Friday, March 20, 2009

If You Pay Peanuts...

... you get Monkeys.

Or so the old saying goes. Although, there's a flaw in the statement on its face, because who associates monkeys with peanuts? Nobody. When I saw "peanut", the first member of the animal kingdom that springs to mind is whom? That's right - the elephant.

But I digress. Which, at the START of a conversation, is pretty darned impressive.

Nation, the question of pay and benefits for our elected representatives has again reared its head, with the recent examples of Calgary City Council's decision to NOT actively participate in discussion of their own pay, and the severance packages paid out to former MLA's who retired prior to the last provincial election.

Now, there have been plenty of suggestions made about how, exactly, we should go about setting the pay of our elected officials. Whether it's a direct correlation to another position (in the case of provincial MLA salaries, they were linked to judges), or through an arcane equation that factors in inflation, quality of life measures, or economic health (or a combination thereof), there seems to be one over-riding sentiment:

We don't want politicians deciding how much they should be paid.

So, once we get past the fact that we seem to be in near universal agreement on the issue of what we DON'T want, the question becomes: What DO we want?

I've heard a lot of suggestions as late - some of them make sense to me and some of them don't, but if everyone had the same taste, you'd all be chasing the future Mrs. Savage - which, lucky for me, you're not. Some of the more notable ones include tying the salary for MLA's directly to the provincial minimum wage, and tying City council salaries to the annual budgetary property tax increases - as in, the more taxes go UP, the more Council salaries go DOWN.

I'm not thrilled with either of those plans. They're both a starting point, certainly, but the most obvious problems that apply to both proposals are twofold: Firstly, they assume that the only way to measure performance of a government is by using economic factors as a measuring stick. Secondly, they're both able to be directly affected by the politicians themselves - the provincial government can easily raise the minimum wage, to get themselves a raise as well (devastating small business-people in the process). Likewise, city council can hold the line on property taxes so as not to take a hit on their own paycheques - thus denying residents of much needed programs and services.

To my mind, there needs to be a way of measuring quality of life, and taking that into account when determining political pay.

One suggestion I read along those lines suggested letting the people of the constituency decide what their representative was worth. This would be all fine and good, except for the vast swaths of uninformed voters, who would shipped to the polls by the busload from churches and community centres by the incumbent's campaign, promising them NEW community centres and schools, etc, if they vote to give him/her a raise to a paltry $130,000/year.

Let's remember that many of these same voters consider Jarome Iginla underpaid at $7,000,000/year.

Plus, factor in that $75,000 goes a LOT further in, say, Cardston than it does in Fort Mac.

Ultimately, we're going to have to decide how it is that we determine pay variance, and how often it applies. Does the salary of a city councillor, for example, change every year? Or is it set for the 3 years of their term, and then reviewed and changed before the next election? Whatever we decide, though, we're going to have to STICK to it, and not rake our leaders over the coals when they refuse to directly intervene in the process (as Calgary's council did earlier this year). We want to set these structures up so that the politicians can't directly decide how much they should get paid - and we should remind ourselves that THAT particular blade cuts both ways - neither should they be able to decide how LITTLE they get paid.

Some public servants, after all, donate huge sums - in rare cases, the ENTIRETY of their salary - to charity.

We need to make sure, though, that we're compensating public officials fairly in comparison to the private sector. We don't want to OVER-pay, and end up with MLA's who are just in it for the money. Neither, though, do we want to UNDER-pay, and end up with underqualified people trying to run the business of government, because everyone with any expertise is making 4 times as much in the private sector.

This is far from a simple question - but it IS an important one. The entire reason I set up this blog in the first place wasn't so I could stand on my own soapbox and scream partisan slogans or spread rumours anonymously or get caught up in my own perceived importance - it's so I can help us, ALL of us, participate in an actual CONVERSATION from time to time, about issues that actually MATTER*.

So, I put it to you, Nation: What should we be paying our political representatives? How should that pay be determined? How often should we review it? By what means?

*statement does not apply to posts related to sports or e.s.'s lordship over the alberta political blogosphere


Kirk Schmidt said...

As I mentioned to you before, at one time MPs salaries were tied to judges, but that was scrapped earlier in the 2000s due to a massive increase in judge salaries.

Economic indicators become difficult, as you mentioned, because politicians can directly affect them, or they can seem as unfair.

For example, let's say we end up like the 1970s and go into massive inflation increases due to stimulation of the economy not being pulled back in time. If we tied their salaries to the rate of inflation, we could see MPs getting huge increases while people lose their homes because they're on variable. Not really politically viable.

Economic indicators, however, provide an idea of how the country is doing, which is a direct reflection on the work done by politicians. However, sometimes they're highly delayed (for example, it was the Liberals who blocked the amalgamation of the big banks, even though some parties, including the one I belong to, wanted them amalgamated).

Salaries do need to be made to attract the best and brightest of the country. The corrupt are going to seek power anyway, but hopefully we could get some good people in to counteract.

Brian Tobin's biography (All in Good Time) contains some talk of politicians' pensions and offers a counterpoint against the high pensions that MPs get. Worth a read, even if you don't agree with it.

Preston mentions in his book (Think Big) that anyone who goes into politics (especially leadership) has to realize they're not going to be in it for the money.

Just some thoughts... I know there's no firm answers here, but honestly, I think it's a question that needs a lot of groupthink...

Anonymous said...

up until the 60's at least in this province MLA's only got paid when the legislature was sitting. Ministers in the cabinet got paid full time because they had full time jobs.

When the leg wasn't sitting the MLA's went back to their jobs.