November 22 2003

A Better Way!

Editor, Winnipeg Sun, editor@wpgsun.com.
RE: MLAs get to write their own cheques, RM archive copy by Frank Landry November 14, 2003

Once again the old, old story - within weeks of being elected, the first important order of business of the new government is that all-important item of - what? take a guess!! - what would be so important for the citizens the MLAs represent that they had to get at it right away?!?! - better health care? improving the school system? reducing crime? reducing poverty?!?! hurrying along this climate change stuff so the legendary Manitoban winters finally eased off a bit? - well, nice try - but actually not!! No - the most important thing demanding the immediate attention of these great democrats, these guardians of the Public Affairs (which includes, of course, the Public Purse) is (little drum roll!!!!) - - - nothing other than increasing their own salary-benefit packages!!! - salaries which have been, for at least the last 20 years or so, substantially above the average income of the people who elect them as their representatives.

It gets annoying after awhile, to say the least, and is undoubtedly part of the package of increased cynicism of voters, and the falling number of them who even bother to vote anymore. That is to say, these politicians, our representatives, have just recently gone through a longish election campaign during which they had more than ample opportunity to tell all of the voters they thought they were being underpaid, and would be looking for a raise were they elected - but somehow they all seem to have overlooked that item in their election rhetoric (I have located a story on the CBC, which can be found here - Election Promise Box - listing some 29 election promises of the NDP (along with 42 or so of the Conservatives, and 21 for the measly Liberals, maybe having something to do with their poor showing) - and not once - not anywhere - does anyone mention that they think the hardworking members of the Manitoba Legislature ought to get a larger chunk of the tax dollars of their voters in their pay packets each month. One might point equally at the media, since this question of asking for salary raises shortly after being elected is an old, old pattern, and one might think some journalist somewhere would have thought to ask what the current group of vote-solicitors felt about it. Although there don't appear to be that many real journalists running around anymore, given the coverage of a lot of stuff these days, but that's a topic for another time. Darn.)

If MLAs remuneration wasn't an issue a few weeks ago, it hardly seems fair to make it an issue now, vaulting to the top of that lengthy list of as yet unaddressed other promises, after the voters have voted for them all, and aren't, in the normal course of events, going to get to have a practical say on what they think of such a raise for another 4-5 years. I expect a lot of voters would have liked an opportunity to express an opinion, through their ballot, on the expectations of their representatives concerning pay, had they been informed that such a move was in the works. Although maybe I have it wrong, and this is not something the voters are considered qualified to judge - in your story, for instance, you say:

"...They (politicians like Premier Gary Doer, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard and Tory Leader Stuart Murray) are the ultimate authority in Manitoba and they have to vote on something," said Backman, the former chief executive officer for the Brandon Regional Health Authority...."

Really! - well isn't that amusing, not to mention informative - and here I (and I expect quite a lot of others!) have been labouring under the (evident) illusion for years that, in this "democracy", the people, the citizens, the voters, were in fact the "ultimate authority"!! - just goes to show how wrong one can be, I guess.

Speaking of Mr. Backman, were I a citizen of that fair province of Manitoba, I would also most certainly have liked to have been consulted about the idea of paying someone a very tidy $175.00 per HOUR, for a period of 6 months!!!!!! - to conduct a review of MPs salaries and benefits, and what not ("constituency resources" was also mentioned in the story) - a quick check on my handy computer calculator indicates that, at a standard 40-hour work week, that works out to something in the area of $180,000.00!! - OOF! - or even higher - if, as lawyers tend to do (don't know if he is a lawyer or not, but it's legal sounding work!) he works (or at least bills for hahaha!) closer to 60 hours a week, we're getting into the neighbourhood (or stratosphere) of $270,000.00!!!

Well. Wow. Words sort of fail me, facing those figures - exactly what kind of "work" is this man going to be doing that someone couldn't be doing just as good of a job of for a heck of a lot less money, I'd like to know! And does anyone dare suppose that, given that kind of largesse, this individual would ever recommend that those providing this tidy retirement package should receive a decrease in pay?!?!? or even only a small increase?!?! - hahahaharight!!!!! - well, I guess time will tell - but I will take any and all bets that he recommends a rather tidy benefits increase for the MLAs who are asking for this report and paying him this rather lucrative stipend for it. This sort of thing goes on all the time in Canada, and it really should be stopped - some consultant of some sort hired to "do a report" on MP/MLA benefits for a very tidy sum - and then recommending an equally tidy increase for those who engaged his services - perhaps your paper could get something underway, some citizen involvement in this process, some real democracy!! (I don't have time to go through a search of similar incidences, although I have no doubt it would be most interesting, but I do recall one case from my own former province of PEI where a Provincial Court judge was asked to do a report on PEI MLA benefits, and recommended a nice little increase, and within months he was rewarded by being named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of that fair little isle! - no connection of course between the two events!!! hahahahaaaa change the channel you darned conspiracy theorist you!)

It is a very serious waste of money, if you ask me, 200 grand for a simple little pay package recommendation - just what exactly is this Mr. Backman going to be doing to be earning all that cash? Just for fun, to point out what a huge waste it is, let me tell you what I would do, if charged with this task, and what sort of remuneration I would expect for it.

Briefly, I would first spend an hour or so on the internet, and find out what politicians in other parts of Canada are getting paid, and what their workload is - that is, how many constituents they represent, how many days their governments actually meet each year, and what sort of accomplishments they can point to over the last few years that have benefited the people of the province, to get a rough idea of what others in similar jobs are doing. Add to that a quick search to find what the average Canadian makes in a year, maybe, and the average Manitoban that these MLAs represent - it's always good to have a lot of figures, to get things in context. Perhaps, if my internet connection was working well that day, I might even browse around some other countries, for a wider comparison. But let us say half a day, altogether, given a somewhat erratic internet connection, mid-morning coffee break, dealing with some emails, stuff like that. Cut and paste appropriate findings into a preliminary report file, print out a copy to look at later and jot down ideas about other things that might be useful.

Next I would compose a short letter for publication in the provincial papers and other useful places that might suggest themselves, indicating that a review of MLA remuneration and consistency expenses was underway, and submissions from any and all interested persons, indicating what they thought a fair level would be to pay their representatives, would be received until such and such a date (snail mail ok, email preferred, for various reasons) - perhaps a month hence - this is, after all, hardly a big-ticket item, and there should be no need to spend much time on it, really (how much time did YOU spend negotiating your salary-benefits package, at any job you ever had?). MLAs themselves would also receive a similar letter, asking for details of their work load, and if they thought they deserved a raise, and if so how much, and justifying that figure. Taking my time, and being careful with the wording of the letters and what not, I could probably kill the rest of the day doing that and messing around haha excuse me doing research on the net. One day so far, resulting in the necessary wheels being set in motion to gather the data I needed.

Say in about 2-3 weeks I would have a preliminary look at the accumulated mail, and start making some lists or the salary-etc packages recommended by different people - the voters in one list, and the MLAs themselves in another; and then I would start work on the eventual report, by setting up the computer file, and making some notes of the more common and insightful reasons people were giving for whatever recommendation they were making re the benefit package, setting up some preliminary comparisons between all the data that I was getting from the various sources. Another not-too-stressful day, but good progress made - again, print out whatever documentation was underway for review and notes about changes, improvements, whatever.

At the end of the month I would gather in the rest of the submissions, finish the tabulation process, and get to work on the report. Since the MLAs are, after all, public servants, I would give first priority to the suggestions of the citizens themselves, a majority of whose recommendations would hopefully fall into a certain common range. If not, I would do my best to make a range of options. Then a page on what the MLAs themselves thought they should be paid (naming names, of course!!! - this is hardly the kind of thing where secrecy is appropriate - no employee gets to hide their face when asking what salary they expect!!! don't be silly!!!). Another day spent, maybe two if there was a lot of mail, which I would not really expect (but a day or two could be added if necessary).

Then add a day to finalise the report, in which I would outline the things I had found concerning pay ranges in similar jurisdictions, and summarize the various letters/submissions I had received. It should not be any more than 15-20 pages tops - we could always make the full archive of the submissions received available on a webpage or something, for those who were interested, and in the interests of complete transparency, which should of course be a given in a democracy.

Finally I would prepare a short question for the ballot, reflecting the information I had received - something like "Your MLAs from the last Legislative Session feel they should, in the next Legislative Session, receive an increase of $XX and these additional items in their retirement package/ constituency expense account/ etc-whatever. The citizens of Manitoba, when questioned, indicated that you/they feel your/their representatives should receive a pay-benefit package of XXXX. Indicate on the ballot below which of the various options (selected from the most common ones recommended by both voters and MLAs) you think is fair." For this process would, of course, logically be done in the runup period to a provincial election, and while the voters were voting for their MLAs, they would also be voting for how much to pay them, based on past performance and how much credibility they placed in the promises of the campaign, as well as comparative data from comparative sources, which would be provided to those who took an interest in the process. If a certain party wanted to make a certain pay package a part of their platform, and they got elected on such a platform, it may be that this could override the referendum on pay or make it unnecessary in the first place - but that sort of thing could be specified before the election.

Anyway, all in all, I figure about a week's worth of work, for which if I was to get say $2,000, I would feel I had been quite well paid. Stretch it a few days to $5,000 if a bit more was desired in the way of face-to-face hearings or something would be possible - but not really necessary.

Or just take the ideas above for free!!! as a public service (some of us do that kind of stuff without expecting huge amounts of money for it - really! - that is what democracy and community are all about, or should be!! - really, I've spent probably an hour or maybe two on this letter, and would not begrudge the ideas herein expressed being of use to someone for free!!! (you're right - I'd make a lousy capitalist)), and get some secretary already on the public payroll to work on it - there's nothing real complicated there. Certainly nothing that requires the expertise of someone who feels they deserve $175 an hour!! - it is, after all, a democracy, and we the citizens are supposed to be running things - things like deciding how much our MLAs get paid. (It would be most interesting to ask either (or both) of the government and this Mr. Backman exactly what additional value they expect to receive for the ~$200,000 they are going to pay for THEIR report!!!)

(I just can't leave this here without saying something about what I think about MLA remuneration! - Personally, I think most of these people are waaaaaayyyyy overpaid for the "work" they do - the same CBC site referred to above also has a list of NDP promises from the last election (you can find it here - 1999 Election Promises - and just have a look!!! - and think about it - this very short list of things is what these people have "accomplished" in FOUR YEARS!!!! - there are about 15 "election promises" listed here, and they have actually managed to fulfil at least partly about 12 of them. In four years!! When you think about it, that is NOT a heck of a lot of work!! And on top of this, it would, I expect, be most interesting to make a list of just how much money these people cost the taxpayers in other ways - such as junkets hahaha excuse me "working trips" hither and yon around the province and country and overseas - and it would be equally interesting to read the reports from the MLAs about why they went on such trips, and what they learned, and how exactly whatever they did or learned was used in the performance of their duties, and resulted in something good happening for the average people of the province!! - I know they will all protest loudly and indignantly and at length that they do huge amounts of "constituency work" - but again, I would like to see some of that quantified in one way or another, and justified - a great deal of such "work" is supposedly intervening for constituents with government offices that are giving the constituent a hard time for some reason - but the answer to that is to get a better grip on the government bureaucracy, so there are fewer screwups that need intervention, surely!! - yes, it's ok to have MLAs - necessary, really, as democratic representative government is as good of a way as any for running things in a big society with a lot of people and activities and needing to be organised and deal with other people and governments and whatnot - but let's keep things in perspective, and realise that these people are, after all, only our Representatives, supposedly doing what WE tell them and/or want them to do!! - it is not supposed to be a career, after all, or an "I AM THE BOSS!!" position, and they shouldn't be treating it that way!!)

Well - obviously I had better sign off - getting right carried away with my ideas about how Accountable and Responsible Employee-Representatives ought to behave, and be treated, when I just started with a short comment on this "sudden" concern of the MLAs about their pay-benefit package.

But how about it, as a basic question - don't you agree that the employers - in this case, the citizens of the province who are footing the bills - ought to at least be consulted in the matter of how much their employees are being paid - and that that consultation ought to happen in public, as part of or at least before an election campaign?


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