Perks betray public's trust

British Columbia's MLAs are in the club. Retired legislature clerk George MacMinn is in the club, too. So, arguably, is the current clerk, Craig James. But citizens are paying the very expensive dues to keep the club members in the style to which they believe they are entitled.

Legislature clerk is a modest title for a powerful, highly paid position. MacMinn held the job for 19 years. He is an acknowledged expert on parliamentary procedure. A recent auditor general's report suggests he was much less effective as the legislature's administrator.

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He is now retired, but Liberal MLAs voted to pay him $240,000 a year for two years as a consultant.

There is no justification for the rich contract. It's a parting gift to someone in the club. It's easy to give such gifts when you are spending other people's money.

The theory is MacMinn is on call to help James. But James has worked with MacMinn for more than two decades. If he's not ready now for the job, that's a problem. James says he has rarely consulted his $240,000-ayear adviser.

If such help was really needed, why not a generous $1,000-an-hour contract, instead of a $480,000 commitment? Those questions were never asked.

Government house leader Rich Coleman introduced a motion to appoint James as the legislature clerk and give MacMinn a two-year consulting contract. The New Democrats objected to the appointment, noting that past clerks had the support of both parties, while this was solely a government appointment. They also argued for an open competition for the clerk's job.

But no one asked how much MacMinn would make, or why the position was needed. Liberal MLAs voted in favour; New Democrats were opposed. Liberal MLA Gordon Hogg says the party based its decision partly on a similar arrangement in 1993 when the clerk retired. That should infuriate taxpayers; MLAs are elected to make good decisions, not mindlessly repeat past practices.

Politicians appear to believe those in the club are entitled to special treatment. MLAs, after all, have decided they need up to $19,000 a year for what is often a rarely used second residence in Victoria.

They have decided a disabled person should be able to find permanent accommodation for $4,500 a year - $375 a month. Why do they believe they are entitled to live so much more comfortably than the disabled? MLAs have decided they deserve a generous pension. Saanich MLA Murray Coell, for example, will retire after 16 years in the legislature and at 65 begin receiving about $89,000 a year, indexed to inflation. That's almost 90 per cent of his salary.

While the government has talked about the generous benefits for public-sector employees, a teacher retiring in similar circumstances would receive about $20,000 - less than one-third of his or her salary. And three-quarters of British Columbians have no pension plan at all - though they are paying most of the costs for the MLAs' rich plan.

MLAs and government managers deserve fair compensation. Some - not many - make significant financial sacrifices in running for office. Many more interrupt careers and give up family time. But politicians should not elevate their treatment far above the citizens they are supposed to be representing, or succumb to a culture of entitlement that brings discredit on all governments. They should be guarding the public's money, ensuring it is spent prudently.

The government casually approved the $480,000 contract for MacMinn. But the money is coming from single working mothers and retired people on limited incomes and every British Columbian. They have every right to feel betrayed.

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