The political football of MLA pay

Politicians are one of the most reviled groups in society, and incidents like the ‘no-meet committee’ only fuel the citizenry’s perceptions of a culture of entitlement and privilege among not only politicians, but their ilk. The recent report on MLA pay, while recommending elimination of the transition allowance, clarification of committee pay and the effective trimming of backbenchers’ salaries, is under fire for suggesting a substantial (over 30 percent) increase to the premier’s salary. Premier Alison Redford immediately decried the proposed increase as overly generous and has said she will not take it. Regardless of what one thinks about politicians’ salaries, the issue illustrates an interesting conflict between the principle of impartiality and political necessity.

When MLAs’ salaries went up in 2008, there was a large public outcry over not only the increase, but the way in which it was decided, which was by the politicians themselves. Unsurprisingly, there were calls for MLA pay to be set by a third party, which would prevent politicians from interfering with the process for their own benefit.

‘Benefit’ is an interesting term because the common assumption is that the only ‘benefit’ politicians could extract from interfering with the process is a financial one. However, there is also the issue of benefitting politically. How? By acting counter-intuitively and lowering their own salaries in an effort to gain political capital (or, at least, not lose further political capital).

Am I dismissing politicians’ sincerity when they say they think they are overpaid? Not necessarily. However, if one is cynical enough to think politicians are “only in it for themselves,” then surely one must also be cynical enough to admit the possibility that politicians who refuse raises are only doing so to curry favour with the public.

This brings me to the tension between the principle of impartiality and political necessity. While Redford stood her ground about the impartiality of the review being conducted by former Justice John Major during the leaders’ debate, the public outcry over the issue of entitlement before and during the campaign necessitated her about face once she saw the size of the raise she would be getting.

Ironically, this also illustrates the selective castigation meted out by public opinion. To be technically precise, Redford is flip-flopping by abandoning her promise that MLA pay would be set impartially, and she is interfering with the process for her political benefit. However, if she did not flip-flop, then she would be just another overpaid politician who is only in the business to benefit themselves.

Do I think she made the right decision? In response, I ask, what is the ‘right’ decision? She arguably has made the ‘right’ decision, in terms of political necessity, and I think that is how public opinion will play out.

As a slight detour, I do not think politicians’ salaries are actually the real issue here. Professional athletes, corporate executives, and Hollywood celebrities are all paid exponentially more than politicians, and the average person does not seem to mind, or at least does not mind enough to stop watching television or going to hockey games.

Politics, however, is something that is hard to understand and something that happens underneath a big dome in a far off place, well-removed from day-to-day life. Because no one really knows what politicians do, it is hard to conceptualize how much they should be paid or what comparable benchmarks for their salaries sould be. Moreover, controversies like the ‘no-meet’ committee only give credence to society’s worst fear that politicians do not actually do any work.

Anger over MLA pay is about more than just money—it is about trust. While I do not think people will ever be happy about how much politicians are paid, I think most people would not care if they thought the politicians were doing a good job.

And that is why it will take much more than refusing a raise to restore public confidence in politicians. However, in the eyes of a cynical public, it is likely a welcome start.

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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