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Ontario's pension legacy proving not so common sense

Rarely do Ontario's Progressive Conservatives criticize the reforms made in the Mike Harris era. But there's at least one Common Sense Revolution decision that some of them wouldn't mind having back.

The elimination of MPPs' pensions fit perfectly into Mr. Harris's anti-establishment agenda, if one overlooked the former premier and other long-serving members getting large payouts at the time. But it's doubtful that Mr. Harris fully considered all of the consequences for Ontario's political parties - consequences that affect his own party in particular.

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As next year's provincial election looms, each of the parties is beginning to focus on candidate recruitment. It's especially a priority for the Tories, who need to project that they're a government-in-waiting and have only a handful of obvious would-be ministers in their 24-member caucus. But injecting benches with fresh talent has been made more difficult by Mr. Harris's reform, for reasons both obvious and slightly less so.

The most common complaint about declining to provide for retired MPPs is that it adds to the difficulty of luring accomplished people into public life. It's one thing for some candidates to take a pay hit to enter public life, and a base salary in excess of $100,000 isn't exactly below the poverty line. But even at a time when most pensions are a little shaky, the retirement plan that the legislature now offers - the equivalent of 10 per cent of MPPs' pay going into an RRSP, up from 5 per cent when Mr. Harris first introduced it - doesn't do much to compensate giving up prime earning years to take an unstable job.

There are also concerns about keeping good people around. The federal parties, apparently, are not shy about pointing to Parliament's generous pension plan when they're trying to lure Queen's Park incumbents as candidates.

But the most counterintuitive problem with eliminating pensions is that, presumably far from Mr. Harris's intentions, it can actively encourage incumbents to remain in politics for the wrong reasons.

For an MPP nearing retirement age, the lack of old-age security can be a powerful incentive to continue collecting a six-figure salary for as long as possible. The consequence is that it's very hard for the parties to free up their safest seats - which incumbents are naturally the least inclined to give up - for cabinet-ready star candidates. (Or, as former Conservative leader John Tory discovered, for seatless leaders)

The result is that the parties tend mostly to lose MPPs who are accomplished enough to have better opportunities elsewhere, as the Tories recently experienced with newly minted Senator Bob Runciman, and the Liberals with mayoral candidates George Smitherman and Jim Watson. Meanwhile, aging MPPs who don't have bright prospects in the private sector or at other levels of government are more likely to stick around.

There may only be a few of the latter in each party, although the Tories - with two-thirds of their MPPs dating back to the Harris era - seem to have more than their fair share. But there is quiet cross-partisan recognition that it would make sense to find some compromise between the generous plan that Mr. Harris did away with and the stark status quo.

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That doesn't mean that anyone is eager to take the hit from the inevitable allegations of pork-barrelling. In the current economic climate - when the government is more preoccupied with protecting pensioners from bankrupt companies - it would be politically untenable for legislators to give themselves nest eggs. But even in better times, behind-the-scenes talks to restore pensions went nowhere.

If Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty has stepped around this issue, it's doubtful that Conservative Leader Tim Hudak - a child of the Common Sense Revolution - would be eager to take it on either. But if he finds himself in position to form a cabinet, Mr. Hudak might quietly have some regrets.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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