Saturday, January 28, 2012

Our MLA's are Underpaid!

The Members of the Legislative Assembly  have been in the news this past week as they make refinements to their pension plan, as recommended by their independent review panel. Actually, they are not going to be as generous as the panel suggested, perhaps to make some small show of restraint.

But they never really address the core problem, which is that the MLA's are seriously underpaid.

We do get a fair number of decent, respectable people running for office, most with every good intention to make a contribution to the governing of the province. We also get some political operators who are drawn to the power (real or perceived) and for quite a while we were over-represented by teachers, in part because there was a clause in the collective agreement guaranteeing them a teaching job when they finished with politics.

Lots of good people run for office but when they get into their second term there is a pension in sight and the expense account rules are pretty good and you can fly home to Cape Breton by Air Canada, and you can get new laptops and cameras and attaché cases and you can take your friends out for supper and the taxpayer will pay your Barristers' Society fees even though you haven't practiced in years, and life is good. They came to do good and they stayed to do well.

So here's a modest proposal: Let's double the salary for MLA's. No pension, no severance, no expense accounts. Let's have the government rent an office in each riding for the MLA, equip it with government-owned furniture and computers, and we'll just change the name on the door as the MLA's change. Every MLA gets to hire a Constituency Assistant, who gets paid a very good wage and all the benefits of a NS civil servant (except tenure; they serve at the pleasure of the MLA).

There will be hardships, of course. MLA's from Yarmouth or Cape Breton will have to find accommodation in Halifax while the House sits, and they will want to drive back and forth to home. But lots of folks do that now, working in Halifax and driving home for weekends. That's the cost of having a nice job that pays $175,000 per year.

When the MLA job pays very well we will attract a lot of smart, passionate people who see the chance to make a difference in the governance of the province. People will want to interrupt their careers for 4 years to serve as MLA, and then resume their lives as farmers, architects, community activists, whatever.

The biggest problem with being an MLA is that it can often be a sh*tty job. You get loonies in wanting government support for an Alien Abduction Interpretive Centre. People will call you because they need a ride to the hospital to have a test done, and isn't health a provincial responsibility? People who have been gaming the social welfare system and get cut off will call to have you exert your influence and get their benefits re-instated. Municipal leaders call looking for money. Community groups need support for projects that are not in the interests of the Province. Struggling businesses need your help. (These are all true.)

The MLA's who will put up with this crap are not always the people we want running the Province. The job has changed since the days when the MLA was the ombudsman, the one who could put you in touch with the right department, help you navigate the civil service maze, get you the right application form or brochure. We have websites now, and toll-free telephone numbers, and citizens who are not in awe of government workers in Halifax. There was time when such an MLA was a "Good Constituency Man", but those times have changed. So we hire really good constituency assistants to deal with these people.

What we need now are people with common sense and a vision for the Province that is realistic, attainable, and good for the people of the Province. Those kind of people have not been in abundant supply in the provincial House of Assembly in recent years. Instead we have folks who like the job and the perks and pensions, and who every year find that they are less and less able to drop back in to the work they left to become an MLA. They are trapped.

But if the pay were doubled and there were no benefits in staying on, we might find a whole lot of good people offering in each election. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could choose between smart, committed candidates at every election?

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