I have to shake my head a little every time I read another story attacking MP salaries or criticizing their “gold-plated” pension plans. It’s an oft-repeated, often reflex criticism, and it’s an easy one to make. I hear it just as often as I hear people lamenting the quality of people that politics seems to attract these days. It’s ironic the two complaints are so often heard, because I don’t think the complainers see the connection: do we get the politicians we pay for?
Certainly it’s easy to attack the compensation level of our politicians. Particularly when times are tough. It’s our tax dollars that pay their salaries, after all. And it can be politically dicey to set your own compensation. That’s why the last government moved to tie MP salaries to those of judges, so MPs wouldn’t be making decisions about their own raises – the idea being to de-politicize the process. Unfortunately, by announcing a plan to freeze MP salaries in the last budget, the Conservatives brought politics back into the process.
If some in the public had their way, we’d pay our politicians nothing. That’s obviously a silly and untenable extreme. Toronto mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi has pledged to cut his salary by 10 per cent if elected – a popular populist gesture, no doubt, but a purely symbolic one that does nothing to address the real issues facing the city while only serving to devalue the role that politicians should – even if they often don’t – play in governing and administering multi-million and multi-billion-dollar businesses.
What do MPs make? The annual base salary of an MP is $157,731. A full minister adds another $75,516.00, and a minister of state adds $56,637.00 (meaning that demotion really cost Helena Guergis). The Prime Minister adds $157,731.00, the leader of the opposition $75,516.00 and the other party leaders $53,694.00. Other positions such as whips and house leaders also add to their base salaries. Then, there’s the oft-mentioned “gold-plated” pension plans.
So, is the average MP salary too high? While $75,000 is above the average Canadian salary, when you consider the hours and the job responsibilities – primarily writing and vetting the laws that govern the nation – I think they’re well earned, and probably below what someone with similar responsibilities could expect to earn in the private sector. Is just over $200,000 really out of line for a federal cabinet minister, who is essentially a senior vice-president in a multi-billion dollar corporation? I bet if you factored in salary, stock options and other compensation, the private sector salary for a senior VP would dwarf a minister’s.
And what about pensions? While it was reformed in the mid-1990s into what I’d argue is a comparatively silver-plated MP pension plan (this is how all the Reform MPs justified opting into the plan they’d campaigned so hard against) it is still much better comparatively than most private sector plans. I’d argue MPs forgo salary earning potential to a degree for pension security, but more importantly I think seeing MP pensions as the problem when making that comparison misses the point. It should be a wake-up call about the growing pension crisis in the Canadian economy, and the need to seriously address it.
My point here, though, is that I think we get the politicians we pay for. I’m not arguing for salary increases. While politicizing the process again is a mistake, I agree in principle with the freeze – my own salary has been frozen through the downturn. But I reject this knee-jerk bashing of MP compensation, because it’s counter-productive.
We all agree, I think, that we need to attract a better quality of politician then we’re getting these days. But are we going to get them by refusing to give them fair compensation? Yes, you don’t want people attracted to the pay and perks. But you also can’t expect the talented, experienced people we want in politics to forego the compensation available to them in the private sector just for the love of public service. That’s not fair to them, or to their families. Would you take a large salary cut in your prime earning years to go take the abuse of being an elected politician? If you want talented people, you need fair compensation. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we kvetch about pensions and salaries.
It’s also about the role of the MP
Compensation is only half the battle when it comes to getting better people into politics, though. The other is the fact that, in the modern parliament, the role of the average MP has become so devalued and meaningless that few people of quality would want to take it on.
Never mind MPs being nobodies off the hill, as Trudeau said. They’re nobodies on the Hill, shackled by rigid party discipline, their roles marginalized into meaninglessness, mere trained seals to vote the party line and parrot talking-points on demand. Even if they’re lucky enough to get into cabinet, under this government their room to maneuver, to innovate, to operate has been narrowed to a strict mandate letter from the PMO they daren’t stray from.
Given all this, it’s no wonder we lament the quality of the people who are attracted to political life these days. Far from the best and brightest, it’s more those attracted to the perks – prominence, travel, an above-average salary and, if they’re lucky enough to get into cabinet, a car and driver and the odd Challenger flight if they toe the line. Certainly not the best and brightest.
To be sure, there are still those on all sides who get involved because of a genuine desire and love for public service. They’re increasingly few and far between though, and quickly worn down by the excessive partisanship and inability to really get much of meaning accomplished.
Sadly, we get the politicians we deserve. Until we change our expectations, that’s unlikely to change.Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers