The Canadian economy may still be in the doldrums, but a three-year freeze on salaries for members of Parliament and senators is set to expire in just five months.
Under legislation passed in 2010 by the Harper government, MPs' pay packages are scheduled to begin rising again in the 2013-14 fiscal year that begins this coming April.
All MPs currently earn a basic salary of $157,731. Additional jobs such as cabinet minister or whip or committee chair offer more compensation. Senators, meanwhile, earn a base salary of $132,300.
The opposition Liberals say the Tories shouldn't be hiking federal politicians' salaries while Canadians are still hurting. The NDP, meanwhile, argues the decision should be left to an independent body rather than the government.
The Conservatives, who are planning to water down the relatively rich pensions received by MPs, would not comment Wednesday on what will happen to the MPs' pay packages next fiscal year.
A government source said the intention is to tie future hikes in MPs' pay to increases in public-sector wages.
However, Liberal Party deputy leader Ralph Goodale said 2013 is no time to be awarding MPs higher salaries.
"As long as the international circumstances remain as difficult as they are, as long as public servants are being laid off and old-age pensions are being cut back, [and] all of the other austerity measures are coming into effect, it would seem to me a pretty hard sell that members of Parliament should see an increase in their salaries," the Liberal MP said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair accused the government of being in a conflict of interest on MPs' pay. He said setting federal political salaries should be the responsibility of an independent third party, not the government.
"You don't put people in a conflict to decide that on their own," he said. "You get the best people. That's what we do with judges. We strike an expert panel, they look at what the salaries are in the law firm, you look at the type of people you're trying to recruit and you come up with something that's a good reflection of that."
Sean Osmar, press secretary for Conservative Treasury Board President Tony Clement, wouldn't comment on the scheduled expiry of the three-year pay freeze for MPs.
He said the Tories demonstrated leadership by halting growth in federal political salaries from 2010-2013. "Beyond that, we have nothing to announce at this time."
Separately, opposition parties protested against the government's plan to bury cuts to MP pensions inside the second 2012 budget implementation bill. This presents the NDP and Liberals with a dilemma: If they oppose the budget – because of other measures in it – they will leave themselves open to charges they don't support MP pension reforms.
The Liberals said they back watering down MPs' pensions and they called on the Harper government to put the measure in a standalone bill so that all MPs could be clearly accountable for their votes.
The NDP's Mr. Mulcair said sticking MP pension changes in the budget bill would be "playing political games."
He called on the government to farm out the matter to an arms-length panel that would make independent recommendations on how to redesign the retirement savings plans for federal politicians.
Plans being crafted by the Conservative caucus would change the rules so that Canadian MPs have to wait upward of 10 years longer to start collecting their pensions.
The plan would be to change the rules – beginning after the next federal election – so that MPs begin receiving their parliamentary pension at age 65 instead of 55.
Any delay in the collection age for MP pensions would only apply to pension entitlements earned after the changes go into effect.
MPs who have racked up entitlement benefits under the current system would still begin receiving that portion of payouts at age 55.
There's a plan, however, being crafted to take more drastic action on the collection date for political pensions.
By 2029, changes to seniors' pensions announced by the Harper government this year will mean Canadians must wait until age 67 to receive Old Age Security benefits – up from age 65. Another proposal in the works would require MPs to similarly wait until age 67 to receive their pensions – an additional change that would take effect years from now when the OAS changes kick in. It's meeting resistance inside the Tory caucus.