Deciding whether MPs are fairly compensated is a complicated and contested question. I have previously discussed the risks, uncertainties and disruptions that are part of the life and duties of an MP. That doesn’t completely answer the question.
MPs are called upon to make decisions that engage the fate of the country. They may not do so every day, and indeed they may only have to do so once or twice in their political careers. But if and when that moment comes along, I would feel more confident about my country’s future if I knew that the very best Canadians were in the room to make that decision. It makes no sense at all in my view to pretend that we will get the best Canadians in a room if we don’t offer to compensate them fairly. I believe strongly that public service is a calling, and a duty, and involves a measure of sacrifice. But if we don’t pay MPs fairly, then we can hardly complain about the quality of their work. In this, as in most things, we should expect to get what we pay for.
The work of an MP is complex and demanding. MPs are expected to have informed opinions about subjects as complex as Canada’s role in the world, the regulation of banks, national monetary policy, our military options and responsibilities, medical device licensing, immigration and refugee policy, law enforcement, constitutional reform, well, you get it. It’s a long list, and some folks spend their lives trying to master just one of these subjects. MPs are not expected to be experts on every topic that crosses their desks; but they are supposed to be experts in something which is even more difficult – and that is the business of turning all these complex questions into good policy and effective politics. That involves a whole host of additional expertise and skills.
Now you may say that many of our MPs don’t routinely possess these skills and expertise. Perhaps. I’m not concerned with how much the people who currently do the job of MP deserve to be paid; my concern is to establish a compensation level that is appropriate for these duties and responsibilities so that people who are qualified might have some reason to want to put their skills and expertise to good use in the service of our country as an MP.
Affordability is a relevant consideration. But it is vastly over-emphasized. I am much more familiar with the relevant provincial facts. The budgeted estimates for the operation of the BC Legislature in 2011/12 are approximately $69 million. No doubt, that is a significant sum of money. (Not all of it is for MLA salaries and benefits.) It is, however, less than 2/10ths of one percent of the total consolidated revenue fund expense for that year ($34.6 billion). It is a very small burden on the overall cost of government. If the cost of operating the legislature were twice as expensive, it would still be much less than a rounding error in the budget of the provincial government. I expect that the figures are at least somewhat comparable for the federal Parliament. In short, the public revenues of Canada are more than adequate to permit us to pay MPs fairly.
So where does this take us? In 2012 the base salary of an MP is $157,731. That figure excludes the cost of the benefits and pensions that I say ought to be included to give a truly accurate picture of MP compensation. But what if, as I suggested earlier, the net “comprehensive” income of an MP was, say, over $300,000 per year? Am I offended? No. I know what good and experienced doctors and lawyers and academics and business people and public administrators make, and in many cases, these folks earn much more than $300,000 a year. They work hard, and have demanding jobs, but they do not shoulder burdens of responsibility equal to those that lie on the country’s legislators.
Although I want my House of Commons to mirror the gender, ethnic, cultural and human diversity that is Canada, I especially want it filled with MPs who are in the best qualified people our country has to offer. We ought to go out of our way to ensure that compensation is not a deterrent to holding public office. We ought to stop punishing people who might want to serve our country by paying them less than the job is worth. If that means that a portion – even a large portion – of their compensation is a pension plan that gives them a significant measure of certainty for their life after politics, in return for the risks and burdens of their time in elected office, we should celebrate that fact, not bemoan it.