Squealing parliamentarians

For years the majority of Italians tolerated the misbehaviour and legalised theft of their parliamentarians because they hoped to benefit from it as well. But no longer.
James Walston
4 January 2012

On the day that the German president, Christian Wulff finds himself under pressure because of an equivocal soft loan of €500,000, Italian parliamentarians are moaning that they are worse off than their European colleagues. The rest of Italy is preparing to pay the reintroduced property tax, to put off retirement and is already paying €10 or €20 more every time they fill their car but the political class cries poverty and refuses to take action… at least not now “we need another committee” they proclaim, from the far right to far left, united in protecting their own privileges. Yesterday an eminent committee reported that parliamentarians’ income was indeed higher than in the rest of Europe… but… The Chamber replied that after tax, their salaries were actually lower. Anyone who dissents is accused of being a “populist” even a “fascist” who does not appreciate that democracy has a price.

And what a price! The risk is that popular resentment really does reach a dangerous level while the Honorable Members debate the difference between “salary”, “travel allowance”, “living allowance” and “contribution for research and secretarial assistance”. If they completely lose touch with the electorate, that would indeed be a disaster for Italian democracy.

But they are moving towards it. First of all, these are people who are responsible to their party bosses and not to their electors – with Italy’s fixed party list system, a parliamentarian’s election depends on where they are on the list which depends on the party, not the electorate. That already puts some distance between “representatives” and the people.

Any survey one takes shows clearly that Italian parliamentarians are better off than any other European legislator. It is only by very selective accounting that they are able to massage some of the numbers down to approximate parity with the French and Germans. All of them (including those who live in Rome) have tax free housing and travel allowances even though they travel free anywhere in Italy (whether on parliamentary business or not). Research and secretarial support is more than €3,600 per month given directly to the parliamentarian who may pocket it all, employ a relation or employ an assistant for much less. With all perks included, an Italian parliamentarian has around €25,000 per month which even after tax is a healthy sum.

Salaries and pensions can also be summed. It is bad enough that someone can be mayor and deputy at the same time (not only an Italian vice) but that they take home two salaries and sets of perks is difficult to persuade the public over in time of recession. Former prime minister, Giuliano Amato has €31,000 gross p.m. between his university and ministerial pensions and there are many like him.

Not only are the legislators generous with themselves, there are lots of them. The Chamber has 630 members, the Senate 315 elected and at the moment seven life senators: 1,000 for a population of 60 million. The US has 535 for 310 million. There has been talk of reducing the number of parliamentarians for decades but once again, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Italy then has two middle levels of government (most countries just have one), the 20 regions and the 110 provinces; the lower level, over 8,000 comuni and for the big cities, a sub-local level, the circoscrizioni or municipi (Rome has 20). All these have assemblies and executives which are paid either salaries or some expenses. For some regions a councilor can earn well over €10,000 p.m. Again, there has been talk of abolishing the provinces since the regions were introduced in 1970 (when, by the way, there were just over 90 provinces).

If we move on to the appointed officials, the situation would be comic if taxpayers were not paying for the show in the middle of austerity measures. According to Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo who started uncovering the waste in their bestselling La Casta, an Italian senate stenographer earns €290,000 p.a., as much as the king of Spain’s allowance (and €50,000 more than President Napolitano’s salary) while a barber is earning €160,000 at the end of his career. I could go on.

Then there is the cost of elections. In 1974, parliament introduced public financing for political parties as a result of a funding scandal. The following decade saw the worst corruption Italy has ever seen and in 1993 a referendum abolished public financing. The following year, the new parties got round the measure by creating a “reimbursement for election expenses”.

That is still the law. On top of the legal expenses are the many instances of corruption – kickbacks or tangenti paid to politicians for their assistance in procuring public contracts. In the old days, it was an envelope (or sometimes a suitcase) of used notes; today it comes in tax-deductable donations to this or that foundation or a transfer from a Swiss bank to one in the Cayman islands but the effect on the exchequer is the same.

All of this is referred to as la politica. At the moment, the resentment is still inchoate and mostly does not distinguish between the various elements, each of which needs a different remedy. For years the majority of Italians tolerated the misbehaviour and legalised theft because they hoped to benefit from it as well. But no longer. If the objects of the resentment do not realise what is happening and quickly, and continue urging their fellow citizens to “eat cake”, they risk ending up like a crowd of downmarket Marie Antoinettes, not guillotined literally but cut out of Italian society.


This article was first published on James Walston's blog "Italian Politics with Walston".

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