Ontario’s MPPs are in for a raise. Their salaries, frozen for more than a decade, are scheduled to increase in 2019 now that the budget has been balanced.
At least that is the theory.
We are unfortunately in a pre-election period where targeting politicians’ entitlements is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Federally, the Reform Party used it to its advantage in the 1990s when it attacked MPs’ so-called “gold-plated pensions.” Provincially, Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution promised to “end the sweet deals politicians have created for themselves,” including the abolition of MPP’s pensions and tax-free allowances.
And then there was Ernie Eves. In 2001, the PC government, supported by the opposition parties, asked Ontario’s independent Integrity Commissioner to assess the appropriate pay level for MPPs. The commissioner suggested modest increases prior to the upcoming election and a 25-per-cent increase after Ontarians had gone to the polls. This would ensure that Ontarians were fully aware of the proposed changes before they voted.
It didn’t work. Although Premier Eves initially endorsed the plan, as the election loomed he began to get cold feet. Without consulting his caucus, according to PC members who were there, he suddenly withdrew his support for the major increase. Then Opposition Leader Dalton McGuinty had little choice but to follow suit, killing the whole proposal.
As Ontario’s parties prepare to head to the polls, are we going to see the same thing happen again? It doesn’t take much effort to imagine a possible plank in either the PC or NDP platform: “Fifteen years of tax-and-spend Liberal mismanagement has led to out of control spending, excessive deficits, punishing debt and the fire sale of some of Ontario’s key assets. Once in power we will take the necessary steps to get our province’s spending under control starting right at the top. We will cancel planned raises for MPPs.”
And it may not just be the opposition. According to legislation passed in 2006, MPPs’ salaries are supposed to be set at the rate of 75 per cent of their federal counterparts. Due to the length of the current freeze that would translate into an immediate increase of approximately $13,000 for an ordinary backbencher, bringing their salary to around $130,000. Is the government really going to allow such a major increase? Or will they try to cut the opposition off at the pass by going into the election proposing a much more modest raise?
Let’s hope none of this happens. Turning questions of a politician’s pay and entitlements into an election issue serves nobody’s purpose.
We need good people to go into politics and they deserve to be paid appropriately. Considering the similarity of their ridings and the nature of the position, is it really that much to suggest a provincial member might be worth at least 75 per cent of their federal counterpart? And you don’t even have to compare their pay with the much larger salaries of university presidents, hospital CEOs and directors of education to make your point. As Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn recently wrote: “Perhaps people want their supposedly unprincipled politicians to earn less than school principals, or delight in the idea of police officers on overtime overtaking their MPPs.”
And then there is the constant uncertainty. Try recruiting good candidates when you can’t even confirm their pay. Between the time I became a candidate in 2002 and election day in 2003, my promised salary had decreased by 25 per cent. For many it may not matter. But it will for those regular women and men with families, mortgages and the type of everyday financial challenges that supposedly allow them to relate to ordinary voters — the type of people everyone says we desperately need in public life.
My prediction might be wrong, but there is one way to prevent any silliness. Let’s have the conversation right now. Let’s encourage the government and two opposition parties simply to agree that the increase will go into effect as planned in 2019 and that from then on MPPs will earn a salary that equals 75 per cent of a federal Member of Parliament’s. It doesn’t have to be grand or dramatic. A public letter signed by the three party leaders or their House Leaders would do the trick. And although it might make headlines for about 20 minutes, until President Trump sends out his next tweet, it would ensure that no party is able to make it an issue in the next election and create transparency for voters.
A colleague in the Legislature once told me that if you paid politicians a dollar a year some voters would say that they were overpaid. Changing these attitudes will not be easy. Let’s start with political parties resisting the temptation to turn these issues into “gotcha” moments. We need to convince Ontarians that when it comes to politics, like so much in life, you often get what you pay for.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy. This column was originally published in the online publication QP Briefing.