It is an oft-quoted line from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, a single sentence that was striking in its call to public service: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
But our public service may not be what it once was — and, it seems, even at its highest levels, there are a healthy number of people who are concerned about what the province is going to do for them.
In a thorough and well-thought-out examination of the pay and benefits received by this province’s MHAs, as conducted by Judge Jacqueline Brazil, there was this jarring paragraph outlining the opinion of 27 MHAs who met with her in private: “In light of the challenges faced by MHAs, including the long work hours, the necessary but constant scrutiny from the media and the public, and the lack of public respect that this office often attracts, a good pension plan may be a major factor for those considering running for public office,” she wrote. “Many of the MHAs who met with me maintained that it was a factor they considered when deciding whether or not to seek election.”
It is a factor that carries a heavy cost. Right now, the unfunded liability in this province solely to fund the pensions of retired MHAs stands at $81 million. And whether the entitled like it or not, it’s high time the province’s gold-plated pensions for MHAs be reviewed and changed, a review Brazil has requested be done.
The judge also recommends that pay rates for MHAs be frozen for this year, and only increase by the cost of living over the next few years.
“All spoke of the need to attract and retain qualified people to public office, and all were of the opinion that the long hours, the onerous responsibility and the public scrutiny warranted the salary. They felt that compensation for the privilege of serving as an elected official should be competitive, and the benefits offered to potential candidates should be worth the effort.”
You could argue that it is already. At $95,357 a year, the pay is certainly competitive (in fact, it’s at the very top compared to the pay for members from comparable-sized provinces, including Saskatchewan and the other Atlantic provinces). It’s especially so, as only one-quarter of the province’s MHAs actually receive that amount.
“Presently, 36 of our 48 MHAs receive extra remuneration for serving in other capacities such as ministers, parliamentary assistants or party whips,” Brazil writes.
In other words, only 12 MHAs — 25 per cent — actually receive the job’s base salary of $95,357.
Everyone else gets more, sometimes substantially more.
“Section 12 of the Act sets out the various positions within the House, including Speaker, Deputy Speaker, leader of the Official Opposition and party whip. There are 11 such positions and the compensation for each ranges from $10,333 per year to $54,072 per year. The premier receives an added salary of $74,824, ministers receive an added salary of $54,072 and parliamentary assistants and legislative assistants receive an added salary of $27,033.”
The province’s MHAs should receive competitive salaries and benefits — but they also have to receive amounts in line with the taxpayers they represent.