Why MPs should be paid more

There are some really bad sides to MMP. We saw one just before Christmas: some very bad lawmaking and some very bad law.

Unsurprisingly, it involved Winston Peters. Not a man for detail, his drinking ban bill contained a stupid error and so turned out to be unfit for the hoon-crunching it was designed for.

Also unsurprisingly, it involved Michael Cullen, a man who is surpassing clever. Sight unseen, he agreed to ram the bill through Parliament in government time in return for Peters’ New Zealand First votes to ram through some bills of Cullen’s own.

Cullen tried to blame the Greens and Act. And they were blameworthy for not allowing the bill to be fixed — petty politicking that in the end spites only the public. But the bigger blame is Cullen’s for tricky footwork that left him prone in a puddle.

Bill English was sanctimonious to his Catholic back teeth about the muckup. But he is to blame too. He drove Cullen into his unseemly coupling with Peters.

Cullen is Leader of the House. That job is to shepherd the government’s measures through Parliament. But Parliament’s business committee, not he, decides sitting times and how the time shall be allocated. And the business committee must make its decisions on the basis of “near-unanimity” — that is, with no more than one party disagreeing.

Cullen is further thwarted in that he can’t use the government’s age-old tool of “taking urgency” unless he can get a non-government party to agree.

The Greens have agreed from time to time but have got sick of being ragged for it by the parties of the right, not least by English’s benchmates. Moreover, Greens actually don’t agree with “urgency” on principle.

But English’s lot are also guilty for time-wasting debates on bills of no great consequence, even on bills they agree with, for no discernible reason other than to make Cullen’s job harder.

It is schoolyard nonsense.

Just the sort of nonsense, in fact, that justifies the ritual annual outrage at MPs’ salary increases. How could I disagree?

Yet I do. MPs should be paid a lot more, not less. And there should be more of them, not fewer.

Why am I so contrary? Has global warming got to me?

First, an excuse for the MPs. They are still learning MMP.

This is only the second term and the leaderships of all parties except the Greens learnt their political culture, attitudes and operational instincts under winner-take-all rules.

So the government dishes up great wads of legislation and thinks it can waltz the stuff through a Parliament which bears little resemblance to the two-sided affair its leaders grew up in.

And in reaction the opposition does its damnedest to slow it all down and cause embarrassment and thinks this is smart politics even though the vote for MMP in 1993 told them it was time to stop such two-up game-playing — and, if they were too dumb to get the message then, has since written it in spades in two elections that gave small parties blocking rights.

You can fix this later in the year by giving one or other defined side — National plus Act or Labour plus the Alliance — an outright majority, alias winner-takes-all.

Alternatively, if you persist in multi-party Parliaments, both governments and main opposition parties will over time get the hang of European-style politics and cut their parliamentary cloths accordingly — though it may take another couple of elections.

Which brings me to my salaries and numbers.

Some of palaver over salary increases is envy and/or irritation at some specially irksome law or action. But much is a belief that the quality of government is low and low performers should be paid less.

But peanuts buy monkeys. And by the standards of what you want out of politicians, both in time (24 hours a day on call) and quality, MPs and ministers are paid peanuts.

Of course there are compensations: status and self-satisfied enactment of pet schemes. So some discount from top private sector salaries is warranted.

But meeting your demands requires a crack corps, an elite. Higher salaries wouldn’t ensure that but it would increase the chances.

And if there were more MPs, there would be a bigger pool from which to select a more able cabinet.

Are you with me? Of course not. Grizzling soothes the soul better.