Redford had chance on MLA pay and missed it

CALGARY — Blasted for days over the legislature committee that paid real money for fictional work, Premier Alison Redford must be kicking herself.

The premier could have been the hero on this one. Instead, she allowed a taxpayer lobby group to bump her off the podium.

Redford was far out in front of the pay issue last Aug. 23, when she promised during the PC leadership campaign to "eliminate special payments for simply serving on a government committee."

Redford's view of MLA pay was in tune with the public mood. She knew it smelled and said so.

"MLAs are currently paid from so many different pots that it is difficult, and on occasion impossible, for Albertans to determine how much each MLA makes," said her campaign statement on pay reform.

Clear views like that won her the support of many Tory leadership voters; and, by no coincidence, virtually none from Tory MLAs.

Until just before the end of the campaign, only lonely Calgary-Hays member Art Johnston backed her.

Redford wanted to turn the pay system upside-down. Particularly, she was opposed to lush severance deals "that come with their own set of rules."

That was strong stuff. It set her apart, showed she wanted to change the system.

When Redford became premier she could have followed through immediately.

But she didn't. Instead, she turned her promise into a process — another panel to study an issue. And she vowed to follow its findings, no matter what they are.

Maybe that's the lawyer in her. Redford does believe in due process, in the advice of experts, in studying things first and doing them right.

But sometimes in politics firm leadership is all that counts.

The premier could have shoved that committee into the ditch in her first week on the job. The voters would have loved her for it, even if her caucus didn't.

But she formed her panel. Soon the pay issue must have seemed minor as health care and other problems heated up.

Symbolic irritants like political pay never really lose their power, though. They just lie dormant until somebody steps on them.

Last week, along came the Canadian Taxpayers Federation with its Teddy Awards for dumb waste.

And the winner among all provincial governments was Alberta's Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders and Printing.

Many Albertans were shocked to learn that MLAs are paid just for belonging to committees, and positively outraged that one all-party committee pays but never meets.

Redford essentially agreed with the federation when she said, "It's not right." Indeed, she'd been the first to say it, five months earlier.

But the premier had lost the initiative. She'd even forgotten — or never been aware — that she was briefly an unpaid member of that committee.

On Monday, Redford finally showed that it's not so tough to act after all, by decreeing that Tory MLAs will take no more pay from that committee.

In my view, she was a lot quicker off the mark with the budding uproar over fundraising efforts by Alberta's trade envoy to Asia, Gary Mar.

This time Redford didn't wait for somebody else to break the news. She did it first, abruptly announcing that Mar was suspended from his Hong Kong job pending an ethics inquiry.

There's no way the government escapes this one without further damage, but at least the new premier was acting the way she talked, way back last summer.

Calgary Herald, Mon Mar 12 2012
Byline: Don Braid

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