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BC Legislator: Nice Gig!

MLAs got full-time pay for nine week session. Gordon Campbell is arranging a raise.

By Will McMartin 9 Feb 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Will McMartin is a veteran political consultant and analyst and a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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Days spent legislating: Near low point

A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail blasted American lawmakers, and especially Republican congressmen and women, for what the newspaper described as a "declining work ethic." ("Work, you lazy Congress," Dec. 8, 2006.)

According to the newspaper's calculations, the U.S. House of Representatives last year sat for a mere 103 days.

That less-than onerous schedule was "22 fewer days" than that of Canada's members of Parliament and, for The Globe, proof that the formerly Republican-controlled Congress was lackadaisical in fulfilling its public responsibilities.

British Columbians should be thankful that the gaze of Canada's national newspaper infrequently reaches over the Rocky Mountains, for to date we've been spared the embarrassment of seeing our legislators' workload compared to that of lawmakers elsewhere.

In 2006, you see, B.C.'s MLAs toiled in the provincial legislature for -- take a deep breath -- all of 46 days.

Really. Forty-six days.

Of 52 weeks in the year, B.C. MLAs worked nine.

Yes, those allegedly indolent U.S. congressmen and women last year put in more than twice as many days of work than did British Columbia's MLAs.

And Canadian MPs look like veritable workaholics with a work schedule almost three-times longer than that of our provincial legislators.

Shameless

Are B.C. lawmakers, who earn between $76,100 and $115,100, embarrassed by their lighter-than-light workload? Heck, no. Why, they've actually launched yet another bid to squeeze even more money, for themselves, out of the public purse.

Last week, in anticipation of the Feb. 13 opening of the third session of British Columbia's 38th Parliament, Premier Gordon Campbell appointed a three-person commission to undertake "a non-partisan, independent review of salary levels and pension arrangements" for B.C. MLAs.

Speed is of the essence. The three-member panel -- chaired by Vancouver lawyer Sue Paish, along with former Court of Appeal justice Josiah Wood and UBC business school professor Sandra Robinson -- must complete their report within 90 days. Legislation then will be quickly drafted so that, according to Campbell's news release, it can "be voted on in the spring legislative session."

Yessiree. Let's get moving, people! Relatively unimportant matters like hospital wait-lists, homelessness, tax competitiveness, the loss of head-office jobs, the pine beetle infestation in our forests and climate change are going to have to wait whilst our MLAs address their number-one priority: getting more dough.

Campbell government broke promise

Since 1973, British Columbians have been paying MLAs to do a full-time job. And, as initially explained -- by them, to us -- that full-time job consisted of a legislative sitting in the spring (to pass a budget and approve the spending estimates), followed by a later fall-sitting.

This pledge was reiterated in 2001, when the Campbell Liberals won election to government after promising to introduce "a fixed legislative calendar" with spring and fall sittings.

Yet, in the spring of 2005, the Campbell government short-circuited the spring sitting -- refusing even to debate the budget estimates -- so as to get an early start campaigning in the scheduled general election. The total number of days worked in the year? Fifty-two.

Last year, after the government initially cancelled the 2006 fall sitting, MLAs grudgingly returned to Victoria for a short, three-day sitting to appoint a children's commissioner. To repeat the point made earlier, the number of sitting days was 46.

In the past two years, B.C. Liberals have twice broken their promise to work full-time through a fixed legislative calendar. And the total number of days worked by MLAs over that two-year period, 98, is less than the one-year total of those so-called "lazy" American lawmakers.

By the numbers

It's not just a B.C. Liberal problem, or one specific to the 38th Parliament. As the chart at the top of this column illustrates, our MLAs' legislative work schedule has been in a gradual decline almost since they began receiving full-time compensation more than 30 years ago.

When W.A.C. Bennett was premier of the province, from 1952 to 1972, the legislature had a single sitting each year. A session would start near the end of January, last through February and March, and then conclude in the early days of April. The average number of sitting days per year was about 50.

The 1972 election to government of Dave Barrett's New Democratic Party resulted in a significant increase in both the workload and compensation for B.C. MLAs. In part, this was because the NDP had an ambitious legislative agenda.

But Barrett also believed that a legislator's job -- which, since Confederation, had been viewed as a part-time commitment -- was a "full-time" occupation.

And so to the traditional spring legislative sitting was added a fall sitting, with MLA salaries and expense allowances doubled to match the increased workload. (Actually, the legislators' annual indemnity first was hiked by 60 per cent, and then it was doubled.)

The number of legislative sitting days per year exploded to 102 in 1973, and 108 in 1974. The following year, when the fall sitting was cancelled in favour of a general election -- which brought the New Democrats' first term in power to an abrupt end -- MLAs still managed to get in 86 days of work.

Bill Bennett, W.A.C.'s son, restored Social Credit to power in 1975. The second Bennett was not enamoured with the NDP spring-fall schedule, instead favouring a single sitting that usually began in March and continued through the summer months until all budgetary and legislative business was completed.

In some years under Bill Bennett, the total number of sitting-days far exceeded the annual totals during Barrett's tenure. The House sat for a whopping 136 days in 1977, and 119 days in 1980.

Since then, however, government whim has determined the legislative assembly's schedule, with sessions frequently starting in one year and ending in the next. At the same time, the average number of sitting days per year has gone into a steep decline.

Incredible shrinking schedule

Three distinct trends are discernable in the chart above. First, the number of legislative sitting days usually is higher at the beginning of each government's term in office than it is at the end.

This is not a surprise; after all, newly elected administrations often have an ambitious agenda of reform intended to clean up the problems (real and perceived) left behind by their defeated predecessors. Then, after a year or two of hard work, government MLAs lose their enthusiasm for change, legislative or otherwise.

Second, the number of annual sitting days is noticeably lower in a year when a general election is held. Again, this is not surprising; prior to an election, most politicians would prefer to be courting their constituents at home rather than thumping their desks in Victoria.

The third trend is surprising, and problematic for those who believe, as do our current crop of under-worked legislators, that MLA compensation should be increased.

As mentioned earlier, the average number of sitting days per year under W.A.C. Bennett's Socreds (1952-1972) was approximately 50. When Barrett's NDP (1972-1975) doubled MLAs' pay, the average number of sitting-days per year also doubled, to about 100.

Under Bill Bennett's Social Credit government (1975-1986), the average number of sitting days per year slipped to 82.

And it has continued to fall ever since, to 77 under Socred premiers Bill Vander Zalm and Rita Johnston (1986-1991), and then to 73 when NDP premiers Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh were in power (1991-2001).

Now, under Gordon Campbell's BC Liberals (2001-present), the average number of sitting days per year has plummeted to just 60.

A bridge to sell you

Campbell's appointment of the Paish commission recalls an embarrassing episode 14 months ago when our legislators dispensed with conventional parliamentary procedure so as to sneak past the public and news media a bill awarding themselves significant pay hikes.

Whereas it almost always takes a few weeks (and occasionally several months) for a bill to go through first reading, second reading, committee stage, and third reading, in November 2005 MLAs took little more than an hour to unanimously pass – B.C. Liberals and New Democrats in rare agreement -- their pay-raise legislation.

It all fell apart, of course, when the media howled and the public seethed. NDP leader Carole James quickly buckled, turning on her former co-conspirators to assert new-found objections to the very measures she and her opposition MLAs had negotiated in secret.

For their part, the Campbell Liberals petulantly introduced legislation to repeal the pay hikes, but appeared less concerned about the impropriety of their actions than by James's traitorous about-face. Mike de Jong, B.C. Liberal house leader, even said that "the government intends to take no further steps to examine either the salary, pension or constituency office support issues...and we will move on to other issues."

Fat chance.

The fix?

Make no mistake, the Paish commission will not find that B.C. MLAs are under-worked and over-paid. A Las Vegas wedding between Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell is more likely than a finding by the commissioners that our legislators' compensation ought to be either reduced or kept at current levels.

(Do you think it mere coincidence that Campbell hand-picked for the commission three individuals who work in fields where six-figure salaries are the norm, and somehow failed to appoint anyone who works for the minimum wage, or belongs to a trade union, or is unemployed? Golly, one might have thought this omission would have aroused some response from NDP MLAs, but so far, only puzzling silence.)

Nope. A sizeable boost in legislative pay and benefits will be enacted before summer. To borrow an old phrase often heard in the legislative precincts, "the fix is in."

And so, let us hope that The Globe and Mail continues to be unaware or unconcerned with public affairs in our Pacific province. For, if Canada's national newspaper views U.S. congressmen and women as "lazy," one wonders what possible words their erudite editorialists would use to describe B.C. legislators.

"Idle"? "Lethargic"? "Inert"?

Oh, and don't forget, "sneaky" and "greedy," too.

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