BACKSTAGE

A BACK-BENCHERS’ REVOLT? Inadequate salaries, slow promotions

BLAIR FRASER June 6 1959
BACKSTAGE

A BACK-BENCHERS’ REVOLT? Inadequate salaries, slow promotions

BLAIR FRASER June 6 1959

A BACK-BENCHERS’ REVOLT? Inadequate salaries, slow promotions

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

Any sensible wife knows that if her husband suddenly begins to complain that the coffee is cold, a new coffee warmer should be the least of her worries. The coffee is the same as it has been for years. What’s different, if anything, is either the man who drinks it or the woman who makes it, or both.

This analogy may be a little unfair to the three lonely back-benchers who, to loud but anonymous applause, got up a month ago to say what all back-benchers think — that they are underpaid. Douglas Fisher of the CCF raised the question, suggesting that a fifty percent increase would be about right, a rise of indemnity from $8.000 to $12,000 and of tax-free expense allowance from $2,000 to $3,000.

Fisher is a schoolteacher who, when he went into politics two years ago, had got to the $6,000 bracket in his profession. If he had stayed with it, he would be getting $7,500 or $8,000 now in his old job. As an MP he gets $8,000 in salary and $2,000 in tax-free expenses, amounts that seem on the surface to be a pretty good living. In fact, Doug Fisher says, he is losing $1,500 a year by staying in politics: he feels morally bound to stick it out for this one parliament. but he says llatly and positively that he won’t run again.

Here is the budget that Fisher has drawn up for the hundreds of voters who wrote to him about his speech:

Living in Ottawa away from home costs $50 a month for a room (very cheap, other MPs say) and at least another $80 a month for board — for a seven-month session. $910. Long-distance calls and telegrams that an MP can't avoid cost him another $575 a year. Travel between Ottawa and his riding mounts up—even taking a lower berth in a tourist car, he can’t get home to Port Arthur for less than $15 each way, and he has to make about twentyfive trips a year of which the government pays for only two. (His “free’’ railway pass covers rail fare only.) Fisher is not a lavish entertainer, but he figures he spends at least $25 a month taking constituents to lunch or dinner in the parliamentary restaurant — $175 a year.

He has a spread-eagled riding in which he has to do a lot of extra driving. which he estimates at an average of a thousand miles a month; at ten cents a mile, that’s $1,200. Charitable donations of various kinds, inescapable for an MP, cost him $300 a year more than they did when he was teaching school. Office expenses in Port Arthur come to about $250.

The rest of his parliamentary budget is made up of odds and ends that another MP might not incur, but he makes his point: even for a schoolteacher, who is not one of our more lavishly overpaid citizens, it is no financial break to become a $ 1 (),()()()-a-year MP.

Other men of modest means confirm his finding. Donald Maclnnis, Conservative MP for Cape Breton, is a miner by trade, and any number of western MPs are small farmers. They all have found that the seeming glitter of a $10,000-a-year income is an illusion — they were better off financially back home.

When Doug Fisher brought this up in the House as a grievance, only two back-benchers had the courage to follow him. They are both Tories and they happen to be room-mates — John Maclean of Winnipeg and Grant Campbell of Cornwall, Ont. Neither man will admit it, but the indications are that they were rapped over the knuckles for their temerity in backing Fisher’s heretic plea. This may explain why nobody else rose to support them, although every private member in the House agrees with what they say.

But if mere money would make things right, the government could fix

it without trouble. Everyone, including the three MPs who spoke out, agrees that the government cannot now propose an increase in the annual indemnity, but the same purpose could be served by a quiet relaxation of the limits on the MP’s expenses.

John Maclean, for one, would be satisfied if the government would give him half a dozen air tickets to Winnipeg and back, each year; that alone w'ould save him enough money to let him break even. Others suggest, anonymously, that they could bear it if the government would pay a modest sum for their office expenses in the constituency (present allowance: nil) or make some provision for travel on official business.

But all these things are merely symptoms, not the true cause of the backbenchers’ malaise. Especially on the government side, the back-bencher suffers not so much from poverty as from a general and total frustration. He feels that he doesn't amount to much in the Ottawa scheme of things, and he is too right.

The plain fact is that under the parliamentary system as it has developed in Canada, there is not enough to occupy a bright and energetic MP. If he wants to, he can use his time studying public

issues or learning the intricacies of government departments—this will do him no actual harm, provided he doesn’t make any special use of what he learns. But if he presumes to offer any advice to the minister responsible for a particular matter, the back-bencher becomes instantly and permanently suspect. The more incompetent the minister, the deeper his suspicion is likely to be.

All that the ruling party really wants of the private member is his vote, from time to time. The rest of the time he can go to sleep.

This is a fact well known to anyone sufficiently experienced to be elected to parliament. It is not true, as some politicians say, that the Conservative firsttermers were so naïve that they thought they were going to be statesmen. Even the greenest of them knew, in a general way, what a back-bencher’s life is like. The bright ones went into politics, not because they didn’t know that a private MP doesn’t have much fun, but because they didn’t expect to remain private MPs for long.

At best, some of these have to be disappointed— there are only twenty-two cabinet jobs and maybe sixteen parliamentary secretaries, plus a few committee chairmanships and assorted chores like deputy chairman, to be distributed among more than two hundred hungry Tories. But the Liberals had the same problem, slighter only in degree. They managed to keep their restive members in line by keeping the top levels reasonably fluid. Seldom did an ambitious MP surrender to despair — he could always see a promotion just around the corner.

“After two years, there isn’t even the faintest sign of any changes on our side,” said one young Conservative member. “We're not given any hope at all.”

That’s the sort of talk, like the husband complaining about cold coffee, that ought to be giving the government pause.

There are about forty unfilled vacancies at the moment, for jobs that are all respectable and mostly fairly lucrative. They include six senatorships and several embassies. There are also at least ten cabinet posts filled by people less able, less competent, less keen than many of the private members who sit behind them. A reporter can see this with his own eyes, but even if he were blind he would hear it from the disaffected MPs themselves.

Until quite lately, this wasn’t so. The glamour of two election victories, the magic of power put the government above criticism, at least from its own supporters in the House. But in recent months this spell has been rather noisily broken. Conservative back-benchers are saying quite openly that if things go on as they are. the party will have to find other candidates in 1962.

Undoubtedly some of the discontent could be assuaged by a better financial deal. Most MPs say Doug Fisher's calculations are absurdly modest — one Toronto Tory figures it costs him between $5,000 and $6.000 a year to meet his expenses as a member, not counting the loss of income in his private business.

But the real disenchantment is not financial. It’s their status, not their deficit, that is making MPs unhappy. Until the prime minister makes up his mind to appoint some new ministers, as well as a platoon of parliamentary secretaries. he won’t be in command of a happy ship.