Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Another great Mark Milke column

Public cynicism at the root of ruckus over MLA raises
Business in Vancouver May 15-21, 2007; issue 916
Mark Milke

In writing about the temptations of power, poet and former Czech president Vaclav Havel said he regularly asked himself where the interests of the country stopped and the love of privilege began.

There was, he pointed out, nothing wrong with political privileges per se. After all, it makes little sense for a country’s president to miss an important state meeting with a foreign colleague because he decided to take public transport to get there.

That said, the Czech president also acknowledged that perks, privileges and exceptions carry an inherent temptation for politicians.

“Do we know, and are we at all capable of recognizing, the moment when we cease to be concerned with the interests of the country for whose sake we tolerate these privileges and start to be concerned with the advantages themselves?” wrote Havel.

The debate over a raise for B.C.’s MLAs should be placed in that context. In case MLAs hadn’t yet figured it out, there’s a reason why much of the public reacts viscerally to the proposed salary hikes for legislators, and it’s much deeper than they suppose. Too many Canadians don’t trust their politicians, in part because of how some have behaved toward the public they serve.

Within recent memory, various federal politicians said one thing on income trusts and then did another. Some politicians have also insulted voters. Remember the claim that (some) Canadians are cross-burners (Hedy Fry) or were racists, bigots and Holocaust deniers (Eleanor Caplan), and unworthy of being listened to because of how they voted (Tom Wappell)? Recall how many right-of-centre MPs now in government once excoriated pensions, claimed their stand was all about principle, and then later threw their supposed convictions overboard in pursuit of money.

Or locally, recall how the BC Liberals campaigned hard against the NDP approach to native land claims before the 2001 election and promised a different approach. They abandoned that principled position almost the moment they could, i.e., after they were elected to government.

I bring up the political history lesson because when MLAs and MPs decide to raise their salaries and benefits, they’re fighting against a cynical public current that they, in part, have created.

There’s nothing wrong with MLAs or MPs getting a raise or even a pension. Everyone else in government, including hog-happy public sector unions who show no restraint, receive one. There’s a reasonable level of compensation for all, though political pay is the trickiest to nail down.

But it’s how it happens that always sticks in the public’s throat. MLAs should feel free to vote on pay and perk hikes – so long as it takes effect after the next election.

Voters might then ask themselves if they really want candidate X to receive pay and perks package Y. They might thus vote for fewer economic illiterates and for more sensible representation.

However, for public officials to vote themselves a raise in the present is little different than dropping by the public treasury and scooping out money. MLAs should have voted on the current raise and the next pay raise before the last election. MLA salaries could also be tied to judges’ salaries or automatically to the average wage raise. Anything but a vote on current benefits.

Too many Canadians now believe that politicians have become more concerned with their own advantages and less about the greater good of the country or province.

I disagree.

Self-interest is present in all of us. But it’s unthinking cynicism to believe that all, or even most, politicians are in politics only for their own needs and wants and care not a whit about the voters who show up in their constituency office.

I don’t envy their job, nor the time away from family or the laps around the rubber chicken circuit that it requires. But when some politicians abuse the public trust either by insulting voters or their intelligence or by cynically making promises some of us now know they never intended to keep, the same political class should not soon expect a decrease in public cynicism.

Mark Milke (mmilke@telus.net) is the author of A Nation of Serfs? from Wiley Canada. His column appears monthly in Business in Vancouver.

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