As I Please

Saturday, December 16, 2006

You Get What You Pay For?

One of the nice things about having a web log is that you can 'publish' online a letter to the editor that didn't get published the normal way. I wrote this letter in response to a Dec. 11 column by the Toronto Star's Queen's Park pundit Ian Urquhart (notoriously terse in his replies to readers who address their letters to him directly), who agreed with the Ontario government's integrity commissioner that MPPs should be given a "significant increase" in their pay. My readers will likely be able to judge what he said in his column from what I said in my e-mail:
Mr Urquhart's latest column makes a good though not for me persuasive case for increasing Ontario MPPs' pay. Like my party I'm opposed to the idea and I'd like to raise some points:
1) Re. the higher pay for municipal politicians, the Ont. govt. could simply place a ceiling on it which it is empowered to do. Somehow I doubt their constituents would be outraged.
2) That constituents are not aware of the scrapping of the "gold-plated" pension plan is an example of the dangerous (to democracy) mix of cynicism and abysmally low civic literacy in this province and by extension the country, surpassed in the industrial world perhaps only by the U.S.
3) The "farm team" notion applied to the Tory MPPs who jumped to federal politics is simply false; they jumped because they saw that the neoconservative agenda was defeated (both electorally and by the change in leadership) at Queen's Park and saw a better outlook for it at the federal level. Not one Tory MPP that made the jump is what would be considered a moderate.
4) Re. comparing Ont and federal parliamentarians, does Urquhart really think or can he show that the quality of the latter is any better. While he says few would describe Ontario MPPs as "a gathering of the best and brightest" does he think anyone would give such praise to the House of Commons?
5) The idea of low pay relative to the private sector is the classic argument for raising representatives' pay i.e. higher pay will lead to higher quality. While I certainly do not advocate the kind of ridiculously low pay levels certain Southern state governors for example get (Bill Clinton's salary in Arkansas comes to mind) a thought occurs to me: if MPPs have pay conditions similar to the way the vast majority of Ontarians live perhaps they will begin to identify more with them and less with those who have benefitted from the economic changes that our government has done little to ameliorate, in some cases to actually promote, and nothing to reverse.
While I am not opposed to a pay increase in itself, I think that the increase should be reasonable. So what would be the criterion? A letter regarding the pay increase issue that did get published, by a Byron Montgomery, president of an organization called the Mad River Institute for Political Studies (the adjective is unfortunate) in Creemore, Ontario proposes an interesting and I think useful one:
Integrity Commissioner Coulter Osborne has reported that MPPs risk becoming a "farm team" for the federal and provincial ranks because they are significantly underpaid, writes Ian Urquhart. We disagree.
Two months ago, the Mad River Institute for Political Studies released its examination of politicians' pay at the national, provincial and municipal levels. Our work reckons Ontario MPPs are marginally underpaid, deserving about a $10,000 increase. But the difference between our analysis and that of the Integrity Commissioner and too many others is that we applied a formula designed specifically to calculate such pay based on the median income of average people, not politicians at other levels nor corporate executives.
In fact, our formula suggests MPs and many urban politicians are significantly overpaid. Members of Parliament receive $147,000. We think that should be just under $90,000. (Yes, less than MPPs, as the median income for Canadians is lower than Ontarians and average riding size is smaller across Canada than across Ontario.)
We have also calculated that Toronto city councillors would more fairly receive about $47,000 a year, rather than $95,000.
Osborne says low pay is becoming a "deterrent" for those thinking of running for the provincial Legislature. First, politics is not a vocation. It's an avocation. Politicians are not professionals guaranteed movement from level to level. Second, if money is a consideration in running, then those people should stay out of politics. The reason to run is to better your community, to help people, to literally serve the public.
What happened in the end? On Dec. 12 the McGuinty government raised MPPs' pay 25 percent, meaning a $22,000 jump for backbenchers to $110,000, and a $39,000 raise for the premier to $198,620 a year. So now Ontario has the most highly paid MPPs in the country, whereas before, and we heard nothing from the government about this, Ontario MPPs were the second most highly paid MPPS in the country, behind only Quebec. But even with the raise they are still behind federal MPs. Isn't the real problem not that Ontario MPPs were paid too little but, as Mr. Montgomery's letter indicates, that others were paid too much?


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