OTTAWA (CP) - Tightening a belt is tricky when you have to wrap it around 39 people.
Stephen Harper's biggest cabinet ever will have to do some sucking in of its collective gut if the Conservatives are serious about trimming the fat.
The annual salary bill for all the ministers and junior ministers appointed last week is about $9 million — the largest on record.
That's at a time when the Conservatives are looking to slash $4 billion from the bureaucracy and billions more in the coming years to balance the books.
The prime minister's team rivals the largest cabinets of Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin.
According to 2011 figures on Parliament's website, an ordinary MP draws a base salary of $157,731 per year. As prime minister, Harper gets double that plus a car allowance.
Still, Harper's $317,574 salary to run the country is modest compared with what bank presidents and top executives in the private sector make.
Ministers get $75,516 atop their MP base salary, plus a car allowance. Ministers of state get an extra $56,637, but no car allowance.
Marjory LeBreton gets $132,300 for being a senator and another $75,500 for her role as leader of the government in the Senate.
So with one prime minister, 25 ministers, 11 ministers of state, and government senate and house leaders, it all works out to roughly $9 million in salaries and perks.
And don't forget all those staffers.
The Conservatives quietly approved increases in the maximum salaries political staff are entitled to receive.
The changes went into effect April 1, even though Harper has announced budget cuts to eliminate the federal deficit one year ahead of schedule, in 2014-15.
The prime minister said that feat would be achieved "by controlling spending and cutting waste."
Whether a staffer actually receives the maximum allowable salary is left up to the discretion of each minister, who must still keep within an overall office budget.
But ministers will have a little more money to play with since the government has decreed that their offices should no longer have to foot the bill for international travel by ministers, their staff and parliamentary secretaries. Those costs will now be absorbed by government departments instead.
The Prime Minister's Office says cabinet salaries are largely covered by MPs' regular wages.
"Almost two thirds of your cost is actually their salaries as MPs, which would have to be paid whether or not they're in cabinet," spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in an email.
Harper has also defended his beefed-up bench.
"I think it's important to know when you're talking about austerity, that this government has reduced ministerial budgets significantly," he said after his cabinet was sworn in at Rideau Hall.
"So the question here is not cost. The question is making sure that we have a ministry that is broad, representative of the country and tries to use people's talents to the maximum. ...
"I think it would be a mistake to try and have a smaller cabinet that would make less use of people."
Harper's cabinet ranks in size with Mulroney and Martin's 39-member teams.
When Mulroney appointed his first Progressive Conservative cabinet in 1984, a minister earned $95,200. There was also a tax-free expense allowance of $17,600, which varied depending on the MP's riding.
Mulroney made $115,100, plus the tax-free expense allowance, when he took office.
At the time of Martin's first Liberal cabinet in late 2003, a minister's salary with car allowance had risen to $208,138. The more junior secretary of state job earned $189,312.
Martin made $280,522 at the time.
Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says his issue isn't so much with what cabinet ministers make, but with the pensions they go on to collect at age 55.
"We're fine that they're decently compensated," Fildebrandt said.
"They're not outrageously compensated. They're well compensated, but they're not outrageously compensated. But pension-wise, they are outrageously compensated."
The group says that for every $1 an MP puts into their pension plan, taxpayers contribute another $4.
Fildebrandt also questioned defeated MPs' severance packages.
Defeated Conservative cabinet minister Josee Verner wasn't in the House of Commons long enough to get a pension. But like all MPs who have served fewer than six years, she qualifies for a severance equal to half her salary.
Verner's nearly $117,000 golden parachute may ease her jump to the Red Chamber — where she will earn $132,300 a year as one of Harper's three new senators.
Compare that to what a typical Canadian family makes. The median after-tax income of a family of two is $63,900, according to Statistics Canada.