Background photo of Queen’s Park by Scott Chandler from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Last week, Ontario MPPs gave themselves a Christmas present that any of us would have enjoyed: a 25% pay hike. Was this just a long-overdue catch-up, finally bringing MPP salaries into line with their federal counterparts, or the worst kind of political trough-feeding? In our new feature, two Torontoist staffers — Patrick Metzger and Ken Hunt — square off to debate the issue.
Torontoist Patrick Metzger: Pro-Hike
I’m not generally particularly sympathetic to politicians of any stripe, so when I learned that the pay raise for Ontario MPPs would see them making almost as much money as Torontoist writers (but without the use of the company jet), I have to say I was a little offended. But on sober second thought, I decided that that maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.
The most oft-quoted reason for raising the pay of these particular MPPs is to give them a salary closer to that of Federal MPs who do essentially the same job in the same ridings and get paid about 40% more (the raise will still put MPPs about 25% behind their big brothers and sisters in Ottawa). The existing salary for Ontario legislators is also less than the newly increased pay for both Toronto and Ottawa city councilors. Now, perhaps a case could be made that all politicians are overpaid, but that’s an entirely separate question. If the market (in this case the electorate) has decided that this is what the job pays, why should provincial politicians be uniquely disadvantaged?
Beyond the public sector, the current pay is about that of a middle manager at a large company, broadly speaking a much less stressful, and certainly less high profile job than that of MPP. Against the argument that talented, capable people should want to become public servants regardless of pay, consider what might type of candidates might be attracted to the job if the salary were lowered to $12,000 a year. Like it or not, money matters.
People who oppose the raise have expressed dismay that public servants should be getting more cash, when the dollars could be going to single mothers, homeless shelters, or other worthy causes. But that fails to recognize that government spending is not a zero sum game – a competent, honest, government that runs efficiently will have far more resources to allocate to social spending than a corrupt and inept government, even if legislators are paid more. It seems entirely likely that underpaying MPPs would be far more likely to lead to the latter type of government.
Finally, we’re fortunate enough to live what is more or less a democracy. Current legislators who are offended by the raise are more than welcome to give their excess money to charity or put it in escrow or throw it out their office window. When the next election comes, they can use that heroic act as the basis of their campaign, and perhaps be joined by other civic minded candidates who will pledge to work more cheaply. We, the people, will then decide if that is the critical issue around which we wish to build our government. If it is, then the fat cats will be out and the cheap dates in. If not, it means that the people of Ontario – or at least a plurality of them – are in favour of the raise. Either way, democracy works the way it’s supposed to, representing the interests of the entire constituency, and not just those with the loudest voices.
Torontoist Ken Hunt: Anti-Hike
I think we should all be very impressed by our MPPs. They showed us all that when Ontario is facing a crisis they can come together, buckle down, and work around the clock to get the job done. Now, thanks to their efforts, everyone in Ontario will be able to enjoy the New Year secure in the knowledge that our elected officials will no longer have to scrape by on a measly $88,771 a year. I know it’s a load off my mind. Extra eggnog for everybody!
My favourite argument in support of the raise is that it will help attract and retain a better pool of candidates. Does anyone believe this, even our current MPPs? If they did, wouldn’t that be like them saying “We lot are awful. We’re just the losers who were willing to take on this dangerously underpaid position in public life, but now that the job pays more, we thoroughly expect to be replaced by an intellectually and genetically superior breed of politician, perhaps ones that can fly. You know, like on Heroes?”
Our MPPs also point to the fact that other politicians are paid even more, so their raise is not out of line. This is not very compelling. Politicians are unique in their ability to set their own pay and not have to really compete in any kind of marketplace, so who can blame them giving themselves raises? There are no cheaper politicians out there. There is no opportunity to compare politicians based on price; no price tag next to party affiliation on the ballot, so their pay is naturally inflated. If writers could set their own rates and editors had no choice but to pay there would be a lot of overpaid writers out there too. Unfortunately for me, that’s not the case. But it’s clear that continuing to raise and re-raise political salaries on the basis of others being even more grossly overpaid is laughable.
I’m sure the job is difficult, but so are a lot of people’s jobs. Ask anyone making minimum wage. Besides, the last time I checked, people fought bitterly for these supposedly low-paying MPP jobs. Witness the most recent by-election in Parkdale-High Park. These jobs matter and people want them because they want to have a direct say in the way our society works. Pay is not the prime motivator. Some people even give up higher paying jobs to become politicians. MPPs are leaders in their communities and that’s something you can’t measure in dollars. Plus, even after they step down or get voted out, they can usually parlay their political experience and connections into cushy private sector jobs.
We’re supposed to have a representative democracy, so here’s an idea: What if we paid our MPPs the average salary of a person in Ontario? Not only would they be more in tune with the needs and challenges of the people they represent, they would also have an incentive to lift that average.
Spy vs. Spy image from Mad Magazine, obviously.