Alberta premier paid less than senior advisers, review told

Alberta's topsy-turvy world of pay for politicians has Alison Redford as the highest paid premier in Canada, but possibly the lowest paid person in her office.

A former legislature member says the world of pay for politicians in Alberta is a topsy-turvy one where Alison Redford is the highest paid premier in Canada but possibly the lowest paid person in her office.

Ray Speaker told a hearing on how much the province's elected officials should be paid that Redford's salary of $211,000 is less than the $264,000 made by the senior civil servant who advises her.

He noted the pay scale for Redford's chief of staff, Stephen Carter, starts at $197,000 and can escalate almost $70,000 from there.

He also said that the top civil servant in each department exceeds $250,000 in salary — well ahead of the $170,000-plus a year for a cabinet minister.

"There should be some kind of rule where the people that are elected to govern the province should have salaries that are at least comparable to the people they are managing," Speaker said Monday.

It was the first day of a two-week tour by former Supreme Court justice John Major to gather public submissions on how much Alberta legislature members should get paid and who should decide future salary increases.

The review was promised by Redford during her campaign last year to lead the Progressive Conservatives in the province and replace outgoing premier Ed Stelmach.

Speaker told Major that cabinet ministers and the premier need to make close to what their advisers are getting, but he doubted the public would accept such a steep salary bump.

"If you have to argue it politically, I don't think there's a strong enough argument at the present time that the premier's salary should be increased significantly. I don't think the public would buy it," he said.

Earlier Monday, Major was told that the base salary for Alberta politicians is $78,000 — second lowest in Canada — but goes up to an average of $125,000 once special allowances, committee stipends and RRSP contributions kick in. That makes it the highest among provinces.

Government documents released last year suggest the average is even higher at around $160,000.

The papers showed that in fiscal 2012-11 Tory backbencher Ken Allred was the lowest paid at $129,734, while Stelmach was tops at $221,438.

David Swann, since replaced by Raj Sherman as leader of the  Opposition Alberta Liberals, took home $203,985.

Speaker was first elected under the Social Credit banner in the 1960s and continued in public service into the 1990s. He said the strain on politicians — particularly those around the cabinet table — can be tremendous.

Politicians have crushing workloads as they try to balance party work with legislature sittings and committee duties, he said.

They answer to local political leaders, provincial ones, party bosses and constituents. There's a never-ending cycle of fundraisers, ribbon-cuttings and barbecues.

Speaker pointed out those who live outside the capital of Edmonton are away weeks at a time when the house is sitting

When they return home, there's a double-digit list of people to contact or meet with immediately.

"The family suffers often in the trade-off."

Compounding the problem, Speaker said, is that few politicians think about life after politics, never realizing that the lion' share of their job — meeting with constituents and stakeholders, shaking hands and cutting ribbons — isn't really a valued job skill in the private sector.

"There are very few members who are prepared for this transition. Most feel that once they're elected they will be elected for a long time. And we know this isn't true."

The pay issue flared up four years ago when Stelmach and his cabinet voted themselves 30 per cent pay raises after winning the 2008 election.

It has become a topic again as a provincial election nears and a quarter of current legislature members plan to retire.

Critics are focusing on the millions of public dollars that must be paid to politicians under what's called a transition allowance instituted in 1993 — the exit pay given to retiring members to replace pension plans.

Major was told Monday that the transition allowance was adjusted twice under former premier Ralph Klein to increase the amount of money politicians could receive.

Critics such as the rival-right Wildrose party say the transition benefits are far too generous and will lead to lavish payouts to the 21 members who so far have announced they will not run again in the spring election.

Leading the way is Speaker Ken Kowalski. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimates that, with 33 years of service, Kowalski is set to walk away with $1.3 million. Close behind is Stelmach, who will take home an estimated $1 million for his 19 years in the legislature.

The exit package is based on three months of salary for every year of service.

The three months are calculated on the highest paying years, and the number takes into account all accrued money, including base pay, extra money for committee work, RRSP contributions and special allowances for extra responsibilities.

The Wildrose party has called on Major to roll back the 2008 salary hikes and curtail the transition allowances.

Major is to compare member salaries to those of judges, other politicians in Canada and the Commonwealth and civil servants at all levels of government.

His review is off to a rocky start. Hearings slated for later this week in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray have been cancelled due to a lack of participants.

He is also to visit Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer before wrapping up in Calgary on Feb. 2.

His report is expected later this spring and the government has promised to make it public immediately. The plan is for the adopted recommendations to take effect after the spring election.