By CHARLES CIRTWILL
Sat, Feb 19 – 4:54 AM
OK, so we have had four members or former members of our Legislative Assembly charged with various criminal offences related to a few thousand dollars here and there. We have had, if you believe the premier, all members of the House — past, present and future — tarred with the brush of scandal and misconduct.
I agree with the premier that past and indeed many current members have been tarred with that brush. However, I do not agree with his implication that they have been tarred unfairly.
Many of them were there when the rules were made, not just there in the House but, in some cases, there at the table, literally making the rules. Only one, if memory serves correctly, has a record of strong, consistent public opposition to the process of setting and paying member entitlements, that being current Finance Minister Graham Steele.
More to the point for today’s MLAs, they seem to be circling the wagons yet again. The review has been done and the rules changed, they say. Four individuals have been charged, so let the justice system handle it, they assert. Both valid points, to be sure.
But then we hear that there is no point in expending scarce resources looking into historical spending without specific criminal complaints. Here they lose me. I do not recall specific criminal complaints in advance of the auditor general’s initial probe.
The system has failed us, both the people of Nova Scotia and our elected representatives. The people of Nova Scotia want to know how badly things have gone astray, why, and how to fix the system, permanently. The premier needs to heed his own advice and recognize that without knowing the full extent of the problem, the stench of impropriety will always linger.
If our MLAs just can’t stomach a full public inquiry, then at the very least we need swift action on the largest outstanding issue, the still generous MLA pension system.
It seems everyone has agreed it has to happen, and most have agreed that current and former politicians should not be part of the review panel itself. So, that leaves only the terms of reference as holding up the process. Let’s deal with that right now. Here are my suggestions:
• The committee’s recommendations should be non-binding; a full, free vote in the House should decide the way forward, since we can’t hold citizens’ panels accountable.
• The committee should review current and future pension entitlements for current, future and former members. When we reviewed the public-service pensions last year, we reduced benefits not only for current and future public servants, but also for those who were already collecting benefits. Politicians have no special claim to be treated differently.
• The review should make recommendations on pensions, but take into account the total compensation package for members.
• The review should indeed use comparators, but those comparators should not be exclusively Canadian or exclusively for elected representatives. The average total compensation of Nova Scotians is at least one item that should be looked at either as a benchmark for MLA total compensation or as an adjusting factor in translating that compensation from elsewhere into a Nova Scotian context.
• The review should consider the full nature of work as an MLA, not only its demanding nature and its high stresses but also the fact that it is meant as a temporary position that should generally be undertaken at least in part as a public service.
• The review should not be limited to considerations of what pension plan would be best. Many private employers provide matching contributions to RRSPs, for example. The review should focus not on asking for a recommended pension plan, but on the appropriate public contribution to the retirement of those who serve, during some part of their working life, as members of the Legislative Assembly.
• If the panel were to decide that a defined-benefit pension plan is still appropriate, they should be charged with considering and recommending some mechanism to ensure the plan remains fully funded going forward.
• The panel should also be charged with recommending some public accountability mechanism to report on MLA pensions on at least an annual basis: Who is entitled to, or receiving, benefits; and how much are those benefits now and how much might they be going forward?
• Finally, the panel should also be asked under what conditions, if any, a member or former member should be stripped of at least the benefits from the public contribution to their retirement.
Well, there you have them — some terms of reference.
Next up, recruit the citizens’ review panel, Mr. Speaker, and put them to work. Our MLAs have other, more important work to do, and this ugly cloud of personal overindulgence is distracting them from it.
Charles Cirtwill is president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social policy think-tank based in Halifax.