By Paul Hemsley and Julian Bajkowski
Mayors and councillors across Western Australia will reap annual pay rises of up to 400 per cent on the back of an intensive campaign by local governments that successfully pushed the state Salaries and Allowances Tribunal (SAT) to decide that financial compensation be put on par with other states across Australia.
The controversial hike in base pay and sitting allowances is intended to help attract a better calibre of candidates standing to get into council chambers in a state where the ‘big money’ mentality of the mining boom has put a handbrake on attracting talent that would normally gravitate towards public life.
After eight years lagging their eastern counterparts, in March 2013 WA councils lodged a submission with the SAT that urged that representatives ought to receive allowances through a payment structure similar to those used by other states across Australia, such as “categories” or “bands”.
Even before the mining boom, the pay gap between WA councils and local governments in other states had been brewing as a big problem because the comparatively compensation packages had become a deterrent to attracting “capable and committed” elected council members â€‘ which the SAT noted in its statement announcing the boost to elected officials’ payments.
Prior to the SAT’s latest recommendation, WA councillors were allowed to claim up to $7,000 a year for attending council and committee meetings while mayors and presidents could claim up to $14,000.
But the difference between WA rates and New South Wales appear to have been too stark to ignore given that councillors there are eligible to claim amounts ranging from $7,740 per annum to $34,100 per annum with mayors and presidents eligible claim annual amounts between $15,960 and $221,280.
A longstanding argument for better pay for public officials is that like other sectors, government service needs to be compensated at a level that is sufficient to entice fresh thinking and skilled people who are already highly successful in their private sector careers – rather than relying on the patronage ladder of established political machinery.
A further issue has been that perceived under-compensation increases the chances that the decisions of some councillors and salaried staff can be targeted by potentially corrupt or unethical influences seeking favourable outcomes.
An ongoing challenge for local governments across Australia has been attracting candidates who can dedicate sufficient time to their duties and still maintain a reasonable income.
In WA the compensation gap between other states became so wide that councils there were prompted to act decisively.
Following a submission from the Western Australian Local Government Association and subsequent review by the SAT, the Tribunal from 1st July, 2013 will introduce a banding structure that is based on the size of a council and will also scale significantly higher in terms of what elected council officials could previously claim.
The new banding structure for WA local governments allows councillors to receive meeting fees within a range of $3,500 a year to $30,000 a year and mayors and presidents will be able to receive amounts from $3,500pa to $45,000pa.
At the higher end, the boost equates to around a 400 per cent increase over WA councillors mayors and presidents would previously been receive.
Annual allowances for mayors and presidents have also been given a shot in the arm. They presently sit at between $600 a year to $12,000 a year, but will extend from $500 to $85,000pa when the changes kick-in for the new financial year.
As the group that represents councillors, WALGA is quietly hailing the pay rises as a “clear validation” of its “persistent advocacy” on behalf of councils to improve the fees and allowances of elected members of WA councils.
President of WALGA, Troy Pickard, called the pay rises “fair and reasonable and long overdue”.
Mr Pickard stressed the importance of increasing the amount that elected members of councils are paid because it was last examined and adjusted in 2005 and before that in 1996.
“I can’t imagine any reasonable person would believe that going eight years without a pay increase is acceptable,” Mr Pickard said.
However Mr Pickard denied that attracting talent is a problem for local government, arguing rather that a “limited talent pool” had existed under the older regimes.
“The new regime in WA will absolutely draw more into the talent pool, which will be great for councils and our decision making and also the outcomes that we achieve for the local community,” Mr Pickard said.
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