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A Chance to Cut MLA Pay in Half

They earn too much for a part-time gig.

By Will McMartin 6 Sep 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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Empty chamber? Rumours of a one-day fall sitting.

Is it fair or proper that British Columbia's MLAs are paid a full-year salary when they work for half (or less) of the year? Put another way, should part-time MLAs be rewarded with full-time pay?

The question arises because of persistent rumours that the scheduled fall sitting of the legislative assembly either will be cancelled, or reduced to an insignificant one or two days with little or no legislative work.

For the past three decades, remuneration for British Columbia's MLAs has been based on two sittings per year. So, in the event that this year's only meaningful legislative sitting was in the spring, it seems obvious that B.C.'s MLAs should relinquish half of their current salaries.

That is, instead of being paid $75,400 for two legislative sittings, each legislator ought to get $37,700 for the spring sitting alone.

What about 'constituency service'?

A few readers, and most MLAs, will no doubt argue that British Columbia's legislators work full-time on behalf of their constituents, regardless of whether they are in the legislative assembly in Victoria, or at home in their individual electoral districts. That argument, however, reveals a profound misunderstanding of the fundamental role of our elected representatives. This is not surprising, as several such "misunderstandings" regarding our parliamentary system of government have been propagated in British Columbia in recent years.

For example, Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals claim to "allow free votes" in the legislative assembly, and have broadcast so-called "open cabinet" meetings. Both claims are absurd.

Our legislators' responsibilities may easily be summarized: they enact laws, they approve the expenditure of public monies and they hold the government to account. "Constituency service" -- which is not particularly onerous, and in any event almost entirely performed by lesser-paid assistants -- has offered in recent years a useful excuse to dramatically boost MLAs' compensation. But it is not integral to the job our legislators are paid to perform.

Locke's job description

It is always useful to consult John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher, when considering the role of parliamentarians. Locke's writings -- notably An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government, published in 1688 -- helped to guide England through the transition from a monarchical, near-absolutist government to parliamentary democracy, and provides the theoretical foundation for representative governments around the world.

Locke believed that consent was essential to how members of a civil society were governed. In theory, people gave their consent when they surrendered the perfect freedom found in the "state of nature" (which, because it is without laws, is unsafe) to live under the rule of law, where they, their families and valued possessions ("property") might live in relative security.

In civil society, under the rule of law, "the consent of the majority" is necessary for the enactment and enforcement of those laws, and the expenditure of public monies (because taxes represent the government taking some part of each taxpayer's "property").

Importantly, Locke saw a conflict between the law-making and the law-enforcement functions. He argued that the two ought not to be undertaken by a single body, because it might "be too great temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power...whereby they may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make...and thereby come to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community, contrary to the end of society and government."

He therefore proposed two distinct entities in the "well-ordered commonwealth": a legislative body (to make laws), and an executive (to execute, or enforce, those laws).

In Locke's view, the legislators elected with the public's consent were responsible for overseeing the executive, which is "visibly subordinate and accountable" to the legislature, and can be removed "at pleasure."

Put simply, the executive operates with the consent of the legislature, which is elected with the consent of the voting public.

Important role

Locke's blueprint is easily seen in the Constitution of the United States, which outlines three distinct branches of government: the legislative (the Congress), the executive (the presidency) and the judiciary.

It is less readily apparent, but exists nonetheless, in the British parliamentary system of government.

In British Columbia, for example, we elect 79 representatives to sit as members of the legislative assembly. The MLAs, our legislators, are responsible for approving the expenditure of taxpayers' monies, enacting and amending laws (legislation), and holding the executive to account.

The executive is composed of 24 MLAs who are selected, and headed, by Premier Gordon Campbell. This body is known to most people as the "cabinet," but its formal name is the executive council.

It should never be forgotten -- although often it is, and especially by backbench legislators who seek elevation to the cabinet -- that the legislature is more powerful than the executive. To repeat Locke's phrase, the executive is "visibly subordinate and accountable" to the legislative branch.

The legislature has the power to defeat the executive on legislation, and may even force its removal on a vote of confidence, or on a bill concerning the expenditure of public monies.

Memorable examples in Canada over the past quarter-century or so occurred in 1979, when Joe Clark's Progressive Conservative government was defeated in the House of Commons; in 1988 when Premier Howard Pawley's government fell in Manitoba's legislative assembly; and in 2005, when Paul Martin's Liberals was forced to the polls after a loss in the House of Commons.

Part-time gig

Locke saw another clear distinction between the legislative and executive branches. The former was a part-time job, while the latter was full-time.

That is because laws "have a constant and lasting force, and need a perpetual execution." Consequently, "there should be a power always in being which should see to the execution of the laws that are made, and remain in force."

Put another way, because society's laws need to be enforced at all times, the executive always has to be available and prepared to enforce them.

This is the case in British Columbia, where cabinet ministers have full-time responsibilities, participating in executive council meetings, administering their portfolio and departmental duties, and overseeing Crown corporations and other government agencies.

It is much different, however, for legislators who are not in the executive. As Locke put it, since it takes relatively little time for laws to be debated and enacted, there was no need for a legislature to "be always in being."

Clearly, a legislature need not be assembled when it has no business to conduct. The legislator's job, then, is part-time.

Zooming pay rates

In British Columbia, for more than a century after we joined Confederation in 1871, MLA's responsibilities were seen as part-time. Barring unusual circumstances, the legislative assembly each year had just a single sitting, the focus of which was passage of the budget estimates. When the sitting was finished, the MLAs returned to their constituencies and their regular jobs; cabinet ministers remained behind to administer their departments.

The pay for MLAs, while generous, reflected their part-time assignment. In 1972, for example, B.C.'s legislators were paid an annual indemnity of $5,000 for the spring sitting, and also got a $2,500 tax-free expense allowance. (This was excellent pay for part-time work, considering that the average British Columbian's personal annual income then was a mere $4,240.)

But 1972 also saw the election to government of Dave Barrett's New Democratic Party. And on April 4, 1973, during a debate in the legislature on whether MLAs' jobs should be considered part-time or full-time, the new premier emphatically stated that "we are full-time MLAs."

In short order the sessional indemnity for B.C.'s MLAs was boosted from $5,000 to $8,000, and then the New Democrats instituted an annual fall legislative sitting to accompany the spring sitting. The MLAs' yearly salary was thereby doubled to $16,000. The following year, the NDP increased the tax-free expense allowance to $8,000 annually.

So where MLAs received $7,500 (the annual indemnity plus expense allowance) in yearly compensation when Barrett became premier, two years later that figure had skyrocketed to $24,000. (This figure was nearly four-times the average British Columbian's personal annual income, which was a mere $6,632 in 1974.)

Not long thereafter, MLAs were given public funds to open constituency offices in their local districts. Additional monies also were provided to employ assistants to staff those offices.

Nice work if you can get it

So, for the past three decades, British Columbia's legislators have been paid on the basis that theirs is a full-time job, even though there has been no statutory requirement that the legislative assembly each year have spring and fall sittings.

In 2001, Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals won election to government with the promise of a "fixed legislative calendar." Instead of enshrining the policy in legislation, however, the new government merely amended the legislature's standing orders to provide for spring and fall sittings.

Section 2 of the current standing orders states that "the House shall meet (i) the second Tuesday in February to the last Thursday in May...and (ii) the first Monday in October to the last Thursday in November..."

And as has been the practice for the past five years, a parliamentary calendar was posted on the legislative assembly's website, which showed a 2006 spring sitting running from February 14 to May 18, and a fall sitting from October 2 to November 30. (Recently, I have had trouble accessing the parliamentary calendar online.)

Our MLAs are well compensated for this rather light workload. In the current fiscal year, each legislator will be paid $75,400 in salary, with numerous additional benefits. That is two-and-a-half times the personal income of the average British Columbian, which, according to Stats B.C., was $30,141 in 2005.

(B.C. MLAs' salaries would have been even higher -- $86,580 per year -- if a bill granting enormous increases in compensation to our legislators not been repealed following a public outcry and NDP leader Carole James reneging on a closed-door deal her party struck with the Campbell Liberals.)

And if that were not enough, in July our legislators awarded themselves a sneaky $35,000 per year boost to their constituency budgets, making the average $119,000 annually. (By the way, B.C. funds government agents working at 59 locations across the province to help ordinary citizens access government programs. See: http://www.governmentagents.gov.bc.ca/)

So here is another question: if each constituency office is fully staffed by taxpayer funded assistants, exactly what vital, full-time role does the MLA perform when the legislature is not sitting?

Half pay for half-time

It seems relatively straightforward. If B.C.'s MLAs want to work for less than half of the year, they should be paid no more than half of their current salaries.

The financial savings would total nearly $3 million ($37,700 multiplied by 79 MLAs is $2.98 million), all or part of which could be redirected to any number of worthwhile endeavours. For example, scholarships or bursaries for students in medicine or nursing who, upon graduation, will help to fill the growing shortages in those fields. Or, how about aboriginal initiatives? Or increased monies for the supervision and inspection of foster homes? The possibilities are endless.

In fact, it should not be too difficult to find any number of recipients more deserving of public monies than indolent legislators who seem reluctant to perform the work for which they are being paid.

Will McMartin is a veteran political analyst and regular columnist for The Tyee. Read his previous articles here.

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