03/21/2012 06:49 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Alward unfazed by MLA pension reform challenge

Premier David Alward is brushing off a legal challenge from several former provincial politicians of his government's reforms to MLA pensions.

Several former MLAs have complained to the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission about the retroactive reductions to their pension benefits.

The former MLAs, who were defeated or who didn't run in the 2010 election, saw their pensions reduced by about one-third.

Alward said the former politicians are free to challenge the pension reforms.

"That's something that New Brunswickers have the right to do that and I certainly would not question that,” he said.

“I feel very good about the work we have done on pension reforms."

Last year, the Alward government reversed a 2008 decision that boosted the pensions. As a result, MLAs who left office in 2010 are seeing their pensions reduced, in some cases by a third.

Former PC MLA Jeannot Volpé is one of the former MLAs who is endorsing the human rights challenge.

He told CBC News his original pension was more than $50,000 a year.

He said he decided to retire in 2010 and not run for re-election, in part because he expected a pension of that amount.

Alward said Volpé did know about the possible pension cuts.

"All MLAs, candidates, knew that it was part of our platform commitment,” Alward said.

Cardy blasts PC response

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy said Alward is not accurately describing his party's campaign commitment on reforming MLA pensions.

Cardy said Alward struck a deal with the Liberals before the 2010 election campaign to have the pensions reviewed. The NDP leader said Alward used that pension review to shield tough questions about pension reform during the election campaign.

"If Mr. Alward was telling his candidates and elected members that their pensions would be reduced, he was not saying that in public," Cardy said on Wednesday.

The NDP leader is also calling on Alward and interim Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau to distance their parties from the ex-MLAs, who are launching the human rights complaint.

"I’m calling on the premier and Mr. Boudreau to tell these retired and defeated MLAs, if they ever wanted to run again or be involved in the party … that they have to withdraw this complaint and stop wasting time and money," he said.

Volpé defends appeal

Volpé, a former finance minister in the Bernard Lord government, served as interim Tory leader until Alward took over the party in 2008. Alward also named Volpé as a co-chairman of the provincial government’s special energy task force in 2010.

But now Volpé said he wants the commission to determine if he's being treated unfairly because he's a former member of the legislature.

Volpé said the premier's decision to scale back MLA pensions by one-third is unprecedented and applies to no other government employee.

"It's the first time in New Brunswick that a government went back retroactive on pensions that was already given to someone,” he said.

Last year's rollback reduced pension payments to around where they were before a 2008 increase

That meant any MLA who retired in 2010, or was defeated in the election that fall, has seen their benefits reduced.

Volpé said he might not have retired if he'd known it was going to happen.

The province's NDP leader said Volpé and the other ex-MLAs have the right to file an appeal, but he called it a "disgrace."

Cardy said the human rights commission should not be wasting its time and resources on the complaint.

Thorny political subject

The issue of MLA pensions has been a thorny political subject for several years.

In April 2008, New Brunswick politicians voted to increase their base salary to $85,000 from $45,347. In exchange, the MLAs terminated two tax-free allowances that previously were used to supplement their incomes.

That change ended up generating huge increases in MLA pension benefits because pensions are based on salaries and the increase in the total wage package flowed directly through to their retirement accounts.

The key vote on the pension reform changes came as many people along the St. John River were evacuating their homes because of a spring flood. The legislature was also in the process of being evacuated at the time of the vote.

The pension issue became a campaign subject in 2010. The NDP rolled out a negative ad campaign attacking the MLA pension increases.

Alward also campaigned on a promise to reform the pension program.

The reforms gave New Brunswick politicians one of the richest political pension plans in the country.