MLAs’ pay and public begrudgery

A friend asked recently why I had not written about the MLA expenses flap, and I confessed that I have trouble summoning much outrage over the issue. While I admire Brian Flinn’s dogged pursuit of the facts in, I fear that the public and the media are almost as much to blame for the problem as our lawmakers.

The public nurses an attitude of begrudgery toward politicians, and the media fans these embers at every opportunity. This is not our most attractive quality, and it makes it almost impossible for MLAs — who by definition must set their own salaries — to pay themselves appropriately for the work they do. So MLAs have, unwisely but understandably, developed a variety of secretive ways to pad their allowances.

A few observations seem in order:

  • On the facts adduced so far, an audit of the compensation received by 60-odd present and former MLAs turned up a small handful of obvious abuses, amounting to a few thousand dollars each, and a larger number of errors in accounting or judgment, amounting to less than a few hundred dollars each. Total recovery: far less than the cost of the audit.
  • Compared to recent expense scandals in Britain and Newfoundland, this is thin gruel. No Nova Scotia MLA built a swimming pool at public expense.
  • The media’s habit of lumping salary and expense reimbursement together is invidious. We expect MLAs to have constituency offices, and these require rent, salaries, furniture, postage, phones, electricity, computers, and sundry office equipment. We expect MLAs to travel frequently between their ridings and the capital, and this imposes real costs. To add these legitimate expenses to their base salary, and cite the total as “compensation,” is absurd.
  • While it is reasonable to expect MLAs to support large expenses with receipts, I am not sure I want lawmakers spending their time adding up slips from Tim Horton’s.
  • Many costs imposed on MLAs are not receiptable. You and I can brush past the minor hockey player in the supermarket checkout line, but an MLA cannot. They are hit up constantly for donations, gifts, handouts.
  • The circumstances of individual MLAs — remoteness from Halifax, size of riding, local culture of constituent service, committee duties — are almost infinitely varied. Any set of rules governing expenses will necessarily be arbitrary, and will beget examples that seem unreasonable.
  • The shaming of the premier into reimbursing the treasury for the cost of a leather briefcase was petty and unworthy of us.
  • When I began covering Nova Scotia politics 36 years (!) ago, an MLA’s job was considered part-time; most maintained other occupations to supplement their income. Not so today.
  • Upon taking office, most MLAs set aside established careers in exchange for a job with far less security than comparable positions in the private or public sector. A 2009 report on legislative salaries in Newfoundland and Labrador found that the average tenure for MLAs in that province over the preceding 20 years was 7.5 years.
  • Nova Scotia cabinet ministers make less than the deputies who report to them. Backbench MLAs make less than civil servants several steps down in the hierarchy.
  • Most MLAs work exceptionally long hours, especially in rural and Cape Breton ridings, where a culture of constituency service is the norm.

Yes, the compensation for MLAs should be open and above board, but the witless moralizing that has dominated the current brouhaha illustrates one reason it is not. I hope this will lead to a system in which MLAs receive a single, generous but all-encompassing salary, additional pay for cabinet service and a very short list of special house duties, and reimbursement for legitimate expenses, supported by receipts where practicable.

But if it does not, we can shoulder some of the blame ourselves. To paraphrase Pogo, “I have seen the enemy, and it is partly us.”