OTTAWA - Opposition MPs support slashing their generous pensions but they fear the Harper government is plotting a way to compel them to vote against any reforms to the gold-plated plan.
Reforms to the parliamentary pension plan are expected to be included in a second omnibus budget implementation bill to be introduced shortly.
But if the bill is hundreds of pages long and includes an array of controversial measures — like the first budget bill last spring — New Democrats and Liberals would have little choice but to vote against it.
And they suspect that's the whole point.
They believe the pension reforms will be stuffed into an unpalatable budget bill precisely so that Conservatives can accuse opposition MPs of refusing to share the pain of Canadians, whose retirement savings have taken a big hit over the past few years and who are being asked to wait until 67 to collect old age security.
Liberal House leader Marc Garneau says his party will support any and all measures to trim MPs' pensions and he's challenging the government to produce a separate bill so that MPs can have a clear vote on the matter without other issues intruding.
"If Canadians need to suck it up, so do we. Liberals are ready for it," Garneau told the Commons on Wednesday.
"I challenge the prime minister to commit today to that reform in the form of a single, stand-alone bill that is not mixed in with other bills ... so that Liberals can unequivocally vote for it."
Treasury Board president Tony Clement ignored the challenge as he thanked Garneau for his "exuberance" on pension reform. Clement suggested the one-time astronaut and potential Liberal leadership contender "must be ready for takeoff on some project of his own."
A committee of Conservative backbenchers is crafting the pensions reforms, which are expected to include boosting MPs' contribution rate to 50 per cent from 14 per cent and raising the age of eligibility to 65 from 55.
Unlike the Liberals who've signalled their intention to support whatever the Tories come up with, sight unseen, New Democrats are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said his party is "more than willing" to reform the pension plan but it should be done by an independent, blue-ribbon panel rather than by MPs, who are in an obvious conflict of interest.
"We'll see what they do. If it's something that's objective and a bit at arm's length, we know that they're not playing a game with it," Mulcair said.
"And if they try to embed it in a 700-page bill that's doing a whole bunch of other things that they know darn well that we'll never be able to vote for, we'll know that it's about a political game again for the Conservatives."
At the same time the government is preparing to scale back parliamentary pensions, the cap on MPs' salaries, which have been frozen since 2010, is set to be lifted in 2013-14.
Mulcair said that issue too should be decided by an independent panel of experts.
However, deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale said any increase in MPs' salaries would be inappropriate.
"As long as the international circumstances remain as difficult as they are, as long as public servants are being laid off and old age pensions are being cut back, all of the other austerity measures coming into effect, it would seem to me a pretty hard sell that members of Parliament should see an increase in their salaries."
Top 10 Most Expensive MP Pensions
Welcome to the $3 million club. The following 10 MPs will each receive an estimated total lifetime pension of more than $3 million if they retire in 2019. All the <a href="http://taxpayer.com/sites/default/files/CTFMP-PensionReport-WEB.pdf" target="_hplink">estimates come from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation</a> and are based on an MP retiring in 2019 and ceasing to receive their pension at age 80. The numbers if the MPs retire in 2015 are also included in the caption to each slide.
10. Michael Chong - $3,124,903
Conservative MP Michael Chong would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $2,684,816 if he were to retire in 2015.
9. Peter Van Loan - $3,194,114
Conservative MP Peter Van Loan would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $2,462,029 if he were to retire in 2015. (CP)
8. Rona Ambrose - $3,330,876
Conservative MP Rona Ambrose would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $2,429,149 if she were to retire in 2015. (CP)
7. Rob Anders - $3,643,873
Conservative MP Rob Anders would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $3,034,089 if he were to retire in 2015. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
6. Denis Coderre - $3,701,989
Liberal MP Denis Coderre would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $3,288,821 if he were to retire in 2015. (Graham Hughes/CP)
5. Scott Brison - $3,723,666
Liberal MP Scott Brison would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $3,113,881 if he were to retire in 2015.
4. James Moore - $3,795,386
Conservative MP James Moore would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $2,893,658 if he were to retire in 2015. (Althia Raj)
3. Gerry Byrne - $3,996,498
Liberal MP Gerry Byrne would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $3,450,711 if he were to retire in 2015.
2. Jason Kenney - $4,318,507
Conservative MP Jason Kenney would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $3,416,779 if he were to retire in 2015. (CP)
1. Stephen Harper - $5,596,474
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $5,456,109 if he were to retire in 2015. Harper's numbers are based on the PM not buying back into the program for his service as a Reform Party MP between 1993-1997. In order to make a political statement, Harper did not contribute to the pension program during his time as a Reform MP. After returning to Parliament Hill in 2002, Harper could have retroactively contributed to the program for his service from 1993 to 1997. According to the PMO, Harper has not and will not make those contributions. MPs are not obligated to disclose this information. If Harper were to choose to buy back in for those years, his numbers would change. If he were to buy back in and retire in 2019 he would receive an estimated lifetime pension of $6,216,858 and $6,233,568 if he were to retire in 2015. His numbers also include the special allowance he will receive as Prime Minister. An earlier version of this story used the numbers based on Harper buying back in for the 1993 to 1997 period. After being contacted by the PMO with the prime minister's pledge not to do so, the numbers were updated. (CP)
How Much Do Our MPs Make?
Here's a rundown of <a href="http://www.parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Lists/Salaries.aspx?Menu=HOC-Politic&Section=03d93c58-f843-49b3-9653-84275c23f3fb&Year=2011" target="_hplink">how much our MPs make</a> depending on their position in the House. (Alamy)
MP - $157,731
The base salary for a Member of Parliament is $157,731. Being named to cabinet or other positions nets an MP extra pay. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/scazon/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Scazon</a>)
Government and Opposition Whip - $186,151
NDP MP Nycole Turmel is the Official Opposition Whip. (CP)
Leaders of Other Parties - $211,425
Bob Rae is the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. (CP)
Minister of State - $214,368
Tim Uppal is the Minister of State for Democratic Reform. Ministers of State are essentially junior cabinet ministers. (CP)
Cabinet Minister - $233,247
Jim Flaherty is Minister of Finance. (CP) All ministers also receive a car allowance of $2,122.
Leader of the Opposition - $233,247
As NDP chief, Thomas Mulair is leader of the Official Opposition. He also receives a $2,122 car allowance. (CP)
Speaker of the House - $233,247
Andrew Scheer is currently serving as speaker. On top of his salary, Scheer receives a rent allowance of $3,000 and a car allowance of $1,061. (CP)
Prime Minister - $315,462
As Prime Minister, Stephen Harper also receives a car allowance of $2,112. (AP)