Premier Ed Stelmach’s supposed concession to the Opposition this week to strike an independent committee to “study” MLA pay carries no risk for his government.
What’s more, Mr. Stelmach’s Conservative caucus clearly has an agenda for this committee – one that we can be sure he hopes will insulate MLAs from ever again being criticized for treating themselves too well whenever they get an increase in pay and perks.
Everyone in the Legislature – not to mention too many of the rest of us – swallowed the high-pay-for-politicians Kool-Aid so long ago that the antidote for this poison will never work. So it’s not as if the pay-review committee’s members, whoever they end up being, are likely to roll back the excessive pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly.
Indeed, the premier’s agreement to go along with Opposition calls for this committee to be established was both shrewd and easy. It takes the wind out of the sails of the Opposition parties, all of which had hoped to exploit public discontent about generous pay and benefits for big shots, and it allows the controversial issue to be moved semi-permanently off the front burner.
Raise it again, and the government will advise you to wait for the report of the committee. That’ll be, oh, a year or two away. Like, maybe, after the next election.
At the same time, the decision leaves MLAs’ high pay and perks in place, which should please everyone with a chair inside the Legislative Chamber.
Only legislative insiders who have been under the dome too long without coming up for air could find this decision even mildly surprising. What’s surprising is that Conservatives rejected it in the first place when New Democrat Leader Brian Mason proposed it last December to the Legislature’s Member Services Committee. That, surely, was just pure bone-headed stubbornness by a gang of Tory backbenchers who have never before been called upon to exercise their political brain cells. Now the more politically astute heads in the premier’s office have prevailed and the issue is dead for the time being.
To claim, as did Opposition Liberal Leader David Swann, that this development is the result of Mr. Stelmach “feeling the heat” from voters over mismanagement, overspending, yadda yadda, is an optimistic overstatement. Oh, voters are unhappy enough about this, though there’s darned little they can do about it and they know it. But most of the heat experienced by the premier was caused by his own caucus members’ lack of political finesse. Mr. Stelmach merely adopted a time-honoured technique for turning down the heat.
The usual argument trotted out to justify high salaries for politicians is that we need to pay rates similar to the salaries paid to executives by big business or people of similar quality will not make themselves available for careers in public life.
We heard this dubious claim repeated in the Legislature Monday during debate on Lethbridge-East Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor’s motion to establish the independent commission.
“While I recognize there’s some angst regarding the present compensation,” said Leonard Mitzel, the Conservative MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, “it’s important that it is adequate to ensure that existing and prospective MLAs are fairly paid for what they do. After all, Albertans deserve to have confidence knowing that they are receiving high-quality representation for their tax dollars.” (Emphasis added – here, and in every other quote in this post.)
High quality? You could’ve fooled most of us. But, what the hey? Any old port in a storm! The same argument is often used to justify extremely high salaries and bonuses for senior civil servants and others in public life.
It is baloney on all counts, of course. As if, for heaven’s sake, the captains of industry and business had done anything to justify their fantastic salaries except exhibit stupidity, cupidity, shortsightedness and a refusal to accept any limitations on their greed. Indeed, if we could use lower salaries to discourage some of these clowns from seeking public office, we would be doing ourselves and our children a favour!
This is not an argument for pauperizing public officials. But good people – indeed, the best people – will always come forward to serve society for fair compensation out of a sense of public service and patriotism.
Extremely high executive-style salaries and outlandish retirement packages only serve to isolate our MLAs and MPs from the concerns of the people they purport to represent. They also provide more justification for election campaigns so expensive they can only be financed by the powerful and wealthy beneficiaries of the insane market fundamentalist policies we have disastrously pursued for 40 years or more in this country.
Which brings us back to Mr. Stelmach’s agenda. Mr. Mitzel said something else that, on its own, is not that remarkable, but which is interesting in context. Talking of the makeup of the committee, which he argued should be as broad as possible, Mr. Mitzel said, “I believe that if we reflect this diversity correctly, the commission’s report will provide Albertans with the opportunity to examine and reflect on its findings.”
Now, here’s what some other Tories who spoke on this motion had to say:
“The commission itself would need to represent the diverse views and interests of all our constituents, of all Albertans,” said Dave Quest, MLA for Strathcona. “… I think to get it right that it would become a very large committee.”
“The composition of an independent body should include not only professionals, experts in compensation, members of the business community, but probably also ordinary members of the public at large,” pitched in Calgary-Nose Hill MLA Neil Brown, who also tossed into the debate the idea that all MLAs should get a defined benefits pension plan – you know, like the ones they’re intent on taking away from ordinary working people!
Notwithstanding that point, do you see a pattern here? When they talk about diversity, they don’t mean people speaking different languages! They mean a huge, cumbersome, many-splendored committee that’ll take forever to report and, when it eventually does, can be blamed for whatever the MLAs are paid. Indeed, if there are enough representatives from enough groups, its conclusions can be passed off as the result of democratic consultation with … you!
So, bet on it, Mr. Stelmach will be looking for a Wildrose Party representative, a union representative, a seniors representative … you get the picture.
Some concession! The remarks of Tory caucus members, duly recorded in Hansard, show well-drilled Conservative s MLAs marching in lockstep as usual toward a preordained objective.
Don’t worry, there’s no danger that this committee will abandon the high-pay orthodoxy of our era for such quaint notions as common sense or public service.
Just for sport, we citizens should demand that the committee’s mandate include the consideration of lower salaries and fewer perks for our MLAs.
While we’re at it, maybe we could suggest a retroactive cap on retirement payments that would limit departing MLAs’ final payouts to, say, half a million dollars – and would require them to resign before the end of this session if they wanted to cash in on them.
Don’t hold your breath! Oh, and don’t volunteer to sit on this committee.