MLAs scramble to explain phantom committee's stipend
Imagine you were getting paid $1,000 a month to do work above and beyond your regular job.
Now imagine you haven't actually done any extra work, but you still got paid the $1,000 a month.
If you can do that you have a vivid imagination - or you're an Alberta politician, specifically one of 21 MLAs who are members of an all-party legislative panel with the long-winded title Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders and Printing.
The committee hasn't met since 2008, yet every member gets paid $1,000 a month, 12 months a year.
The committee's lack of vigour has been in the news off and on over the years but it made national headlines on Wednesday after the Canadian Taxpayers Federation handed out its tongue-in-cheek Teddy Awards to highlight the "worst of the worst in government waste."
Named after Ted Weatherill, a former federal-government employee dismissed in 1999 for "outrageous" expenses, the Teddies take aim at all politicians deemed to be wasting taxpayers' money.
And in the case of the Alberta standing committee, the award goes to all parties, not just the Conservatives.
Of the 21 members on the committee, 16 are Conservatives, two are from the Wildrose Party, and there's one each from the Liberals, New Democrats and the Alberta Party.
According to the legislative assembly's web page, the committee "meets when the House has referred a matter for consideration." And as the taxpayers' federation points out, the house hasn't referred a matter to the committee for 39 months.
But the members still get paid.
That had MLAs from all parties scrambling on Wednesday to justify why they're accepting money for working on a committee that doesn't do any work.
The worst scrambler by far was Genia Leskiw, the Conservative MLA from Bonnyville-Cold Lake, who tried to dance around the subject while managing to stick at least one foot in her mouth.
Leskiw said she doesn't know how many committees she sits on and she couldn't explain what the standing committee of privileges and elections actually does. When asked by reporters to explain the committee's work, Leskiw was literally at a loss for words for almost five seconds before blurting out, "No comment."
Asked if she was going to keep the $1,000 a month - or give it to charity as Liberal MLA David Swann does - she paused again before responding, "No comment."
Asked if the committee should be scrapped because it's not doing any work, she paused and said, "I have no opinion on that."
And this, I should point out, was Leskiw's second interview on the subject with reporters, after she had time to reflect on the subject and get briefed by staff.
The most common explanation for accepting money for work not done is that the MLAs work on other committees that don't pay any-thing extra.
"When I was first elected, I sat on seven committees and I was paid for sitting on three of them," said New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley who now sits on five committees but gets paid for three. "The net outcome is that I'm doing more than I'm paid for."
Notley's comments were echoed by virtually all the MLAs, who argued that getting paid to sit on a committee that does no work is counterbalanced by not getting paid to sit on committees that actually do work.
The opposition members, though, have a mitigating point in their favour. They want the standing committee on privileges and elections to meet but they're routinely shut down by the government. Notley has tried twice to have the committee meet in the past year to discuss points of privilege raised in the assembly dealing with government members' behaviour, but the government MLAs, who control a majority of members on the committee, ignored her.
"It's a total waste of money," says Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier, who has been a member of the committee since October. "They should either call the committee to order or they should can the committee."
Boutilier says the opposition members re-ally have no choice but to sit on the committee just in case the government actually does call it to order to discuss technical issues of debate and decorum, in which case the opposition parties want to be there when decisions are made.
The solution to this issue likely lies in the hands of Jack Major, the former Supreme Court justice who runs a one-man commission reviewing MLA compensation. The average Alberta politician's remuneration is $163,000 a year including base salary, a retirement allowance and committee pay. Major could, for example, recommend that MLAs simply receive a lump-sum salary that covers all of their work or only give them extra money when they actually perform extra work.
The only system that won't work is the status quo where MLAs, regardless of party affiliation, look like they're fleecing taxpayers.
Edmonton Journal, Thurs Mar 8 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson