Thursday, 2 February 2012

In defence of MP pensions - Part 1

There’s lots of criticism these days of MP pensions, and a sane person might think that only Wile E. Coyote could want to wade into these dangerously churning waters.  But whenever there is a line-up of columnists and commentators all working overtime to agree with each other about something, I can’t help wanting to have a look at the other side of the question.  So in this and two subsequent posts, I am going to make three points in defence of MP pensions:
  • there is almost no similarity between the “job” of a Member of Parliament and any other employment.  Accordingly, the standard comparison argument - which is that the MP pension plan is unfairly generous compared to what other workers get is based on a faulty premise and therefore unsound.  
  • MP pensions are a component of their overall compensation, and it’s the whole package – not just the pension entitlement - that should be looked at if we want to consider the fairness of their compensation.
  • when their complete compensation package is looked at in light of the conditions and responsibilities of elected federal office, it’s fair and reasonable. 
Before I continue, full disclosure:  I am a former BC MLA and eligible to collect a pension for my nine years of elected service when I turn 60.  Obviously, I have a pecuniary interest in the issue of politician pensions, but I hope my arguments have some force, nonetheless. 
Part 1
A standard complaint – perhaps the standard complaint - about the MP pension plan is that it is too generous.  “Too generous” compared to other public and private sector pension plans and too generous given that so many workers have no pension plan at all.
The problem with this comparison argument is that the work and life of an MP is so completely unlike any other job, that any attempt to compare it to ordinary employment is simply wrongheaded.
There is nothing about the getting, the doing, or the leaving of federal elected office that looks anything like what other folks do for a living.
In the ordinary world, when people want a job, they apply for it, and they are entitled to assume that, if there is a vacancy, the employer will consider their application fairly, and decide among the applicants who is the best qualified for the job, and hire accordingly.  In most cases their personal privacy is protected, and if the employer were to make the hiring decision based on such considerations as hair colour or height or religious affiliation, the rejected applicant could file a complaint of discrimination under the Human Rights Code
Not so, elected office.  The moment you state your intention to run for Parliament, you enter a world in which the hiring decision - an election - is the most public process imaginable, where every aspect of your personal and private life is fair game, and where the ultimate decision, made by voters, can be made on any basis at all. Hair colour, height, and religion? Not only are these personal attributes not forbidden from consideration, they are often the subject of vigorous public discussion - think Mitt Romney and Mormonism, for example.
Running for office is completely unlike any other job application in one other important respect.  When you apply for a job as a sales manager for a manufacturing company, you know pretty much exactly what the job is, and how much it will pay.  When you run for public office in our system, you are of course hoping to get elected as an MP.  But everything else is up for grabs.  You could wake up the morning after an election and find that not only are you an MP, you are about to become the Minister of Finance, or alternatively, just one of a sea of backbenchers in a party elected by an overwhelming majority.  In 1993 Elsie Mackay ran to become an MP in Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservative government, and on election night found herself one of only two members of her party elected in the whole country.
Once elected, holding public office is nothing like any other job.  In the first place, you don’t really have an employer in the conventional sense.  Instead, you have multiple and often conflicting duties and loyalties - to your constituents, your party, your caucus, your leader, and your country.  In a tumultuous and changing economy, few of us have the job security that could be taken for granted a generation ago.  But even so, MPs have nothing resembling conventional job security.  Consider all the federal Progressive Conservatives elected for the first time in May 1979, only to lose office nine months later when Prime Minister Joe Clark lost the famous non-confidence vote.  Even in a world where fixed election date laws are supposed to provide certainty about the timing of elections, we know from experience that Prime Minister Harper is willing to disregard those rules when it suits his political purposes.
With the possible exception of active military duty, there is surely no other job so relentlessly disruptive of family life as that of a Member of Parliament.  If you are a federal MP from rural British Columbia, a trip to your office in Ottawa will often take more than a day out of your life each way.  Yes, the Port Mann bridge is a nuisance for Lower Mainland commuters, but it does not hold a candle to spending two or more days each week on airplanes just to “get to the office”.
And your electors usually have not the slightest bit of sympathy for this reality.  For some of the years I lived in Richmond, Raymond Chan was a Liberal MP and junior cabinet minister with responsibility for Asia Pacific issues.  I will always remember the fact that there were two things consistently said about Raymond: one, that he didn’t spend enough time in his constituency; and two, that he didn’t spend enough time away from his constituency (in Asia or Ottawa).  No matter where he was, and how hard he was working, a significant number of his constituents thought he was derelict in his duties because he should have been somewhere else. 
A recent BC survey found that MLAs missed on average 98 nights a year away from their family.  The number is surely higher for federal MPs.  Lots of people travel for work, but to spend a third of the year on the road is awfully hard on your personal life. I was particularly angered in 2010 when Russ Hiebert, a Conservative MP for South Surrey - White Rock - Cloverdale was forced to defend his expense account by explaining that he was travelling between Ottawa and his home and Cloverdale with his wife and children.  Imagine that.  An MP trying to keep his family together?  No wonder his office was vandalized!
And although I have already made the point that seeking elected office involves a nearly complete loss of personal privacy, it’s worth emphasizing that this doesn’t change once you are elected.  In BC, for example, MLAs are required to file annual disclosure statements concerning every aspect of their personal, family and business finances. When I was an MLA, I had to disclose my daughter’s baby-sitting income and my son’s paper route earnings.  And if you have had an active business, you will probably have to leave it in someone else’s hands, and hope that you don’t experience the same fate as my friend and colleague the late Stan Hagen, who put his business into a blind trust and had to stand by and watch when it went bankrupt.
And lastly, there is losing your “job” as an MP.  Now of course many MPs voluntarily choose not to seek re-election.  But being fired by the voters is a potential outcome that awaits any incumbent who seeks re-election.  And you can be relieved of your duties for any reason, rational or irrational.  Of course, if you are defeated, you face the prospect of standing on a stage in front of a crowd of supporters and TV cameras and having to say something graceful like “well, the voters are always right, and tonight they decided to elect someone else.”  I wonder how many people who have just been fired saying to their families and friends, “Well, the boss is always right, and he was certainly right to fire me!”
So being an MP is a job unlike any other.  Indeed, it’s really not a “job” at all.  And while there are certainly some who leave elected office and resume their former careers or find successful new ones, there are also folks for whom the transition from public to private life is extraordinarily difficult.  The April 2007 Report of the Independent Commission to Review MLA Compensation concluded (at page 11)
“There is no job security [for MLAs] and often few job prospects and little thanks when the position comes to an end.  One may ask why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to such a working environment.  The reality is that very few MLAs themselves understand the demands of the position, the significance of their responsibilities, the impact of their decisions and the intensity of the media attention until they are elected.”
All of this is at least as true for MPs as MLAs.  If anything, the position of MP is even more demanding, more heavily scrutinized, and more disruptive of personal life.
For these reasons, it seems to me that the exercise of comparing the MP pension plan to the pension rights of others is intrinsically flawed.   It’s not that the work and life of an MP is harder, and so MPs should have generous pensions.  It’s that their duties and responsibilities are so completely different from other employment that the exercise of comparison does not hold water.  The better question is to look at MP compensation as a whole and decide whether it is fair and reasonable.  I will turn to that question in the next posts.

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