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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

We shouldn’t stint on politicians’ pensions Add to ...

There are few issues as fraught for elected politicians as their pay and benefits. Every time the subject comes up, members of the public begin lighting their brooms and heading for the village square.

There isn’t a province where this has been a bigger issue recently than in Alberta. The Progressive Conservatives’ four-decade-old dynasty became imperiled last spring when a controversy related to MLA compensation blew up on the eve of the provincial election.

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It was revealed that MLAs had been paid as much as $40,000 each to sit on an all-party committee that hadn’t met since 2008. Albertans were rightly furious – but not enough to vote in Wildrose. In May, former Supreme Court justice John Major released a report on MLA compensation that had been ordered by Premier Alison Redford in an effort to deal with a question that had been a sore point with taxpayers for years.

Mr. Major recommended several changes to eliminate the byzantine structure that had allowed politicians to quietly use committee work to top up a rather modest baseline salary and make them among the best-paid legislators in the country. Now, MLAs get a generous base salary of $134,000 plus the option to earn more if they sit in the cabinet or hold positions such as party leader.

The one matter yet to be dealt with is pensions.

Once upon a time, Alberta politicians had a wonderful pension plan – until word got out just how wonderful it was. It was estimated to be 40 per cent higher than the average for any other provincial politician in the country.

Heading into an election he seemed sure to lose because of the dark mood that word of the plan had put Albertans in, then-premier Ralph Klein cancelled it altogether before the start of the 1993 campaign. It’s been a noisy point of contention with Albertan MLAs ever since (although the Conservatives did later introduce a lucrative “transition” allowance that paid MLAs three months salary for every year in office on their retirement).

Whatever an all-party committee studying the pension issue ultimately decides, it’s unlikely to go over well with the public. All taxpayers see is a group of people setting their own terms of compensation – and wouldn’t we all love to do that? Except in this case, the politicians are considering the recommendations of a third party – Mr. Major.

He believes MLAs should have access to a pension plan of some sort, and he’s right. As much as we love to disparage our politicians, they fill an incredibly vital role. The average length of a politician’s service in Alberta is just over eight years. In other words, it’s rarely a lifetime career. For many of those who stand for office, it means interrupting a private career and sacrificing pension benefits they might have been accruing. It’s only reasonable that those who make the sacrifices that public life demands shouldn’t be penalized for it financially.

That’s why Mr. Major believes that a pension plan is a reasonable benefit for a politician. But any discourse on the subject has become so tainted it’s impossible to have a reasonable discussion. That’s not to say we should feel sorry for our elected officials or regard what they’re paid as a pittance. But we need to acknowledge that people such as Ms. Redford, who is effectively running a $40-billion corporation and is responsible for the economic well-being of millions of Albertans, is earning less than a typical human resources vice-president working in downtown Calgary. (Ms. Redford has already rejected Mr. Major’s recommendation that her $217,000-a-year salary be boosted to $335,000.)

Elected officials need to be paid in a way that accurately reflects their duties and responsibilities. They should be able to serve without suffering a substantial financial penalty in the process. “Democracy must be transparent, but it is not free,” Mr. Major wrote in his report. “We must understand that while there is a financial price to pay for democratic representation, it is a price worth paying.”

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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