How to distinguish Labour from Tories

BARBARA AMIEL March 23 1992

How to distinguish Labour from Tories

BARBARA AMIEL March 23 1992



Alone among the 295 members of Canada’s House of Commons, Guy Saint-Julien, the MP for the sprawling northwestern Quebec riding of Abitibi, declines to send Christmas cards to his 85,000 constituents at government expense. Instead, the 52-year-old former miner saves taxpayers thousands of dollars in mailing charges annually by expressing his Christmas wishes orally by rising to speak during a televised session of the Commons. Saint-Julien also keeps a detailed list of his expenses, releasing an updated version every three months to constituents, reporters and anyone else who requests it. He even reimburses the federal treasury for the cost of his personal telephone calls—even though the rules of Parliament allow MPs and senators to make unlimited free long-distance calls. He does that, Saint-Julien declares, because “it is the money of the people of Canada that I spend—not my own.” Saint-Julien says that his approach has brought him “dozens” of letters of support from people across Canada—but only silence or derision from his fellow politicians. In December,

1990, the Conservative MP rose in the Commons and proposed that Parliament cut its then$210-million operating budget by 20 per cent in recognition of the recession. Recalls Saint-Julien: “Some of the opposition MPs shouted at me, and members of my own party did not say anything at all.” He adds that he has encountered similar antipathy for suggesting repeatedly that all members should be obliged to make public a complete list of their expenses.

Saint-Julien is one of only a handful of MPs who have called for curbs on the generous range of benefits and privileges available to MPs and senators. For the most part, the list and value of those benefits are set by the parliamentarians themselves, meeting in private. A case in point is the indexed pension plan for MPs, which the Canadian Institute of Actuaries estimates to be 2Vz times more generous than a typical private-sector pension plan.

Although MPs are now discussing legislation to reform the plan, which pays immediate annual benefits upon a qualified member’s defeat or retirement, they have resisted suggestions by outside analysts and a small number of sitting MPs to shift responsibility for setting terms of the plan to a neutral, outside body. And, critics say, none of the reforms now being considered would make a significant difference to the benefits that MPs enjoy. Complains David Kilgour, Liberal MP for Edmonton Southeast: “We have fallen completely out of touch with reality. We feather our nests in a way that just appalls most people.”

Over the past five years, the total cost of running Canada’s legislatures, including those in the provinces and territories, has risen to $585 million from $410 million—a 43-per-cent jump compared with the 25-per-cent increase in the consumer price index during the same period. The cost of running the Senate has more than doubled over the past decade, from $21 million to an anticipated $43.4 million in 1992-1993.


In the coming fiscal year, according to estimates released last week, the cost of running the House of Commons will be $236.2 million, three per cent more than in 1991-1992. And although spending on the Senate is projected to fall by about 2.5 per cent from the 1991-1992 level, its budget still includes some surprising provisions. Among them: $6,000 to hire a parttime aerobics instructor for the Senate’s private gymnasium, $34,000 to employ a full-time picture framer and a $9,500 allowance so that Senate Government Leader Guy Charbonneau

can rent a hotel room for his chauffeur when he drives home to Montreal. Charbonneau, like all senators, is already entitled to 64 free roundtrip domestic flights on Air Canada each year, as well as unlimited travel on Via Rail.

Although the federal government has clamped down on spending by its departments and has imposed restrictions on travel by public servants, MPs continue to guard their own privileges jealously. Last week, many MPs reacted furiously when several media organizations obtained copies of the House of Commons’ confidential spending estimates for the coming year. The estimates were drawn up by the Board of Internal Economy, a panel consisting of MPs from the three major political parties.

Among other things, the board is responsible for establishing spending allowances for individual politicians, and its report has traditionally been kept private. But when details of the estimates became widely available, the chairman of the House management committee, Alberta Conservative MP Albert Cooper, recommended last week that journalists who were in possession of the document should be charged with “contempt towards MPs.” Ignoring Cooper’s suggestion, the committee later agreed to make the report public.

The public pressure on MPs to rein in their spending seems likely to increase with the publication this week of a book that documents, often in minute and startling detail, the salaries and benefits of Canada’s 665 elected representatives in federal, provincial and territorial legislatures. The book, Canadian Legislatures, was edited by Robert Fleming, a Toronto-based public-policy consultant and former

chief administrator of the Ontario provincial legislature. According to Fleming, his book underscores the need for Canadian politicians to restore fiscal discipline to their own legislative houses if they wish to overcome public cynicism and regain the confidence of voters. “Our politicians need to take a hard look at the conditions they have created for themselves,” Fleming says, “and decide whether they are appropriate for the conditions we all live in today.” Fleming’s book demonstrates that Canadian legislators are, for the most part, vastly better paid than their counterparts in comparable U.S. jurisdictions. Provincial politicians in Quebec, for one, which has about six million residents, receive a base salary of $60,123, as well as a tax-free allowance of $10,574. By contrast, a member of the state legislature of Florida, which has a population of almost 13 million, earns just $22,560.

At the same time, the $585million total operating cost of all Canadian legislatures last year works out to about $21.67 per

Canadian. In the same period, the cost of U.S. federal and state legislatures totalled about $1.5 billion—or about $6.02 for each U.S. citizen.

Despite that wide discrepancy, Fleming says that he does not take issue with the range of salaries that MPs now earn. Under a system established by an all-party committee of MPs, each member currently receives a base salary of $64,400. Cabinet ministers collect an additional $47,354, while Prime Minister Brian Mulroney receives a supplement of $69,920. Says Fleming: “If you want to be certain of attracting the best people to elected office, the compensation has to be reasonable enough to achieve that.” Rookie Liberal MP Dennis Mills, for his part, is adamant that federal politicians earn every cent of their paycheques. “Ask me if we are worth our salary,” says Mills, a wealthy Toronto-area businessman, “and I say that we work hard enough to deserve twice that.”

But the base salary paid to an MP is only part of the overall compensation package. In addition, every member of the House of Commons receives a $21,300 annual tax-free allowance—the equivalent of more than $41,000 in taxable income. In addition, MPs enjoy a wide range of so-called “allowances and services,” the details of which are contained in a 476-page manual issued to every member of the House of Commons. Those perquisites include 64 return business-class air tickets for an MP and the members of his or her immediate family, unlimited free rail travel and access to government-subsidized restaurants, a barbershop, picture-framing and upholstery services and a printing shop. As Reform party Leader Preston Manning told Maclean’s last week, “We have no particular quibble

with the salaries that MPs re-

ceive. But the list of benefits has to change— and the people will make sure that it does.”

But the most valuable benefit—and target of the harshest criticism—is the parliamentary pension plan. Under the current provisions, an MP who has sat in the Commons for as few as six years is eligible to collect a pension as soon as he leaves office. That means an MP first elected in 1984 would receive a minimum of $18,000 a year, indexed to inflation, for the rest of his life,

regardless of how long he lives. Those with more than 15 years of experience receive 75 per cent of their salary. The benefits increase dramatically for cabinet ministers because payments are based on the recipient’s average income during his best six years of earnings. Among those who could potentially receive large benefits under the plan is 35-year-old

Bloc Québécois House Leader Jean Lapierre, who served as a junior minister in the Liberal cabinet for three months in 1984. He would collect more than $3.5 million if he left politics before the next election and lived to 75 years of age.

Many MPs defend the pension plan because, they say, political careers are less certain than others and they also need compensation for the losses they suffer when they interrupt

other careers to enter politics. They also point to the mental and physical stress that results from dividing their lives between Ottawa and their home ridings, where their families usually live. Lapierre, who is divorced and has two children, aged 12 and 8, blames the constant commuting for the breakdown of his marriage. Lapierre says that he has not yet decided whether he will run in the next election—but he adds that he has no apologies to make for the value of his pension. Declares Lapierre: “These were the terms that were set when I decided to become an MP, and they are deserved ones.”

But many observers—including some MPs—argue that politicians do themselves and their voters a disservice by accepting such benefits. Says Fleming: “People do not feel that it is fair that MPs are allowed to set their own salaries and benefits. And as long as that situation exists, it colors their view of everything else that Parliament does.” Adds Toronto-area Conservative MP Patrick Boyer, who advocates a sweeping series

of reforms that, among other

things, would reduce the operating costs of Parliament: “People feel disconnected from their MPs, and they are right. We must change or become irrelevant.” But for now, at least, that message is one that few federal politicians seem to want to hear—and even fewer wish to act upon.