An uncharacteristically succinct Maltese idiom reminds you that the cheap option is, in the long run, more expensive.
We have the lowest paid parliamentarians as a ratio of the country’s wealth anywhere anybody bothered to check. They are grouped in political parties that cost almost nothing to the State budget.
There’s the obvious monkeys for peanuts experience. Or at least it should be obvious though admittedly not to everyone. No doubt we live in a male-dominated society where it is harder work for a woman to do the same thing that paternalistic social infrastructure makes easier for men.
But I cannot help suspecting that there are so few female parliamentarians also because women are generally smarter and feel less rewarded by the superficial small-village ego trips that men enjoy so much. The rest is what we’re stuck with.
But there are less obvious consequences of this nation’s stinginess in paying its politicians and their political parties.
All comic book heroes have an origins story. Paid MPs are no exception. The notion of paying Parliamentarians was coined in the Chartist campaign in England in the 19th century. Chartism was a working-class popular movement that campaigned for democratic reforms between 1838 and 1857. It knows its name to the ‘Charter’ of 1838 that made six demands.
A discussion of the other five is for another day. One of the Chartists’ demands was for the payment of MPs who until then – whether Commons or Lords – worked for free. In these greedy, Whiggish times, it is perhaps counter-intuitive to think of civil society protesters demanding their politicians are paid more.
But the Chartists wanted payments for politicians to enable tradesmen, working men or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation.
It was not quite Plato’s Republican model of breeding politicians apart to ensure they have no property or family to distract them or tempt them into acting in anyone’s interest other than the wider community’s.
But as with any real-world example of a Platonic ideal, paying parliamentarians is an imperfect approximation of a sublime idea.
Allowing people, who do not collect rents to feed their families, to take time off whatever trade they come from to work on national affairs full time has self-evident advantages. By the same token that we want at least half of our parliamentarians to be women because men alone cannot fairly legislate and govern in the interests of a society, we should expect that our legislators and administrators should not all be landed gentry, or even lawyers for whom Parliament is a club a stone’s throw away from the court building where they work their billable hours.
But broadly speaking that’s what we have, with a sprinkling of local village doctors who can juggle their clinic hours with relative ease.
Policies are designed around the needs of those who pay for them
The problem of under-representation in Parliament and in government is not purely symbolic. It also has a consequence of competence starvation. A Parliament without artists, scientists, bankers, students, nurses, inventors and so on is as inadequate as a Parliament composed only of men.
And as those opposing gender quotas for Parliament say about women, the absence in Parliament of these categories is not addressed by reserving spaces for them. Rather it is a consequence of the fact that these professions are incompatible with campaigning and with uncompensated career interruptions.
There are less obvious side effects of this. There’s a suspicion that those currently in politics make their own arrangements for subsistence, some of which is illegitimate. That’s one thing the Chartists wanted to address all those years ago. It was acceptable in times of voluntary public service, that politicians charge informal fees to deliver their public duty. You need a parliamentarian to intervene on your behalf with government, to ask a parliamentary question, to suggest changes to legislation. You’d need to pay him (there were no hers at the time) to do that for you.
It was not considered as corruption because there was no formal compensation. But this ‘system’ reserved access to political influence to those who could afford to pay for it.
Our parliamentarians do not charge people to propose amendments to the law or ask parliamentary questions. But there is a not so subtle dependence on the ‘generosity’ of sponsors who fund parliamentarians’ campaigns, some of whom, at least, expect the privilege of exerting influence on policy in return.
We don’t call it corruption today either. But it is. It reduces our democracy to the exclusive service of those who can afford to pay for it.
The fact that we do not provide State funding for political parties is the large-scale extension of this. We think we’re saving tax money by letting political parties (a source of policy making and political influence which is far more devastatingly effective than an individual MP or even a bunch of them) find their own way of generating the money they need to function.
Here too policies are designed around the needs of those who pay for them. Political parties with a likelier opportunity of implementing those policies attract the funds that will guarantee their re-election, starving any alternative of resources.
We can see the consequences all around us. Political parties that promote unhindered construction, high-intensity tourism, poorly regulated trafficking of money, encroachment on the natural environment, car-focused transport infrastructure, unsupervised tuna ranching, organised criminal money laundering, are the parties that can afford to campaign. You pay for it, you get it.
Like the Chartists who felt excluded from political decision-making because politicians they could potentially talk to could not afford to stop their lives to focus on politics, people today whose economic model does not allow for a surplus that can pay to fund political parties and the personal campaigns of politicians realise this democracy does not work for them any longer.
Environmentalists, feminists, free speech campaigners, climate change activists, reform promoters: all these should be campaigning to professionalise our Parliament and to provide State-funding to political parties.
This is not money for nothing. Chartists secured proper rules against nepotism and corruption as an obvious coupling with rules on the payment of parliamentarians. If political parties are funded from our taxes we can ensure donations from wealthy sources are more strictly regulated and capped to whittle out undue pressure and influence.
It is true that money talks. But we have structured a State system that ensures that it is not only the wealthy who can afford heart surgery or university education. That’s why we have a tax system that redistributes wealth to ensure even the poorest get access to health and education.
Why do we stop this system of fair redistribution short of the management of our democracy? Why do we fool ourselves into thinking there is some advantage in saving money by paying parliamentarians a pittance and letting their political parties fend for themselves?
This is by no means the only problem of course. We are stingy with public broadcasting, with the promotion of democratic culture, with the autonomous funding of municipalities, with the proper resourcing of the judiciary and law enforcement.
We measure our civilisation by the height of our towers and the flashiness of our casinos: the neon version of mediaeval Cathedral buildings. Except that this logic is failing to address the illnesses of our time: unsustainable development, climate change, mobility restriction, homelessness, rising social disparities, the penetration of organised crime.
As all of this collapses around us, the political parties and the politicians that are being paid by the beneficiaries of this dystopia are calling these “the best of times”. For some they are.