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Pique n' your interest

MP Pay Raise

Once in a while, while surfing the dial, I stop on CPAC to watch our federal Members of Parliament in action. If a debate’s going on, I stick around to watch MP’s hurl accusations and bon mots at one another while the speaker of the house brandishes his huge mace to restore order. After one speech is finished the mob either cheers or blows raspberries depending on whether they are a Liberal or a member of the opposition, and whether they were paying attention.

I never got the sense that any of these people were working.

A few of the cabinet members and their shadows shuffle papers while the majority of the members, way back in the cheap seats, prop up an elbow, rest their chins in their hands, and try to stay awake. There are always empty seats on both sides of the fence, usually when it’s sunny or approaching a long weekend.

This same group is on the verge of voting itself a 21 per cent pay raise, based on the findings of a supposedly independent commission – led by a former Liberal MP.

It will eliminate an already controversial $22,800 tax-free allowance, but the base pay will increase from the equivalent of $109,000 per year to $131,400 – that puts our MP’s in the top two per cent of wage earners in the country, i.e. among the wealthy. Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s salary will increase by a staggering 42 per cent, from $184,600 to $262,988.

The independent commission compared MP salaries to salaries in the private sector, and determined that our elected officials deserve more to compensate for long hours and travel. MP’s backed the study, claiming that it will make it easier for political parties to attract qualified candidates – apparently the "low salary" is more off-putting to the intelligentsia than the mind-numbing bureaucracy of our political system.

I object. Not because I’m jealous, which I am, but because this pay raise will ultimately do more to ruin politics than improve on them – who do you trust, the person who entered politics out of principle and a sense of civic duty, or the schill who enters politics for money? Canada is a country, not a business.

And while they may work the same long hours as people in the private sector, they don’t have the same pressures. They can’t get fired or laid off, and they can give themselves a raise any time they want. They aren’t forced to compete with one another, or sit for humiliating quarterly performance reviews. They vote along party lines like mindless drones, which suggest that any MP can be replaced by a Collie who can show up and 9 a.m. and bark once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’. They don’t even have to get results – Endangered Species legislation, which 90 per cent of Canadians are in favour of, has died on the table at the announcement of the past two elections.

Most of the members of the opposition will vote against the pay raises, but the law will be passed anyway. Because the Liberals wouldn’t want to force anyone to be a critic, MP’s are allowed to opt out of the pay raise, but so far only Tory leader Joe Clark has had the political integrity to refuse the extra money – what would you do in an MP’s position?

In B.C., it’s a completely different story. Premier-elect Gordon Campbell has decreed that cabinet ministers will face financial penalties if they fail to meet their goals – up to $7,800 for an MLA and up to $9,000 for himself.

He didn’t set out any criteria for the "holdbacks" and I seriously doubt whether even one cabinet minister will lose a cent. It’s a serious thing to cut someone’s paycheque, and nobody is going to take that kind of treatment without making a fuss.

But even if the execution is lacking, at least the idea is sound: If only we could take the power to vote on raises – and penalties – away from the politicians and put those powers in the hands of the people, then we’d really be in business. True accountability, rather than lip service.

The first person I’d fine would be Gordon Campbell himself for getting rid of the Ministry of Environment, or rather the concept of a Ministry of Environment by replacing it with the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management and the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. According to his logic there is no environment out there, just resources at various stages of development. Following the same chain of logic, you could argue that every resource is renewable when given enough time. And last time I checked, water, land and air are the environment.

There are a lot of weird titles in his new executive council – Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations; Minister of State for Community Charter; Minister of State for Competition, Science and Enterprise; Minister of State for Deregulation; Minister of Provincial Revenue; Minister of Advanced Education – it boggles the mind and complicates my job. Whenever I identify the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, I’ll have to write "formerly the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks".

For someone who wants to trim government spending, how much are these ministry changes going to cost us hats, T-shirts, letterheads, envelopes, Web site redesign and signage?

- Andrew Mitchell