How to punch below your pay grade

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From my attic perch, overlooking a handsome residential street in downtown Moncton where summer occasionally deigns to make an appearance, I am master of all I survey – at least within the four walls that contains this, my worldwide headquarters.

So, naturally, I – and I, alone – determine the conditions (the where, the when and, crucially, the amount) I pay myself for the good work I perform on behalf of various clients who still appreciate a well-wrought phrase, a bon mot, from time to time.

In fact, I did this just the other day when I awarded myself a $13.56 weekly raise, which was nearly enough to cover the cost of four liters of milk and plenty to score a bottle of plonk wine.

No bosses hovered at my shoulder to dispute my self-evaluation; no trustees in bankruptcy (knock wood) pestered me with questions about my moral ambiguities. It was just me and the cheque book, and in the memo field I wrote, “There you go chief, don’t spend it all in one place.”

Apparently, our esteemed servants of Canadian democracy operate in much the same way. The question is: Should they?

News comes down from The Hill Times that Members of Parliament and Senators of this great and forgiving nation will receive pay bumps of 2.2 and 2.5 per cent, respectively, effective April 1, despite the fact that these rates exceed both the country’s current annual GDP and inflation growth rates. Their reasoning: Well shucks, folks, this is the way things are done in Fat City.

Frankly, I don’t object to the amounts as much as I do to the process. And in this I am not alone. “We’d much prefer to see politician salaries set by a panel of everyday Canadians who don’t work for the government,” Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation told The Times. “We don’t agree that it is a good idea for politicians to set their own salaries because there is an evident conflict of interest.”

I’m not sure what he means when he says, “everyday Canadians.” But, I’m inclined to take his point anyway. On the other hand, the politicians are right about one thing: the practice is not without precedence.

Last year at around this time, Senators hiked their annual salaries and perks by nearly $3,000 to keep up with the Joneses in the House of Commons. That meant that, henceforth, Upper Chamber residents would pocket about $135,000, compared with about $160,000 for MPs. These boosts followed a three-year freeze on their compensations.

And, boy, some of those compensations were handsome.

For a Senator, the base salary was $135,200. But if you were fortunate enough to be the Speaker, you could expect an additional $56,000. If you were Deputy Speaker, you could count on pocketing an extra $26,000. The bonus for being the government’s leader in the senate was a whopping $76,800.

The government Whip earned $11,000 above base pay grade; the opposition Whip snagged $6,600. The bonuses for most committee chairs ranged from nearly $12,000 to $6,000.

Nice work, if you can get it. It’s little wonder that the notorious and nearly disgraced Mike Duffy had trained his keen eye on this particular prize for so long.

Again, though, the fee schedule is less troublesome than the specter of entitlement that always attends star chambers whose members think that other people’s money (namely, yours and mine) is their fair game.

According to The Times, “in the United Kingdom, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has been in control of MP salaries since the expense scandal in 2009, which uncovered MPs claiming inappropriate and at times exorbitant expenses, like the case of one MP who expensed the cost of building a moat to his office budget. Members of parliament in the U.K. had their salaries frozen for two years, starting in March 2011 at ($124,000 CDN) a year.”

Something like this is an obvious solution for Canada. Why not institute an independent review and approval committee, not unlike any public utilities board in the country, to set and monitor compensation packages for elected representatives?

Why must we tolerate the appearance of collusion at the general public’s expense?

After all, unlike me, MPs and senators in this country are not free agents. They are not the masters of all they survey.

According to our Constitution, we are.

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