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The Ontario Legislature. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The Ontario Legislature. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Letter from Ontario

Messing with politicians' pensions can have unintended consequences Add to ...

Among the rituals of federal politics is a spate of post-election stories about defeated Members of Parliament walking away with generous pensions. This year, the ouster of nearly the entire Bloc Québécois caucus has lent some additional fuel to the fire - the spectre of separatist politicians slipping into a cushy publicly-funded retirement understandably rubbing many Canadians the wrong way.

At first glance, this might seem the perfect sort of populist issue for Stephen Harper to tackle now that he has a majority government. But to date, he's shown little enthusiasm for overhauling MPs' pensions. And if he ever does get that idea, veterans of provincial politics in Ontario - a few of whom play senior roles in his cabinet - will likely do their best to dissuade him.

In the mid-1990s, shortly after coming to office, Mike Harris scrapped the pension plan for Members of Provincial Parliament - replacing it with a far more modest RRSP option. It was a policy that fit perfectly into the anti-politician mood of the day - at least until everyone realized that veteran MPPs who'd already paid into the plan, including Mr. Harris, were due a big pay-out - and the opposition was loath to raise much objection.

But within a few years, even members of Mr. Harris's Progressive Conservatives were conceding it had some unintended consequences.

The most obvious and predictable effect is on candidate recruitment. It's difficult for provincial parties to lure people away from high-level jobs in the private sector, if they can't provide some degree of income security. And for that matter, it's hard for them to compete with federal parties; if someone is considering running for office, he or she is likelier to go to the level of government that involves less personal financial risk.

But the more significant impact has been on MPPs' longevity, resulting in the wrong sort of turnover on parties' benches.

On one hand, the lack of pension makes it harder to keep good people around. As they start to approach retirement age, MPPs with strong earning potential elsewhere are more inclined to head for greener pastures.

Conversely, those MPPs who do stick around tend to be those with limited options elsewhere. That includes politicians who are past retirement age, don't have a good pension to fall back on, and figure they're best to keep drawing a six-figure salary for as long as possible - even if the work itself doesn't much excite them anymore.

The provincial Tories, more than anyone, have recently experienced the latter phenomenon. With one or two exceptions, most of the stand-outs from Mr. Harris's time are long gone. But they've been unable to gently nudge lower-profile MPPs who are holding down their safest ridings - seats they'd ideally like to use to recruit fresh talent that could serve in their cabinet if they win government.

These challenges are here to stay, because once pensions are gone they're almost impossible to restore. While in opposition, the Tories themselves quietly sought all-party consensus to bring them back in some form. But the third-party NDP wouldn't play ball. And really, no government is eager to incur voters' wrath by making life more comfortable for politicians.

Whether most voters are aware that MPPs aren't getting pensions now is a different question. Provincial members leaving politics, voluntarily or otherwise, are known to express their frustration that constituents think they'll be paying for them to have a comfortable retirement.

Mr. Harper could yet decide to tinker with the federal system, which does seem somewhat absurdly generous relative to what most Canadians have to make do with. But he's likelier just to leave well enough alone. From a political perspective, the benefits of messing with politicians' pensions don't make up for the long-term cost.

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