Prime Minister John Key has described as "dumb and hypocritical" a suggestion by Labour leader Phil Goff that public service chief executives' salaries should be capped.
"If $400,000 or nearly $400,000 isn't enough for you to be the head of a public service department then maybe you've got to examine what the word public service actually means," Mr Goff said in a major speech in Hamilton yesterday.
The Prime Minister is paid $393,000 a year, but Labour said that 16 public servants currently earn more.
Among the top earners in the public sector are Foreign Affairs head John Allen on $610,000, and Ministry of Health chief executive Stephen McKernan, Ministry of Social Development head Peter Hughes and the head of Treasury, John Whitehead, who all earn up to $560,000.
Mr Goff said Labour would not cut the salaries of public sectors bosses, but it would cap them.
But Mr Key slammed the policy as dumb and hypocritical, given most of the increases happened under the last government.
"There is a high degree of hypocrisy coming from Phil Goff, given the last Labour government spent nine years significantly raising chief executive wages," Mr Key told NZPA.
Mr Goff, re-elected unopposed at Tuesday's caucus, got back to Labour basics in his speech, focussing on the needs of the worker.
He talked about the tough economic times New Zealand had suffered and the impact on workers, and criticised pay increases for state sector chiefs when others had their pay frozen or lost their jobs.
"Since 1997 state sector chief executive salaries have increased by an average of 85 percent. That's over 8 percent a year," Mr Goff said.
The bosses' salaries were on par with Australian counterparts despite having much smaller organisations to manage.
Mr Key said he was not bothered that there were 16 public servants earning more than him, and he also disagreed with linking the pay to the prime ministerial salary.
"I think it's a dumb idea, I think people go into politics for very different reasons and motivations and it's not just money."
United States President Barack Obama and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown; "earn about the same as I do. The motivation if you go into politics is not money, if it is you are in the wrong game.
"I think when it comes to public sector chief executives the Government competes head on with the private sector to get good quality people."
They were responsible for spending $62 billion a year. "It's in the taxpayers of New Zealand's interest that we have the best quality people," Mr Key said.
In his "The Many. Not the Few" speech, Mr Goff said 2010 should be time that those who suffered last year were rewarded.
He slammed yesterday's 25 cent increase in the minimum wage taking it to $12.75 and said Labour would raise it to $15 if elected.
"The Government can't keep rewarding the elites and the privileged at the same time as hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are suffering a drop in real income," he said.
On tax Mr Goff said Labour would not support changes that saw higher GST while higher income people benefited from personal rate cuts.
The overall message of the speech was that National cared for the rich while Labour looked after the ordinary New Zealander and there was nothing to support that, Mr Key said.
"You've had nine years of a Labour government, the problem after that nine years is not that we have too many wealthy people in New Zealand. It's that we have too many people who earn very low levels of income and the previous government failed to address that."
A big focus of the new Government had been to lift wages, he said.