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Canadian government

The rising cost of an elected politician

Last Updated May 2, 2007

How much is your member of Parliament worth? Are you getting good value for your tax buck? It may depend on how you want to calculate it.

Twenty years ago an MP earned $82,800, sat approximately 134 days a year in the House of Commons and passed, that session, 131 laws (over a two-year period). Inflation has crept up on all fronts.

Today's MPs earn $147,700 a year. That's a 78 per cent salary jump in just two decades — eight per cent more than the increase in the consumer price index. What's more, this current crop sat approximately 112 days in a 12-month period, according to Parliament of Canada figures, and passed an unusually modest 22 government bills.

Calculated by population, it is costing each of us 11.37 cents to keep the House of Commons operating for a year, compared to 6.8 cents per capita 20 years ago. On a cost per law basis, the numbers are really quite staggering: $17 million a law today compared to $2.7 million a year in 1987. (Adjusted for inflation, that last figure would be $4.4 million today.)

This last comparison may be a bit unfair: The current government is a minority and dependent on the whims of shifting coalitions to make its way in the legislature. Of course, it also happens to be one of the least productive minority parliaments on record, but even leaving that aside, legislative costs are clearly on the rise and outstripping inflation on all fronts.

The House of Commons, for example, cost $375.6 million to operate in 2006-07, compared to $229 million 15 years ago and $178.6 million in 1986-87. That's a 110 per cent increase in 20 years.

By contrast, total government spending over that period ($223 billion today versus $116.7 billion in 1986-7) increased 91 per cent. Overall inflation rose a more constrained 64.5 per cent.

What's a PM worth?

Legislative costs aren't just salary driven, of course. But salaries clearly contribute.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, earns $295,400 under a two-year-old system that matches his salary to that of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

That's twice what Brian Mulroney earned ($148,300) in 1987, and almost 2½ times more than what Pierre Trudeau took home ($122,150) 25 years ago.

Is Stephen Harper worth that much more than his predecessors? Well, two points here.

One, he wasn't the one to bring in the new salary regime. (An outgoing Jean Chrétien did that in an attempt to put political salaries on an objective grid.) The other: Adjusted for inflation, Harper earns only 21 per cent more than Mulroney did, and 16 per cent more than Trudeau.

Harper and the current entire crop of elected officials for that matter can be seen as the beneficiaries of multiple attempts to try to fix legislative salaries to something other than a legislature's own sense of its self-worth.

Twenty-five years ago, an MP earned $51,420 (taking into account the tax-free allowance). In today's dollars, that would be $119,139, which is still pretty hefty but almost $30,000 less than the current $147,700 base salary.

Are they working harder? In some ways, sure. Parliament still introduces upwards of 300 new bills a year. But — and this is a fairly crude measure — the number of bills actually making it into law seems to be on the decrease. The post-1974 Trudeau era average was just over 44 laws a year. This bumped up to 49 in the Mulroney era and fell to 39 in the Chrétien /Paul Martin period.

Blame the provinces

So why have political salaries and legislative costs risen so much? Those who study these things can cite a host of reasons, such as more complex legislation (and therefore more complex committee work) as well as new security requirements and communications costs.

But as legislative chronicler Robert Fleming noted in his Canadian Legislatures series back in the 1980s and early 1990s, "there is no question that the bulk of the spending is 'member-driven' as opposed to housekeeping costs" associated with security or such offices as the parliamentary library.

One example of this is communications costs. Each MP, for example, is entitled to four standard telephone lines and service, all paid for by the taxpayer, as well as four wireless devices and three separate voice plans. It's the kind of little thing that adds up when you multiply it by 308 MPs with an addiction to BlackBerrys and the like.

The other big cost driver, which is often overlooked, is legislative envy.

When it comes to salary creep, Quebec started the ball rolling in the 1970s and '80s when its nationalist ambitions led it to think of itself as a rival to the House of Commons. It would move ahead, then Ontario or sometimes Alberta would jump to catch up and the rest of the pack would follow suit.

Until just recently, Quebec was the undisputed leader on the provincial front. An MNA earned $105,231 in 2006, which was almost $20,000 a year more than its nearest rival. But then, at the end of last year, Ontario jumped spectacularly into the lead: An Ontario MPP now earns $111,000 as of Jan. 1, 2007; the premier jumped to $196,620 (a $39,000 raise).

For an ordinary Ontario MPP — and of course MPPs earn more if they hold other legislative positions as well — this represents a whopping 58 per cent increase in base salary from just 15 years ago.

One of the justifications for the raise was that they were previously earning so much less than the House of Commons, it was hard to keep good people from wanting to move up to the big leagues. But not surprisingly, it has started the old cycle of envy going again.

A few months back, some Quebec MNAs were agitating for a raise. Their argument: At $168,250, the Quebec premier was earning just a few thousand dollars a year more than his counterpart in Nova Scotia!

To be fair to politicians, they are in the unenviable position of having to decide their worth in the midst of considerable public scrutiny, and the result is they often put off their decisions until later, often inopportune times, when they then play catch-up with inflation and their own expectations.

Over the last 20 years or so, the trend has been to put legislative remuneration on a pure salary basis and do away with the tax-free allowance portion that has been around since Confederation.

This change can make salaries today appear to have jumped more than they actually have. But the table below uses different sources, including the Canadian Taxpayers Foundation and the Robert Fleming series of books on Canadian legislatures, to compare the real street value of legislative salaries, after the tax-free portions are accounted for, from 1991 and 2006.

It was a period in which inflation rose 32 per cent, according to the Bank of Canada, and as the chart shows, the costs of an MP and MLA went up in real terms in almost every case.

Legislative salaries 1991-2006
1991 2006/07 % increase
Parliament $106,246 $147,700 39
Ontario $70,096 $111,000 58
Quebec $81,144 $105,231 30
N.L. $71,617 $87,630 22
N.L. $71,617 $87,630 22
Alberta $70,223 $82,406 17
N.B. $60,891 $79,779 31
B.C. $60,473 $76,100 26
Manitoba $47,567 $73,512 55
Sask. $51,755 $73,173 41
N.S. $56,453 $65,556 16
P.E.I. $48,666 $56,849 17

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