You campaign to get elected.

At that stage, the scrutiny is pretty poor. Factions are more likely to be manoeuvring to get someone on board than someone excellent in the spot. It’s about sides – and it’s not necessarily our side.

The ALP only last year introduced integrity checks on those standing for preselection. I rang the Liberal Party secretariat yesterday but couldn’t get anyone to confirm whether they too were putting candidates through hoops. Or through forensic accountants. The Greens have a variety of grassroots processes and there are mechanisms for disendorsement.

Here is the real problem. Unlike the rest of us, parliamentarians don’t have key performance indicators. They don’t have contracts. They don’t have health checks.

Seriously, the rest of us have to sell our privacy in order to get work. We get on scales to pass health checks. Mandatory random drug and alcohol testing? Yep. Apparently standard in some non-government organisations but not in parliament. Man, who knows what was in those cigars?

It’s astonishingly lucky we don’t get wholesale pandering and corruption.

Sharon Claydon is the member for the Federal seat of Newcastle. She came highly recommended by one of her constituents, Linda Drummond (the woman who developed the SPC Sunday campaign).

Claydon was only elected last year but already she’s had to do a double shift. That’s because Tim Owen, the Liberal state member, was named in ICAC and yesterday announced he would not recontest the seat at the next state election. He has pretty much been unavailable for the past few weeks. Perfectly understandable.

Claydon and her staff stepped in to help - across party boundaries.

“People just haven’t had access so you pick up the pieces. My staff and I, we decided we would offer that as a community service.”

Claydon says she knows the pay freeze will go ahead but says it’s a stunt.

“It will in fact reinforce lack of trust and cynicism in politics.”

She’s not kidding. So when the Prime Minister and the Treasurer talk about a pay freeze of around four thousand bucks, please don’t imagine these people are making any kind of a serious sacrifice. Plus, it was really the decision of the Remuneration Tribunal.

It’s a pip in the grapefruit of their privilege and power and will not make one single difference to the way they live their lives. And all the figures say that when the freeze is over, they will more than catch up.

In the meantime, the federal government will crush and slash public servants who acquired their jobs honourably and do excellent work, who undertook security checks, whose resumés had lice-combs through them.

As Nadine Flood, national secretary of the CPSU, says: “International comparisons all confirm that Australia has one of the most cost-effective and professional public services in the world.  

“I’m not sure how our politicians would rate if they [were] put under the same scrutiny.”

The pay freeze doesn’t impress me. And I’m betting it won’t impress most Australians. The pay freeze only reminds us of exactly how privileged parliamentarians are.

What would impress us is really good representation. Because you should be excellent at your job to earn $200,000 a year.

To be the top 2 per cent, you should be top of your game, not just of your faction.

Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au