ALEX MITCHELL. We are not “All in this together”!

Since COVID-19 was officially recognised as a killer pandemic in March 2020, NSW people, and Australians generally, accepted the view that it does not distinguish between classes, colour, religion, gender or age. Then politicians, urged by bankers and the super-rich, began to use the coronavirus crisis for their own personal gain.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Coalition Cabinet officially ended public support for their pandemic strategy by giving massive pay increases to top government bureaucrats while cutting the wages of all public sector workers, including nurses, teachers, fire-fighters, police and prison officers.

Those receiving massive pay hikes – described by Labor’s Opposition Leader Jodi McKay as “a slap in the face and a kick in the guts” to all public sector workers – now receive $599,999 a year, $1 short of $600,000. They are:

Simon Draper, CEO of Infrastructure NSW, received a salary hike of $65,950 to take his total package to $599,999 [Why not give the poor fellow another dollar to make it
$600,000?];

Elizabeth Koff, CEO of NSW Health, has a top-up of $29,950 taking her pay to $599,999 [She is
short of $600,000 by $1 as well. Sounds suspiciously like the Premier’s PR
flunkeys stopped the salaries reaching $600,000 to avoid a public outcry].

Rodd Staples, CEO of Transport for NSW, received a $29,950 pay boost to take his take-home to $599,999.

Michael Coutts-Trotter, CEO of Communities and Justice, received an extra $29,950 taking his salary to $599,999. “MCT”,  is married to Federal MP Tanya Plibersek. Together they have become multi-millionaires.

Mark Scott, Director-General of NSW Education, was tossed another $10,650 taking his full pay to $599,999.

Mike Pratt, Head of Treasury, was paid another $6,700 (for wage-cutting!) and now receives $599,999.

Emma Hogan, CEO of the Department of Customer Services (now in charge of the consequences of public sector wage-cutting), also receives $599,999. Her current salary has remained undisclosed.

This is on top of the 15% pay rise ($87,000) for Police Commissioner Mick Fuller who became the highest paid cop in Australia with a total salary of $599,999. Today he is facing public fury over the brutal arrest of an Aboriginal teenager in Surry Hills by his “boys” in blue.

Labor’s Jodi McKay went on the attack describing the Coalition’s pay increases for top bureaucrats as “sneaky and secretive”. Standing alongside nurses, she said they deserved “medals, not a pay cut”.

Then she began to channel Greta Thunberg’s “how-dare-you” speech to the UN’s Climate Action summit in September 2019, saying: “How dare the Premier and the Treasurer come out with this pay cut at the time when we should be thanking sincerely NSW health workers across NSW.”

Labor shadow health minister Walt Second, Labor Leader in the Upper House Adam Searle, NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge and One Nation MLC Mark Latham voted against the pay cuts while industrial protests were held outside Parliament House and some regional hospitals.

Shoebridge told the media: “This is not the way you thank public sector workers for keeping us safe and keeping us going during the pandemic.”

After a series of speeches praising the dedicated work of nurses, teachers, bus drivers and other public service workers, Premier Berejiklian and Treasurer Perrottet suddenly changed course at the end of May, announcing that all public sector workers would have their pay frozen for 12 months. Instead of receiving their measly annual rise of 2.5% they will receive nothing for a year – which can be extended if Parliament agrees.

“The only way NSW will come out of this crisis in a strong position is if all make sacrifices, and that’s what we’re asking our own workforce to do,” Premier Berejiklian said, adding: “Today’s decision isn’t taken lightly.”

Sydney solicitor Sonia Hickey, who revealed the big pay rises for top bureaucrats, wrote: “It is another example of the skewed priorities of the Berejiklian Government … it’s also out of step with the sentiment of the majority of NSW residents who would agree that doctors, nurses, paramedics and other frontline health workers and teachers most definitely deserve their annual pay increase at this time, given that they are risking their own health to care for others.”

The traditional argument for giving big salaries to “top” people may be dead too. It used to be said that “if you pay them peanuts you will only get monkeys”.

But what if the “monkeys” are incompetent slaves to the politicians in power? And what if they no longer give independent advice because they have been politicised? It appears to mean that civil society becomes run by incompetent second-rate politicians and “monkeys”.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, perhaps it is time to recreate an independent, courageous, apolitical public service whose mission is to serve the public and not the politicians.

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Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe.

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