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Peanuts, Panhandlers and Prime Ministerial Pay Packets

David Moir/AAP

Sandwiched on my Facebook feed between a dancing dinosaurs gif and something tritely motivational involving a watercolour, was a plea from a Brisbane teen urging the new PM to take a $1 salary. The gist, apparently, is that Turnbull’s cashed up enough to earn next to nothing from Australia’s top job. That the money could be better spent elsewhere. Infrastructure, perhaps.

I’m a bleeding heart on most things – I’ve never cast a ballot for the Libs and hell would freeze over before I ever did – but this petition has motivated me to defend our PM’s pay-packet. Vigorously.

When I got my job at the University of Melbourne, nobody ran a financial background check on me to determine whether I actually needed the cash. Nobody flicked through my bank statements to identity areas where I could cut back and nobody gave me a list of “better places” that my pay could be directed.

Shock horror, we aren’t paid in this country on the basis of how desperately we need the dosh. What we’ve earnt, or spent, previously has no bearing whatsoever on what we earn today. Past employers, past investments are not – and should not be - paying for the work I do today.

When I was 18, for a brief time I worked in the – gasp! - private sector. My boss – a nice guy who got involved with a mysterious cult and it all went to hell in a handbasket – used to have a favourite saying, “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” While I’m not sure where I fit with his maxim - $14 an hour as an 18-year-old in 1998 felt pretty fair – but I think he had a point. About not merely paying for talent, but about value. About an employer getting what they paid for. About an employer using salary to demonstrate worth.

Salary isn’t a science and what we earn isn’t always commensurate with the labour we put in, the skills we have or the extent to which we feel we’re irreplaceable. That said, a prime ministerial salary has been devised, it’s akin to the salaries of other world leaders and it pales into thorough insignificance when compared to the megabucks earned by other industry leaders. Unquestionably, half a million dollars is a lot to most of us, that said, none of us are doing a job that’s as tricky, as treacherous or as bloody important.

Asking Turnbull to forego his salary is about uglily guilt-tripping him into donating his money because he has lots of it. While doing so might be a nice thing for him to do – while sharing might be a fair thing to do - charity should never come because a mob is demanding it. Just as I’m never giving anything to a backpacker dressed as a scungy koala, I’m certainly never going to advocate charitable donations being bullied out of a PM.

Asking Turnbull to forego his salary also arrogantly assumes that he isn’t already making charitable donations. Why are we so ready to believe that just because he’s a Liberal, that just because he’s rich, that he’s also a greedy tight-arse? How much private good works would he need to do to prove that he isn’t some George Groszian fat capitalist pig? How many cheques would he need to write to make people feel better about him earning income for his toil?

Of all the reasons that motivate a person to want the PM post, I suspect fortune is among the absolute lowest of considerations. In fact, I doubt any prime minister in Australia has ever done it for the cash: the sheer range of plotting and scheming skills needed to get the job would turn a buck far quicker elsewhere. In fact, is it not the very fact that Turnbull doesn’t need the money – and more so, that he has proven his capabilities in generating wealth – that has positioned him as so desirable to be at the helm of our little operations here in the first place?

I understand that the kid in Brisbane is looking for a symbolic gesture. The symbol on this occasion however, would be completely wrongheaded. Saying that our top job is worth less than 1.3 postage stamps and that our PM should value his work – value himself – at only a buck a year is quite frankly appalling. Fortunately however, few people – and certainly not this PM – would be impacted by the signatures of 1800 misguided panhandlers.

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