MPs earning extra income: Top up, or rip off?

June 17, 2013 at 11:08 pm  •  Posted in Penny's Pen by

So far, 2013 seems to be a year of unwelcome political awakening for Canadians. While still recovering from the surprise that a $90,000 cheque was written by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to a senator, we have also witnessed unprecedented allegations about the Mayor of Toronto and, Monday, we have discovered that the Mayor of Montreal has been arrested in conjunction with the Charbonneau Inquiry into corruption. During the weekend, Justin Trudeau reminded us that our MPs and Senators (whom most people would say are well paid) are in fact allowed to earn monies apart from their Parliamentary pay. Nothing in the House of Commons rules nor the Senate Code of Ethics prevents an MP or a Senator from making income in addition to their salaries and pensions.

Mr. Trudeau said he will return a $20,000 speaking fee paid by a charitable organization. The story sparked a thoughtful Twitter exchange, with opinions fairly evenly divided as to whether our legislators should be earning additional monies. While some of us put forward the proposition that extra income should not be permitted for either Senators or MPs, others furiously pushed back, raising the interesting scenario of a farmer or doctor who becomes elected. Must they stop farming? Must they stop practicing medicine? What about those MPs who are also authors? Ken Dryden comes to mind as does former Minister Roy McLaren, who both published books while in office. And we understand that Stephen Harper is working on a book about hockey. Should the Prime Minister be prevented from publishing? One person wondered why we would want to deny entrepreneurial skills to our MPs. An excellent observation, given Canada’s need to expand its entrepreneurial class.

An ordinary backbench MP currently earns $160,200 a year. (Salaries were frozen in 2010 but this year they were permitted to increase by 1.6 per cent). If an MP has other parliamentary duties (as a minister, leader, caucus chair, etc.), extra money is earned according to a prescribed schedule. As everyone is aware, MPs do not have job security. In a minority government, it’s possible they may be elected only once – and could spend less than a year in officer. They may give up a lucrative career in mid-life to run for office, or they may be elected for the first time in their twenties.

To buttress against career risk (and because we want people to enter public service, especially women), pensions are part of the package. Some MPs will enjoy extraordinary success, serving for decades. Others never limp to the six-year line, and therefore end up without a pension.

On the other hand, unelected senators are appointed until they are 75 and currently make a $132,500 a year. As with the House of Commons, extra duties (i.e. chairing committees) allow for extra monies. They too are eligible for pensions, but if they are a former MP or have another government pension, they are prevented from “double dipping.”

So what do we make of all this? The current Senate scandal has brought new attention to the fact that senators may sit on corporate boards. In the House of Commons, Mr. Trudeau publicly agreed to “fix” the issue surrounding his speaking engagement. He has clearly rethought the matter at hand and decided to become ethically ambitious, streaking ahead of what is permitted and setting new ethical bars.

We have stumbled into a very tricky but timely public policy debate. Should there be a difference in expectations between the Senate ( no risk, job security) and elected Members of Parliament? Should we make allowances for those MPs who may already have a career, professional designation or family business that must be maintained? Do we allow those who are talented at research, writing or speaking to continue their craft while in office?

We want to entice individuals to Parliament, not dissuade them from running for office. But where do we draw the line between a “top up” and a “rip off”?