By Constantinos Zoulas
Are voluntary pay cuts taken by state officials merely symbolic gestures or do they indicate a true understanding of the toll the crisis has taken on ordinary citizens?
The answer is of little importance, given that politicians’ promises to tighten their own belts along with those of their people have become a global phenomenon.
Starting in 2009 with Barack Obama, who, after being elected president, said that the administration needed to cut spending along with the rest of America, almost every newly elected leader in Europe has since made similar pledged during the first days of their terms.
For the past three years, there has not been a single newly elected government in Europe -- and often beyond -- that has not heralded spending cuts during its pre-election campaign and proceeded to slash the salaries and benefits of prime ministers, ministers, parliamentary deputies and all manner of high-ranking state officials.
A brief search on the Internet is telling: “Japanese premier gives up his salary,” “PM Monti will forgo salary,” “France’s new President Francois Hollande takes 30 percent salary cut.”
Greece is no exception, with President Karolos Papoulias publicly demanding that his salary be reduced by the same percentage as that of other public sector workers during the first wave of so-called “horizontal” cuts to state spending in 2011, and in February saying that would give up his entire salary. Meanwhile, a decision had already passed in Parliament for deputies’ salaries to be reduced, and when Antonis Samaras was elected prime minister last month, one of his first announcements was that all ministers would see a 30 percent reduction in their pay.
The big question, of course, is whether these gestures are sufficient to turn the tide of skepticism the people feel -- mostly justifiably -- toward their political representatives. Changing the public sentiment is a tricky proposition for any government, especially given that the level of politicians’ salaries continues to sound grand to the ears of ordinary citizens.
Nevertheless, Papoulias’s and Samaras’s announcements are a step in the right direction. And while Greece’s problems will not be solved if ministers receive 5,500 or even 4,500 euros a month instead of 7,000, it is a symbolic gesture that means something in this day and age.
Moreover, according to reports, the cutbacks will have the biggest effect on ministers who are not deputies, and who could be making much larger incomes working in the private sector and therefore need a bigger monetary incentive to give up their professional careers and serve the country in these times of crisis. According to Samaras’s announcement, the monthly salary for this category will come to 3,010 euros.
The fact is that the government’s top priority right now should be to trim all the unnecessary fat off the state budget. It is also a fact that there are high-ranking politicians, including deputies, who continue to make very large salaries and who need to realize that the people need to see more than symbolic gestures. On the other hand, Greek deputies have to pay for operational costs, such as the running of their offices, out of their own salaries, an expense that in other countries, such as the US, is covered by the state.
Calculating Greek MPs’ income no easy task
How much money should Greek ministers and MPs be making today? The question is sure to start coming up a lot soon following Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s pledge to reduce the salaries of ministers and MPs by up to 30 percent. As far as deputies are concerned, it would be ludicrous for all 300 in Parliament to continue making around 6,000 euros a month (after taxes) when the salaries of ministers may be cut to 4,900 euros and those of ministers not serving in Parliament to 3,010 euros.
Trying to calculate what high-ranking civil servants make is no easy task, especially when it comes to parliamentary deputies, who have staunchly resisted any reductions to their benefits in line with overall public sector cutbacks. Sure, in countries such as the United States and Britain the state pays for deputies’ offices and gives them housing benefits as well, while here in Greece they may have to pay for these out of their salaries.
The reductions that have been made in MPs’ salaries -- whereby they receive, on average, 46,000 euro a years less today than they did two years ago -- rather than showing an effort to cut spending, tell us that up until 2009, their salaries were simply too high, even in comparison to other European countries, as they reached 12,500 euros a month.
To be fair, we must mention that Greek MPs are now entitled to 12 salaries a year rather than 14 as was previously the case, and that in 2011 they received 11 salaries and in 2012 they will receive 10, as they will not be paid for the months during which Parliament was dissolved pending the formation of an interim government in 2011 and of two elections in 2012.
Nevertheless, the 8,700 euros -- before taxes -- that they continue to earn a month is high, especially for current standards, where such salaries are rare even for high-ranking executives of private companies.
Where the entire matter starts getting very complicated is in calculating how much more MPs are getting in benefits such as for transportation and telecommunications. For example, deputies representing parts of the country that are not in Attica receive around 1,000 euros a month in housing benefits irrespective of whether or not they live in the capital, and they don’t need to produce a receipt to show they are paying rent either.
Meanwhile, the state pays for every single one of Greece’s 300 deputies to have three staffers, two technical advisers and one police guard, while they all get a car as well -- even those who live and are elected in Athens. Wouldn’t it make more sense if they were simply reimbursed for gas?
Furthermore, deputies outside of Athens are also given money to pay for 50 return flights to their constituencies a year, without having to provide proof that they have actually made these trips.
There are other baffling expenses: Former parliamentary speakers are allowed to keep an office in Parliament and to employ between six and eight staffers; and then there’s the additional 700-1,000 euros paid to ministers and deputy ministers -- who, it must be noted, earn the same amount of money -- for attending cabinet meetings; not to mention the fact that retired deputies enjoy two pensions, one from their term as a politician and another from whatever other career they may have pursued outside of Parliament.
Given these facts, a 30 percent reduction in salaries alone is clearly insufficient unless it is accompanied by an overall review of all expenses and of differences in salaries at different levels of the political hierarchy.
Also read: Italian ministers get fattest paycheck