The crack in low pay for politicians

If Toronto's scandalous mayor can still be trusted by the people to run the city – something's very wrong. But it's the reason top public sector jobs should come with private sector salaries.

News that Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford has a higher approval rating than US President Barack Obama should give us cause to think about that for a second.

If you haven’t caught up on Mayor Ford’s antics over the past year here is a quick summary.

In May, the Toronto Star newspaper and Gawker website separately viewed a video in which Ford was seen with alleged gang members smoking out of a crack pipe.

Ford called the claims “ridiculous” so Gawker raised the $US200,000 that the owners of the tape wanted to make it public. Mysteriously though, the tape disappeared.

That was until a few weeks ago when Toronto police recovered a number of deleted digital files off computer hard drives seized during a June raid on gang-owned houses.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said the tape showed Ford smoking crack and calling Federal Liberal opposition leader Justin Trudeau a “fag”.

Ford’s response to being caught out lying?

“I wasn’t lying, you didn’t ask the correct question,” he told reporters. "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine… Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.”

Just days later a second video of Ford is released showing the burly mayor ranting about how he wanted someone dead.

"I’m going to kill that f---ing guy," he can be heard saying. "I'm telling you, it's first-degree murder. I'll fight him. No holds barred, brother. He dies or I die, brother.”

Then a week later he was forced to hold a press conference over claims he made lewd sexual advances to a female staffer. However he left reporters gobsmacked when he said he would never make such suggestions to another woman because he was “happily married” and had “more than enough to eat at home.”

Toronto City Council has stripped him of his powers yet Ford refuses to step down.

So back to the Forum Research poll, which found Ford’s approval rating actually rose from 39 per cent before he said he smoked crack to 42 per cent after the admission.

While Obama only has himself to blame for his dismal approval rating of 41 per cent, how is it that a misogynistic, homophobic, crack-smoking liar is more popular?

Ford isn’t the only North American mayor behaving badly.

Kwame Kilpatrick, the former mayor of Detroit, was sentenced to 28 years in prison last month for extortion and fraud.

Bob Filner, the mayor San Diego, resigned in August after more than 20 women said he had targeted them with inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Billy Eugene Wilson, the mayor of Greenbrier, Tennessee, was earlier this month indicted for theft of over $US60,000 from the local Toys for Tots charity he founded.

Perhaps Ford is modelling his ‘never-back-down’ strategy from Marion Barry. Barry was the Washington DC mayor back in 1990 who was caught freebasing crack cocaine in a hotel room. Like Ford, Barry refused to step down. He copped a six-month jail sentence but afterwards was re-elected to city council where he remains today.

So if we can’t rely on people to stop electing buffoons, maybe there is another way to ensure that we are encouraging the best and brightest to seek out positions of power.

I know it is controversial and you aren't going to like it but I have an idea. How about we pay our elected officials more money?

Yes, it is a hard argument to mount, particularly in the US where politicians continue to collect their pay even when they can’t keep their workplace open for business.

But that is exactly why we should incentivise those who can make millions in the private sector to consider becoming public servants because the current mob is failing to do their jobs properly.

Think about it. In every other industry in order to get the best quality candidates there needs to be a commensurate financial reward. Otherwise if politicians aren’t seeking office because of the money then what is driving them? Power, perhaps? In a 2009 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan the pair found there was evidence to indicate that higher salaries for politicians precipitated better performance.

“Our main findings show that higher wages increase political competition and improves the quality of legislators, as measured by education, type of previous profession, and political experience in office,” the paper said. “In addition to this positive selection, we find that wages also affect politicians’ performance, which is consistent with a behavioural response to a higher value of holding office.”

NBER’s again looked at politicians’ pay this year by studying a recent recruitment drive for public sector positions in Mexico.

Different salaries were announced randomly across recruitment sites, and job offers were subsequently randomised. Screening relied on exams designed to measure applicants’ intellectual ability, personality, and motivation.

“Based on the experimental design, we show that offering higher wages attracts individuals with higher previous earnings, and who have both higher IQ and more desirable personality traits,” the paper concluded.

I can’t really think of a politician either on my side of the world or yours who deserves a pay rise. However if the salaries of these positions were tied to delivering promises and general performance and reduced if said promises were not kept then wouldn’t we find ourselves in a better position than we are currently?

Mathew Murphy is a Walkley Award winning journalist based in New York.