Reform the Pensions, But Not for Us
By: Ryan Young
Is it any wonder there is so much cynicism directed at politicians in this province? While or economy crashes and burns, the big (but short) topic of debate in the House of Assembly this week was pension reform. Last month the Members Compensation Review Committee handed down its recommendations on changes to the provincial MHA pension plan, calling for pensions to no longer be indexed to inflation and that MHA’s not be able to draw from the plan until age 60 instead of the current 55. These recommendations were accepted by the House of Assembly Management Commission, with one very notable change. The review committee also recommended that the new pension rules be retroactive to include MHA’s elected in 2015, but the commission decided not to accept that recommendation, ensuring that all current members would be included in the older, more lucrative plan.
The management commission voted 3-1 to grandfather 2015 MHA’s into what is commonly being referred to in the media and online as “The Gold-Plated Pension Plan.” Liberal Andrew Parsons and PC’s Paul Davis and Keith Hutchings voted in favor while NDP MHA Lorraine Michael was the lone voice of dissent. Siobhan Coady and Mark Browne are also members of the commission but they abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest since they would be directly affected by the vote.
Andrew Parsons defended the decision by saying that it was unfair to MHA’s who have made financial plans based on the previous arrangement. That is looking to be a tough sell for the people of the province who are being taxed to death and cut to bare bones, while our MHA’s will now spend upwards of $3.6 Million to keep their golden trough full. Many might argue that it is unfair that they have to live with a government who abandoned their entire election platform as soon as they were elected in favor of the bad accounting exercise that has come to be known as Budget 2016.
To be fair, there were only a small number of MHA’s that were able to vote on the matter, and I would hope that we would have seen a few more no votes if it had been a full vote of the house. Strangely though the issue seems to have fallen completely off the table in the House of Assembly as nobody in the opposition wants to stand up and make an issue out of something that will take bread off their table.
I don’t blame them. Of course you would want to protect something that you feel you are entitled to after many years of service. I will save the entitlement conversation for another blog, but there is little doubt that such a culture exists within Confederation Building. But it is hard to blame the MHA's for not wanting to speak up against their own retirement plans. They must know how bad it looks though. I think the whole island portion of the province shifted just a bit with the collective eyerolls of 500 000 people when the news broke that the government wanted to exclude themselves from this much-needed pension reform. The old stereotype of politicians only being in it for themselves is certainly hard to break when these types of decisions are made and defended at the same time as we have ministers defending closing libraries or cutting snow clearing for less money than the grandfathered pensions will cost.
It is unfortunate that the commission decided to go this route. Despite our collective anger at government in general, I like to believe that most the people sitting in the people’s house really did get involved because they wanted a to make a difference. They probably had no idea what it meant to be a backbencher who would be forced to watch as cabinet made decisions without their input, that have caused them to be hounded and their faces plastered on poles all over the country and even in the states. The decision to grandfather the pensions may benefit them financially, but it certainly wont earn them any points with the people who must re-elect the 20 rookie MHA’s who will need to win back their seat to be able to qualify for any pension at all.
I don’t begrudge our elected officials their salary or a fair pension. A good MHA works very hard, both in the legislature and in their district. If they do the job well, they deserve to be paid well. If we want to make the job of an MHA a desirable one to attract new blood, it must include a respectful salary. For someone like me, $95 000 a year is much more than a respectful salary, but when you look at the work that a good MHA does, you can make an argument that they deserve it. On the other hand, when you have an MHA who does not do such a good job, or a government that does not respect or respond to the people, it is easy to see why people would think that it is all about the money. The same goes for pensions. Certainly, elected officials should have a good pension plan, but most people would argue that they should pay their fair share.
At the end of the day $3.6 Million is a drop in the bucket and we might very likely a see several rookie MHA’s fail to make the cut next time around, making that number potentially much smaller. But as it so often is when we talk about government, it is all about perception. You can’t ask the people to roll up their sleeves and give you the very sweat off their backs in the name of restoring our fiscal footing, while at the same time voting to exclude yourself from pension recommendations that you all agree are a good idea, but just not for you. I have worked very hard to try to get people to get involved and take notice of what is going on in our political landscape but what am I supposed to say to someone who looks at this story and says; “See, they are all just in it for themselves.” If you don’t want people to think like that, the solution is simple: don’t act like that.
The bottom line is this: People will always grumble about MHA salaries and pensions, for the most part they will live with it and not cause much fuss. But you can’t tell them that you can’t afford to keep their libraries open, or clear the roads at night, or cover their kid’s medication, if you are going to turn around and vote to skip out on reforms that the province desperately needs to save money. If you want us to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work, then you need to lead by example. Voting to keep your lopsided pension plan after handing down a budget like we had last spring, that might just get you a revolution.