Chipping in, bailing out

If your co-workers received pay for work they never did, for years, and then had it clawed back when discovered, would you chip in to help them cover the shortfall?

If your co-workers received pay for work they never did, for years, and then had it clawed back when discovered, would you chip in to help them cover the shortfall?

Few people would say yes.

They didn’t earn it. They don’t deserve it.

Why should you make a sacrifice under those circumstances?

Yet the entire caucus of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, 61 strong, dug into their pockets this summer, producing $2,700 each, for a total $164,700, to be given to their co-workers and former co-workers.

The donated cash went to MLAs and former MLAs (of the PC persuasion) who were forced to return money they received for sitting on a committee that had not met for more than three years.

“I’m really proud of the team,” Premier Alison Redford said this week.

She also said the issue wasn’t about politicians taking money they didn’t earn. “It does reflect all of our values and I’m satisfied with the outcome.”

What nonsense. For the average Albertan, it was very much about MLAs taking money — our money — they didn’t earn. We should not be satisfied with the outcome, which suggests that party solidarity, and adherence to a faulty set of rules, take precedence over common sense.

Essentially, it tells Albertans that caucus understood the pay structure, and endorsed it for years, so they feel obliged to compensate those who were caught.

The decision was made by caucus this summer, although at the time the party’s only announcement was that every PC MLA or former MLA involved had repaid or planned to repay the money. No mention was made of the fact that their co-workers were chipping in.

Twenty-one MLAs sat on the all-party committee, 15 of whom were Tories. They received, at a minimum, $1,000 a month in committee pay.

When the open tap was exposed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation early this year, the committee had not met for 39 months, yet all members (including six sitting in opposition) continued to take the pay over all those months. In fact, Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ray Prins, the chair of the committee, received an additional $500 a month for his leadership duties. In all, $194,000 had been paid to committee members for not working.

Prins, in total, made $18,000 a year for not attending committee meetings, over more than three years.

In the end, Prins and some others on the committee chose not to seek re-election. His letter of resignation said the revelations about committee pay “resulted in the media, opposition parties and the public questioning my integrity as a person and an MLA.”

Redford’s election fate last spring may have hinged on her response to the mess: her integrity was also being questioned. She ordered the money repaid, after opposition MLAs had already coughed up, and she ordered a review of MLA pay.

In June, a new MLA compensation system was approved. The system includes $134,000 in base salary, plus a clearer structure for extra responsibilities. It was proposed by retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Jack Major, who was asked by Redford to prepare a report on salaries and benefits for provincial politicians.

Going forward, that’s good news: a transparent pay structure is essential.

But we should all have a bad taste in our mouths about this.

There is no evidence that changes would have been made if the waste had not been uncovered.

And there is no evidence, based on the MLA chip-in this summer, that the PCs found the former system abhorrent.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.