Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bring details of MP pension changes into the open

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Most Canadians work a lifetime to earn a pension that's big enough to live on. In Ottawa, politicians qualify after six years on the job.

At a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper's watchword is "austerity" and the government is looking to find $4 billion a year in ongoing savings, the Conservatives stand only to gain politically from their decision to rein in the overly generous pensions that federal politicians collect. It's impossible to justify sweet pension deals when Ottawa is pleading poor, axing 19,000 civil servants, cutting services and asking federal workers to shoulder more of the burden for financing their pension plans.

To the average Canadian family earning something like $70,000 a year, or the average couple collecting some $52,000 in pension after a lifetime working, the optics are terrible. Our lawmakers have given themselves a deal that looks anything but austere.

The 308 members of the House of Commons currently make $157,000 in basic salary, and get to collect a pension at the early age of 55 if they manage to get re-elected once and serve six years in office. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimates that current MPs with six years of service stand to collect an average pension of just under $55,000 a year, indexed to inflation. And the MPs' contributions aren't onerous. For every $1 an MP puts into the pension plan, the taxpayer shells out $5 or $6, the government says. The taxpayers' federation makes it out to be a far higher $24.

As prime minister, Harper's salary is $315,000 a year and he stands to get $223,000 a year in pension, the federation calculates.

MPs' salaries, frozen in 2010, are defensible given the temporary nature of political jobs. The government is reportedly thinking about lifting the freeze and it plans to bring the excessively generous pension plan more into line with the reality most of us face, while grandfathering benefits already earned.

One change under consideration is to have MPs collect pensions at 65, instead of 55. That would kick in after the next election in 2015. In future MPs would pay half their pension contributions. And the number of years to qualify could go up to eight from six.

As the Conservative government moves on this, it should bring the discussion out from behind closed doors and into the public forum. The shadows are no place for this.

The Tories shouldn't bury these changes in the upcoming omnibus budget bill, Round 2, which will almost certainly get too little scrutiny. Pension changes should be in a separate bill.

There's a case to be made for fairly remunerating MPs. But let's have a proper airing of the proposed changes, and the savings they will bring. The public has a right to know what it's paying for the services it gets.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2012 A7

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