POLITICS

Alberta premier says caucus decision to refund no-meet committee pay her idea

03/21/2012 02:45 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT
EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford says she's pleased that government politicians who sit on a do-nothing committee are giving some of their pay back.

But those same politicians were in no mood to take a bow Wednesday.

Arno Doerksen, Dave Quest and Pearl Calahasen were among committee members who brushed past reporters on the way to question period, ignoring shouted questions and requests to speak.

Independent Lloyd Snelgrove, a former Tory, didn't stop to talk either.

The head of the committee, Tory backbencher Ray Prins, was absent from the house, a day after saying he was quitting over the issue.

Redford told reporters she didn't talk to Prins, a two-term member of the legislature for Lacombe-Ponoka, before he announced Tuesday he would step down when the writ is dropped for an election.

"It wasn't unexpected that he made the decision to leave," said Redford.

"He's certainly been someone who's been a strong MLA for his constituency and a strong public servant at different levels of government, and I thank him for his service."

In a letter to his constituency, Prins said the pay issue had become intolerable and had "resulted in the media, opposition parties and the public questioning my integrity as a person and as an MLA."

He left over a controversy that scorched all parties when it first erupted two weeks ago, but has become one the Tories have allowed to grow into a public relations brush fire.

It revolves around the 21-member, all-party standing committee on privileges and elections, standing orders and printing.

On March 5, the watchdog Canadian Taxpayers Federation delivered a tongue-in-cheek Teddy Award to the committee for egregious waste of taxpayer money. All committee members are paid $1,000 a month for their work, even though the committee hasn't held a meeting for more than three years.

They were initially paid per meeting but that was changed to a monthly stipend in 2008.

The taxpayers federation said the result was $261,000 a year spent on a committee that didn't get together.

When the news broke and public outrage grew, Alberta Liberal and Wildrose party members on the committee gave the money back. The NDP has refused to return member Rachel Notley's stipend, saying she sits on so many committees for no pay, that she essentially was not remunerated.

Up until Tuesday, the Tories mocked the Wildrose and Liberals for returning the money, calling it a hollow "grandstanding" gesture.

Redford herself has changed course a few times.

Two weeks ago, she said she would wait for completion of a broader independent review into members' pay and compensation before acting.

A week later, she announced all her Tory committee members wouldn't be paid for future committee work until a review into the situation was completed.

Last Friday, she reaffirmed she wouldn't ask committee members to return the money, but noted that voters were free to hold those members accountable at the ballot box.

Then, on Tuesday, she asked caucus to revisit the issue in a way that reflected her values as leader.

"I made it clear to caucus that under my leadership, since the time that I became leader, I did not want to signal to Albertans that any MLA in our caucus would receive compensation for that committee," said Redford.

"I asked caucus to discuss that. That was the decision that they came to, and I'm pleased that they did."

Caucus whip Robin Campbell said the 15 Tories will repay the money they received since Redford took over last October — a total of $80,000.

Wildrose legislature members Guy Boutiler and Heather Forsyth have repaid all the money they received, worth $44,000.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman no longer sits on the committee but cut a cheque for $43,000 for his years of non-service service.

Redford was asked why she didn't have her MLAs repay all the money rather than six months' worth.

"I can't revisit the past," she said. "I can ask my caucus to reflect my values since I became the leader of this party."

Prins had been a lightning rod of public discontent because, as chairman, he took home $1,500 a month.

When the story broke, he defended the committee by saying members had to be paid monthly. "We're always on standby to meet at a moment's notice," he explained.

Days later, transcripts of the last 2008 committee meeting quoted Prins saying he wasn't sure if the committee would meet again in the next 20 years.

Last week, he was dubbed "Prins of Thieves" on Twitter after he told a newspaper that he wouldn't repay the committee money because he had done nothing wrong.

When he stepped down, Twitter bid adieu Wednesday with "Goodnight, sweet Prins."

Alberta politicians are already among the best paid in Canada. The average politician takes in $163,000 a year, while the premier makes over $200,000.