Thursday, July 15, 2004

MLAs are in it to serve, not for the money

VICTORIA - The Liberals deserve a little grief for the quiet way they let cabinet ministers up their expense claims.
And some MLAs' claims could stand a closer look.
But fundamentally it's wrong to get outraged over the expenses MLAs and ministers claim for time spent in Victoria on public business.
Sure, I'm critical of lots of the things MLAs say and do.
But I'm amazed and a little angered when I hear people complaining about politicians getting rich at the public's expense, or running for office for the big bucks.
You can criticize MLAs for lots of things. But if you complain about them being in it for the money, you're just wrong. (And maybe revealing something about yourself.)
The changes to the capital allowance - the $150 a day, tax free, that MLAs can claim for every day they spend working in Victoria - are a legitimate story.
MLAs used to be able to claim the money when the legislature was sitting, which is now about four months a year.
But the Liberals changed that, letting cabinet ministers claim for days when the legislature wasn't sitting, as long as they were in Victoria on ministry business.
The Liberals deserve some criticism for the way the changes was done. They made a big deal about taking a five-per-cent cut in their base pay - though not in the extra pay for ministers and the premier - while keeping quiet on the extra money for ministers.
And voters in some ridings will also likely want to know why their MLAs' claims are much greater than the norm. Dave Hayer, Tony Bhullar and Paul Nettleton all topped $20,000 in capital allowance claims last year. The average for MLAs was under $14,000.
But on balance it's tough to get all worked up about the expenses.
MLAs make about $70,000. That's good money, sure. But it's not enough to cover the cost of your real home and four months in Victoria.
And it's also not enough to make it worth trying to get elected for the money.
Remember, there's no job security.There's no pension. You'll spend months away from your family, heading home on weekends to catch up with what you have missed. (Yes, lots of British Columbians work on the road and have the same issues. That doesn't make them less real.) And you'll be putting your career on hold, always a risky business.
Some MLAs are probably earning more than they would in the job market.
But most are making a sacrifice, giving up money, privacy and freedom to be an MLA. They could be making as much - or a lot more - doing their normal work back home. But they want to make a difference.
Cabinet ministers make about $108,000, junior ministers about $94,000, Premier Gordon Campbell about $114,000. Again, those are good incomes.
But these are also - mostly - big jobs. What's it worth to be the minister of children and families and go to bed every night wondering if you're doing the right thing for the thousands of childre in the government's care? What should we pay the health minister, in charge of an $11-billion operation? (Colin Hansen's pay is barely half the salary of the health deputy minister.)
Too much, too little, the debate is legitimate.
But what's not legitimate is the myth that politicians are greedy, or getting rich at our expense.
It's just not worth going into this kind of life for the money. The sacrifices - in your work, your family life and every other area - are just too great.
Mostly, people seek to become MLAs - of any party - because they think they can play a role in making their communities a better place to live.
It doesn't always work out that way, and they aren't always effective.
But it's about service, not money, and they deserve credit for trying.
Footnote: The strains are greatest on MLAs from outside the Lower Mainland and most of Vancouver Island. They not only face horrendous travel complications, but give up much more in terms of their privacy. An urban MLA can get lost in Vancouver; if you represent Fort Nelson, eveyone knows who you are and has an opinion to share.

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