A battle over MLA pay perks has exposed rifts within Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s party – her rural caucus chair resigned abruptly Tuesday evening as another former Tory said the Premier is throwing members “under the bus.”
They’re the latest signs of unrest in the ruling Progressive Conservative party, which is expected to drop the writ within days and trigger an election. The party’s turmoil pits Ms. Redford – a Calgary lawyer who has made no secret of her hopes to toss out much of the party establishment – against much of the long-tenured members who fell out of favour when she became Premier.
Ms. Redford’s PC caucus decided behind closed doors Tuesday that the 15 members who sat on a so-called “do-nothing committee,” which hadn’t met in more than three years but continued to pay members $1,000 a month, would pay back some of the cash. The committee, which also had six opposition members, had become a lightening rod of controversy this month. Ms. Redford had called the pay system “ridiculous.”
PC members will only pay back, however, the fees paid since Ms. Redford became leader last October, about $5,000 each, and not all the fees paid since their last meeting, which would total about $40,000 each.
The decision wasn’t unanimous. Sources confirmed Ray Prins – the chair of the do-nothing committee who is also Ms. Redford’s rural caucus chair – resigned as a candidate Tuesday evening.
Lloyd Snelgrove, a former finance minister who quit the party shortly after Ms. Redford won, won’t pay back his cash. Instead, the independent MLA slammed the pay-back decision as electioneering, “some kind of epiphany of ethical morals.”
“Redford – for her own pre-election chances, to throw her own members under the bus is not up my alley,” said Mr. Snelgrove, who served four months on the committee earning $5,000. “By trying to tell the MLAs they’ve done something wrong, and they have to pay this back, why would you do it now? If it was wrong in October [when she became party leader] say so.”
Mr. Prins didn’t immediately return messages and wasn’t in his office Tuesday evening.
The Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders, which he was paid $1,500 a month to chair, earned a Teddy Award from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation earlier this month for wasting public money. About $870,000 has been paid since the committee last met.
Some opposition members have already paid back their share of the cash, including Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who wrote a cheque for $43,656.17 – all he’d been paid, plus interest. The PCs were under considerable public pressure.
“Caucus met today, we’ve had a very good discussion and we’ve agreed to pay back the MLA pay,” caucus whip Robin Campbell said Tuesday. The total Tory payback will be about $80,000.
Several MLAs on the committee couldn’t say what it did, and were surprised to learn they got the bonus. Several said payments are through direct deposit, and they simply didn’t know what the breakdown of their monthly pay was.
Committee pay is complicated (critics have called for a transparent, flat-rate salary). MLAs are paid for a maximum of three such committees, even if they serve on more. As such, members of this committee who served on at least three others could argue they weren’t, in fact, getting any extra money for the committee that never met. Such is the case of Rachel Notley, the lone New Democrat on the committee, who has said she won’t pay back any money.
Of the six opposition members, Dr. Sherman, Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier and Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth have paid back the money or pledged to. Liberal David Swann had already donated his committee money to charity, while Mr. Snelgrove has no plans to pay anything back.
Dave Taylor, the lone MLA of the upstart Alberta Party, also won’t be paying anything back, saying he already gave much of it to charity. Mr. Taylor says he has spoken out against the pay system in the past. “We knew it was cooked then, and it’s still cooked,” he said Tuesday.
Tourism Minister Jack Hayden, a former agriculture minister, said Tuesday he doesn’t believe Mr. Prins’s resignation is symptomatic of unrest among rural MLAs. “I don’t think so, no,” he said.
The PCs have endured a series of controversies lately, but supporters of Ms. Redford – who had the backing of just one caucus colleague during last year’s leadership campaign – have dismissed it as symptomatic of her party overhaul.
“This is what change looks like,” Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said last week. “It's tough and challenging and the opposition calls them scandals, but this means that this type of behaviour isn't tolerated and isn’t swept under the rug.”
An election is expected in April, but by law must be held by May 31. A former judge, called in by Ms. Redford, is currently reviewing MLA salaries – including whether, and how, MLAs are paid for committee work.