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Do Alberta Public Servants Deserve More Pay?

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Alberta's MLA pay has been decided and the results are mixed. Premier Alison Redford commissioned retired Justice Jack Major to write a report recommending reform of the MLA pay system, and she has now accepted most of the results. The rejection of two recommendations indicates healthy democratic responsiveness but underlines some flaws in the process.

The MLA's tax-free benefit was rightly eliminated. A tax-free allowance sent entirely the wrong message: if the taxman doesn't have to pay full income taxes, why should the rest of us? This change speaks to our values -- everyone must pay their fair share of taxation.

The massive raise proposed for the premier -- with no apparent relationship to what other provinces pay their premiers -- has also been rejected. While most Albertans agreed with this decision, we are left wondering how her pay will be determined. Are we back to officials setting their own pay?

Be Careful What You Wish For

Many organizations, including the Sheldon Chumir Foundation, argued in favour of an arms-length process for determining compensation for elected officials. It's supposed to be more objective, to minimize political influence, and to build public confidence in a fair process.

An arms-length commission led by a retired Supreme Court justice gave us a result that many Albertans reject, namely tax-free allowances and a 66 per cent pay increase for the premier. If we were committed to an independent process, must we accept the recommendations we did not like as well as the ones we did?
Who decides what's fair?

Justice Major was insightful during the review hearings, asking presenters who, exactly, should sit on an external committee to review MLA pay and benefits, and how, exactly, those people should be selected. There are some challenges with his suggestion that three judges form the committee.

A full time regular judge in Alberta earned $255,000 salary last year while the Premier made $221,438. From their vantage point on the bench, isn't it likely that judges would consider that the leader of the province ought to make at least as much as they do?

Another option is a citizen's assembly or committee to set pay. Given that in 2009 the average Albertan earned $24.84 an hour or roughly $47,500, what is the likelihood that such a group would ever consider an increase for MLAs?

We are a relative lot, comparing ourselves to those around us. What appears fair depends greatly on one's economic circumstance, and what is being compared. Our reactions to MLA pay proposals are both a personal and a political response that reflects our biases and level of trust or cynicism in politics. Is Alberta so different from other provinces?

"MLAs play an important role in our society and should be compensated fairly," I said in the Chumir Foundation's submission to Justice Major. He took this to heart, arguing the same point to justify the proposed compensation rates. Alberta MLAs will actually take a pay cut and still remain the highest paid in the country at $134,000, taking home $17,000 more per year than their next highest paid counterparts in Ontario and NWT.

All of us can agree that pay ought to be fair, but we lack consensus on what "fairness" means in practice. Are Alberta MLAs superior to all others in Canada, who are paid less? Justice Major made a case for not placing too much emphasis on inter-provincial comparisons due to Alberta's unique economic situation. There is something to this, since our oil and gas sector wages are relatively high. Yet consider Ontario and Quebec: both provinces have higher populations, greater territory, and larger economies than Alberta and their provincial representatives make $116,550 and $100,876 respectively. Comparators do matter in our conception of fairness.

Compensation and Values

There are many good proposals to come out of the report that few would quibble with: a more transparent package, upper limits on a transition allowance, and acknowledgement of our desire to attract MLAs motivated by public service.

The rate and structure of pay and the process for setting it go beyond merely finalizing a pay cheque. MLA compensation hints at how we value democracy and what we expect in terms of accountability from our representatives. It relates to what we think public service ought to mean, whether we believe it should be viewed as a career or not, how close to or how far from ourselves we see politicians, and finally, what our view of leadership is.