By Maureen Bader
“It is wrong for elected officials to take care of themselves better than the hard-working taxpayers who pay the bills.”
— Gordon Campbell, 1995
Most taxpayers would agree that MLAs should be paid fairly and get a reasonable retirement contribution, but defining fair and reasonable is frequently a problem.
Often, those who come from different walks of life have different opinions on how much MLAs should be paid. Those who earn more than the average MLA often believe MLAs are underpaid. Conversely, those who earn much less than the average MLA commonly think MLAs are overpaid.
Regardless of the merits of their arguments, we live in a democracy, and as such, all viewpoints must be respected. This means ordinary taxpayers—those forced to pick up the tab—must be part of a panel making recommendations on MLA pay and perks.
In 2007, a three-person panel selected by the premier reviewed MLA compensation. The panel included two lawyers, Sue Paish (named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women) and Josiah Wood (a former judge); and Dr. Sandra Robinson (a university professor who according to a Vancouver newspaper salary database made $222,325 in 2007). All three were from Vancouver. They recommended a pay and pension scheme that increased MLA base salaries by 30 percent and brought back gold-plated pensions.
The premier’s panel was very different from the five-person panel selected by the legislative management committee in 1996. That panel included a city manager from Fort St. John, a partner with KPMG and a disability rights advocate from Vancouver, a business person from Quesnel, and the president of the B.C. Nurses Union from Kamloops.
The 1996 Citizens’ Panel recommended “MLA compensation mirror the standards available in the private and public sectors”. So it endorsed a pay increase, but eliminated tax-free money and gold-plated pensions and suggested the introduction of a group registered retirement savings plan (RRSP). Panel members correctly concluded compensation “should follow, not lead, the private sector, which ultimately bears the cost”.
The high-powered Vancouver-based 2007 panel recommended higher base salary and pension benefits—far exceeding those enjoyed by most taxpayers. MLA salaries increased from $76,100 to $98,000, but have since increased to almost $102,000. MLAs that have extra duties, such as the premier, get an extra salary, but while that used to be a fixed amount, it is now based on a percentage, which boosts extra pay up every year.
The MLA base salary alone is more than two-and-a-half times the average salary in B.C. This has left people making an average salary of about $40,000 per year on the hook to fund not just the excessive salaries, but the pension liabilities for their MLAs.
Bringing back the gold-plated pension scheme was irresponsible and a step backwards. Private-sector companies and other provincial governments have realized they can no longer afford them, and neither can the taxpayers of B.C. Reviews in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario resulted in the elimination of gold-plated pension plans in those provinces and often the introduction of group RRSPs.
The solution is not that the premier should appoint a wider-array of citizens, but that he shouldn’t appoint anyone. A citizens’ assembly of randomly selected residents by an all-party committee should be asked make recommendations on MLA compensation.
Only through a citizens’ assembly will taxpayers be assured of the possibility of recommendations that are in touch with the financial realities of the average taxpayer.