Noth­ing ex­ceeds like ex­cess in celeb pay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Primespace - BERNARD SALT DE­MOG­RA­PHER

AROUND the mid­dle of this year the cy­cle will be­gin again and both the me­dia and the pub­lic will have their sport. The an­nual gen­eral meet­ing is when ev­ery­one gets a gan­der at the lev­els of re­mu­ner­a­tion that boards set for se­nior ex­ec­u­tives.

Over re­cent years the lead­ing edge of cor­po­rate re­mu­ner­a­tion in this na­tion has tipped the $ 30 mil­lion mark. The dis­clo­sure of th­ese fig­ures into the pub­lic do­main is slav­ishly awaited by the press, both tabloid and broad­sheet alike.

Ev­i­dence of cor­po­rate ex­cess’’ is a mighty tempt­ing con­cept if you are news­pa­per ed­i­tor or a politi­cian. Noth­ing in­gra­ti­ates your­self with the pun­ters more than bravely call­ing the elite to ac­count. And rightly so.

All ex­am­ples of peo­ple earn­ing far in ex­cess of what is fair rec­om­pense for their con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety should be ex­posed. Af­ter all, we live in a proudly egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety where no per­son can be worth 600 times the av­er­age. And it is for that rea­son that I want to out’’ some­one right here and now as per­haps the best ex­am­ple of ex­ces­sive re­mu­ner­a­tion rel­a­tive to ef­fort and tal­ent. And, oddly enough, that per­son is not a mid­dle- aged white male banker. It’s Ni­cole Kid­man.

Ac­cord­ing to the BRW Rich List the net worth of ‘‘ our Nic’’ jumped from $ 200 mil­lion in 2006 to $ 237 mil­lion in 2007. I have de­duced that Ms Kid­man’s re­mu­ner­a­tion dur­ing the 2006- 07 fi­nan­cial year was more than $ 37 mil­lion.

If re­ports of her creative ef­forts are cor­rect, she com­pleted three movies dur­ing this year. Her in­come for this ef­fort was for the most part ei­ther di­rectly or in­di­rectly col­lected from av­er­age peo­ple fork­ing out $ 15 or so to see her per­for­mance.

Now, I know how the me­dia loves to get its teeth into a case of ex­ces­sive re­mu­ner­a­tion rel­a­tive to ef­fort and tal­ent, and so I can only pre­sume that there will now be ex­poses aplenty fo­cused on the ex­ploits of Ms Kid­man. I don’t have a prob­lem with the me­dia cast­ing a crit­i­cal eye over lev­els of cor­po­rate re­mu­ner­a­tion — in fact, I think this process strength­ens our democ­racy. But it just seems odd that the scale of Ms Kid­man’s ap­par­ent re­mu­ner­a­tion should es­cape me­dia at­ten­tion.

Or is the re­al­ity that the av­er­age punter has no prob­lems with Ni­cole Kid­man rak­ing in tens of mil­lions of dol­lars a year be­cause, well, she’s so much pret­tier than a mid­dleaged busi­ness­man? And as we all know, if you’re pretty in our so­ci­ety, then you aren’t called to ac­count.

But there is more to this. Con­sider politi­cians. The av­er­age non- min­is­te­rial fed­eral pol­lie earns around $ 130,000 per year. And for this, they and their fam­i­lies are sub­jected to reg­u­lar job un­cer­tainty and in­tense ( and of­ten un­fair) me­dia scru­tiny over years. And when it’s all over, as in the case of the for­mer PM, they are vil­i­fied by a good pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion.

How many board chair­men or CEOs do you know who would put up with this?

I don’t think we pay our politi­cians any­where near enough to at­tract the right peo­ple. I also think that the me­dia’s pre­dictable crit­i­cism of the pay lev­els of politi­cians and se­nior bu­reau­crats is both un­help­ful and hyp­o­crit­i­cal. If you want to tar­get ex­ces­sive re­mu­ner­a­tion, then also tar­get celebri­ties. Or are they im­mune from scru­tiny in our celebrity- fu­elled so­ci­ety?

See the way the me­dia sali­vated over two lux­ury cruise ships that vis­ited Syd­ney and Melbourne re­cently. Th­ese ships are not

de­signed to de­liver sub­ur­ban plea­sure cruises; th­ese ships are akin to a float­ing May­fair or Up­per East Side.

If the world’s su­per- wealthy re­ally want to float around the globe, then good luck to them, but does the Aus­tralian me­dia, al­ways ready to stick up for the rights of av­er­age peo­ple, re­ally have to fawn over th­ese ships’ sleek lines and el­e­gance? Per­haps cruise ships fall into the Ni­cole Kid­man cat­e­gory: celebrity, there­fore un­touch­able.

The bot­tom line is that there is a dou­ble stan­dard play­ing out in the me­dia and more broadly in the com­mu­nity. Mid­dle- aged, paunchy and bald­ing male cor­po­rates are easy and pop­u­lar tar­gets for ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­po­rate ex­cess, re­gard­less of whether such ac­cu­sa­tions are jus­ti­fied.

The same logic seems to ap­ply to politi­cians. And while on this topic I must say that we Aus­tralians have had bad luck with our PMs. John Howard couldn’t be trusted. Paul Keat­ing was ar­ro­gant. Bob Hawke was nar­cis­sis­tic. Mal­colm Fraser was aloof. Gough Whit­lam was mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal.

By the end of each PM’s reign we had as­sessed them and found them want­ing. I won­der what our prob­lem will be with Kevin Rudd by the time we’re done with him. Pretty celebri­ties are off- lim­its to scru­tiny of the value they con­trib­ute rel­a­tive to the re­mu­ner­a­tion they re­ceive.

Dare I say that it’s al­most like a me­dia con­spir­acy to at­tack soft tar­gets ( who ac­tu­ally de­liver jobs in the case of cor­po­rates, and so­cial di­rec­tion in the case of politi­cians), and to steer clear of those who the pub­lic de­cide are se­ri­ously gor­geous.

This as­sess­ment got me think­ing about what other soft tar­gets there are in the busi­ness world. How about any form of sub­ur­ban de­vel­op­ment no mat­ter how ef­fi­cient or well planned? If it’s a sep­a­rate house on the edge of a cap­i­tal city then it’s ‘‘ sprawl’’. If it’s ver­ti­cal and in the in­ner city it’s sus­tain­able’’. The prob­lem is that the prop­erty de­vel­op­ment in­dus­try is a bit like mid­dle- aged bald­ing busi­ness­men: an easy tar­get for re­flex­ive neg­a­tiv­ity. Ideally the prop­erty in­dus­try needs a

Ni­cole Kid­man makeover’’ to ren­der it im­mune to neg­a­tive thoughts: ev­ery time the pun­ters see a de­vel­op­ment site they are over­come with warm fuzzy feel­ings. Hmmm, such is the magic of celebrity. Bernard Salt is a part­ner with KPMG; bsalt@ kpmg. com. au

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