Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bad times to be a politician

Jan. 16th letter to Telegram editor

As an aspiring politician, I often shake my head at what I'm getting into. Democracy in Canada is in shambles.

On the federal front, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to pull the plug on Parliament is a blatant partisan move to sidestep the controversy generated by hearings into Canada's role in Afghanistan - more specifically, the alleged torture of Afghan detainees transferred by the Canadian military to Afghan authorities.

So much for the truth - it's Conservatives first, democracy be damned. What must the world think of us?

Earlier this week, Harper said financial markets are concerned about the stability of a minority government, claiming proroguing avoids instability.

But isn't that the same as saying that suspending democracy avoids instability? Why not just trade in the Maple Leaf for a hammer and sickle?

Closer to home, it was only last month that the federal Conservatives approved a renegotiated convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), which oversees fishing outside the 200-mile limit - despite having been voted down in the House of Commons.

So much for the will of Parliament - it's Conservatives first, Newfoundland and Labrador be damned.

Next, the Senate

There's also speculation that Harper will soon appoint five new Senators, giving his party the most seats in the Red Chamber.

In the past, Harper has said senators should be elected - rather than appointed by the prime minister, as is the current practice - or that the body should be abolished if changes couldn't be made.

Harper and hypocrisy seem to go hand in hand.

So much for an unelected, unaccountable Liberal Senate. When Harper's done, as has been pointed out, we'll have an "unelected, unaccountable Conservative Senate." And still no word on how to address the political imbalance among provinces.

But I'm not done.

Political reputations have also taken a beating in recent years - particularly on the provincial front with the constituency allowance scandal and the steady flow of former politicians through the courts.

MHAs have paid a price for their actions, it's true, but not too high a price.

In a Jan. 11 Telegram article ("Province ponders pension options"), Finance Minister Tom Marshall said the province is considering taking actions on its employee pension plans - including reducing benefits or increasing premiums - to offset huge losses as a result of the global economic meltdown.

In other words, ordinary government workers may have to pay out of pocket to turn their pension plans around.

Not everyone

Not so with our MHAs.

It was only last month that slight changes were announced to the MHA pension plan (one of the best in the country): politicians will have to wait until they're 55 to collect a pension and the maximum percentage of their salary they can receive when they retire has been trimmed to 70 per cent from 75 per cent.

But then that's only for politicians elected after Dec. 31, 2009. In other words, the changes won't affect any sitting MHAs.

Solution suggested

What galls me the most is that the 2007 Derek Green report into MHA compensation recommended a new pension structure for MHAs - eliminating the defined benefit plan altogether in favour of defined contribution, RRSP-type arrangements.

Whatever happened to that recommendation, I wonder? Nothing, is the answer. It died a silent death.

The only way to turn our democracy around is to turn our politicians around - and kick them in the arse.

Ryan Cleary writes from St. John's

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