A remarkable thing happened at the end of last year. Federal members of parliament almost unanimously gave their endorsement to a pay rise. There was no quibbling, no strings attached. It was not for a few per cent spread over years. No trade-off of conditions were demanded. There were no staff cuts or redundancies. 


The recipients didn’t have to strike. Didn’t have to demonstrate. Didn’t have to negotiate. In fact they did not even have to ask for it. They just got what a review board assumed they wanted. It was a Christmas present, and well above what most people could ever hope to get in their stocking.

It went to Australia’s federal politicians. The leader of the Opposition coalition, Liberal Party head Tony Abbott, who said following the election of a minority Labor government in 2010, that his job was to oppose, and went on to do nothing but, did not say a word against the increase. The only one to offer any objections was Greens leader, Bob Brown. Senator Brown sai,d because there was no parliamentary debate about the increase the major parties had “removed the embarrassment’’ of accepting the pay offer and “shed responsibility for a pay grab’’.

He was reported in the media as saying it was a double standard to debate the Budget, but not pay rises, which had budgetary implications, “It is our responsibility to justify to the electorate, to the taxpayers, the remuneration for MPs,’’ he said.

Politicians’ salaries should be compared with those of ordinary Australians, like police and nurses, not corporate executives who earned millions, he said.

“There will be those who think, like I do, that parliamentarians are very well paid in Australia if you compare us with other countries,’’ Senator Brown said. The wage hike for politicians saw Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s salary soar $90,000 to about $470,000 – more than either David Cameron or US President Barack Obama.

The Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper, will take home an extra $70,000, an increase which is more than the average annual wage for Australian workers. His salary is now at least $315,000. Most junior parliamentarian’s wages will jump from $140,000 to at least $180,000. All that without even having a stop work meeting, let alone a strike.

Workers not faring as well as MPs

Nurses in the state of Victoria, which has a Liberal government, are battling against cuts in hospital spending – and their own union leaders.

State Premier, Ted Baillieu, is planning a savage cutback in nurse-to-patient ratios and the introduction of low paid nursing assistants. This is alongside a 2.5 per cent wage ceiling being imposed, similar to that in NSW where under another Liberal government under Premier Barry O’Farrell, public sector jobs are being cut and a 2.5 per cent wages cap imposed.

In late November thousands of police marched on the NSW Parliament House in Sydney in protest against plans to slash compensation payouts to injured officers under a death and disability scheme.

A few weeks earlier tens of thousands of public service workers, among them nurses, teachers, also marched on Parliament House in protest at job cuts and salary capping. Members of the Victorian branch of the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF)imposed limited bed closures in November in their fight against cuts.

The Federal Labor Government under PM Julia Gillard, has backed both Liberal states in their attacks on workers. The government’s Fair Work Australia banned industrial action by Victorian nurses.

The ANF and the Health Services Union (HSU) which covers other hospital workers, have enforced government demands on their members. The HSU accepted the 2.5 per cent wage increase. The ANF response to government attacks was to end industrial action and to make the ludicrous threat of a mass resignation of nurses. The next meeting to discuss this will not be held until late February.

Both unions have refused to unite all public sector workers, including teachers, in a campaign to protect jobs and wages in face of a full scale national austerity drive.

A proposed strike by Melbourne waterside workers in early January was called off by the Maritime Union of Australia.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin told the Weekend Financial Review that the parties had agreed to a complex deal that was “in the ballpark” of union demands for a 15 per cent pay rise over three years, plus improved conditions including superannuation.

The deal with Stevedoring company DP World, would also apply to its five terminals in Australia, Brisbane, Sydney, Fremantle, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Dubai based DP World is the third largest stevedoring company in the world with terminals in six continents. It imposed a 24-hour lock out of 140 wharfies in South Australia on January 4 and threatened similar action if  workers did not drop strike plans.

Their proposed action followed a lockout by P&O Automotive and General Stevedoring in a number of ports last month which led to the Labor government’s Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, imposing a month-long “cooling off period.”

Anticipating some resistance to the deal from his members, Crumlin said, “the complexity of the yet-to-be-completed deal might prove a sticking point.”

Derek Mortimer is an Australian journalist and writer.