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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Jack Major's wise counsel too sensible to be adopted in neo-conned Alberta

| May 3, 2012
Retired Supreme Court Justice Jack Major

Former Supreme Court Justice Jack Major's long-awaited report on Alberta MLA compensation doesn't stand much chance of doing anything more than serving as a 327-page doorstop in some dusty Legislature office, which is a pity because it actually makes quite a lot of sense.

Not so long ago, when her Progressive Conservative Party was embroiled in a difficult election campaign, Premier Alison Redford indicated she would accept Justice Major's recommendations holus-bolus, whatever they were. Now she is not so sure.

It is said here the problem is not that Justice Major's report, released yesterday, recommends a much bigger salary for the premier, which would give the Wildrose "Opposition" something to hoot about for a couple of weeks but probably wouldn't offend the average voter all that much.

Martha and Henry, as Ralph Klein used to call the typical voters he successfully courted, get it that a premier has an important job. Moreover, they've been so propagandized by the pro-business dogma of our era that big shots deserve much bigger salaries than the rest of us they'd barely shrug at a $300,000 salary for the premier.

That part is baloney, of course. Good people will do great work for their province or country for very modest salaries out of a sense of public service. But it is one of the myths of our time that has been shouted from the rooftops by the very people who will nevertheless be quick to attack this report.

Indeed, if there's a surprise here, it ought not to be that Justice Major thinks the premier deserves as big a salary as a deputy minister, but that we have been sold on the idea that it’s appropriate to pay deputy ministers that much. Presumably this is because we’ve bought the line that since this is the sort of money big bosses would get in "the private sector" it's the only way to get "the best people" for the job -- a proposition that is pure horse pucky.

But Justice Major was right to suggest a salary of about $160,000 for backbench MLAs, and $241,000 for cabinet ministers -- pay that is not outlandish when you remember their responsibilities, the fact these sums include benefits and the reality that, like sports stars, Canadian Parliamentarians tend to have short, high-risk careers.

Justice Major hit the mark when he wrote: "Compensation for MLAs should be generous enough to attract suitably talented and capable individuals from all sectors, yet not so generous as to be the primary motivator for prospective members." (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, notwithstanding the objections of NDP Leader Brian Mason, he was right -- and probably not terribly controversial -- to propose that the tax-free portion of an MLA's salary be retained for the simple reason it avoids Alberta taxpayers passing this money pointlessly through to federal coffers, where it’s only going to be used to buy F-35s and shred valuable public records.

No, the real trouble with Justice Major's report that will have all the usual suspects in hysterics is his perfectly reasonable conclusion Members of the Legislative Assembly deserve a defined benefit pension for their service to the public.

The neo-Con right in Canada and elsewhere in the West has been bitterly attacking decent pensions for working people for decades for many reasons. Obviously, they are an impediment to the far-right's untiring efforts to undermine the middle class and increase the disparity in wealth between the uber-rich and the rest of us.

Moreover, well-run defined benefit pension plans, in which the plan member is assured of a regular monthly benefit upon retirement, are so efficient and deliver such good returns per dollar invested that they deprive the private-sector "financial services" industry of the opportunity to fleece retirees of their hard-earned savings for the benefit of bank executives and other members of the 1 per cent. In this case, they would save taxpayers money too.

So, sure enough, it wasn’t more than a couple of hours before the Edmonton Journal had published a story on Justice Major's recommendation quoting the always energetic Scott Hennig of the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation, an Astroturf organization created to work against the interests of ordinary taxpayers, assailing the report as "completely out of line with public expectations."

Sadly, this part is probably true, given the effective work done over the past 30 years or so by these mysteriously funded corporate propaganda outfits that purport to represent ordinary citizens.

"They are recommending a defined-benefit, gold-plated pension plan, the same kind of pension plan that Ralph Klein got rid of at Albertans' demand back in 1993," Hennig hyperventilated in the kind of comment we can expect to see a lot more of in the days ahead. It is far from clear, of course, either that what the Justice is recommending is "gold plated," or that Alberta taxpayers demanded any such thing when Klein was premier.

Presumably we can expect the foreign-financed Fraser Institute, which is also supported by taxpayers through its undeserved charitable status, to weigh in at any moment with a methodologically dubious report "proving" MLA pensions are a bad idea.

No, the only reasons these bad actors think defined benefit pensions for MLAs are a bad idea is that they allow ordinary people with common sense attitudes to aspire to a life in public service, and they set a bad example for other working people who might get the uppity idea they deserve a decent retirement without having to pay private taxes for the privilege to the banking industry.

Because people like our premier listen to the likes of the Fraser Institute and the CTF -- or, at least, are sensibly concerned by those groups' formidable and well-financed propaganda machines -- Jack Major's recommendations are unlikely to amount to much.

This is a pity.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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Comments

As in the private sector, "there's no crime in becoming wealthy - it's how ya' get there."

(...how come I always feel like one of those two characters in "The Holy Grail" who are discussing politics in rather esoteric terms while planting potatoes in the mud? Chuckle!)

 

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