All around the world, political leaders are showing solidarity with their citizens by sharing in the hard times and reducing their own pay. It’s time for Alberta’s politicians do to the same.
“We acknowledge New Zealanders who are reliant on wage subsidies, taking pay cuts and losing their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “I can confirm that myself and government ministers and public service chief executives will take a 20 per cent pay cut for the next six months.”
It’s not just New Zealand’s politicians that are showing taxpayers some initiative. From Minnesota to South Africa and Japan, politicians around the globe are choosing to reduce their own pay to show their citizens that they are willing to share some of the burden. Kenya’s president and deputy president are giving up 80 per cent of their pay while some politicians in Malta, Malaysia and Singapore have decided to completely forgo their pay.
“The government and the political leadership are in this with Singaporeans,” said Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. “We will walk with every Singaporean, through every up and down.”
The story is a little different in Alberta. Families and businesses are being hit by the triple whammy of the health pandemic, economic shut down and collapsing oil price, but our politicians’ paycheques have yet to adjust to the coronavirus crisis.
More than 100,000 Albertans joined the ranks of the unemployed last month and small business owners are worried about whether they will be able to reopen their doors once the dust settles.
“With absolutely no income coming in, how are they going to keep the lights on?” asked Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada Vice-President for Western Canada.
Alberta’s business leaders are also recognizing the need to make personal sacrifices.
“The reason our executives took the [20 per cent] rollback right away wasn’t because of investor pressure, it was because our employees are taking a hit,” said Trican president and CEO Dale Dusterhoft. “We can’t ask our people to do something different than us.”
To the credit of Alberta’s United Conservative and New Democrat politicians, last summer all MLAs took a five per cent pay cut. Premier Jason Kenney reduced his pay by 10 per cent.
“Alberta is in some difficult times … we’re going to be doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” said UCP MLA Laila Goodridge following last year’s pay cut.
That was an obvious move in a pre-COVID world. The province was just starting to tap the brakes on decades of runaway spending. But now the coronavirus has changed everything. And MLAs have yet to adjust their salaries according to that glaring reality.
At $121,000 annually, Alberta’s rank-and-file MLAs make significantly more than their counterparts in other provinces. Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews has repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing government compensation in line with other provinces. It would be hypocritical to apply this principle to everyone except politicians.
Alberta MLAs would still be bringing home $105,120 if their pay was reduced to the Ontario-West average (excluding Alberta). Kenney would still rake-in $170,364.
With Alberta shedding jobs by the tens of thousands, local politicians must also show some initiative. Prior to the last municipal election, Calgary’s independent citizen commission found that councillors in Edmonton and Calgary receive higher salaries than their counterparts in other major Canadian cities. Reducing pay along with ending egregious benefits, such as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s second and completely taxpayer-funded pension is the least local politicians could do.
Premier Jason Kenney and big city mayors have already acknowledged that government budgets are tanking. They will soon have no choice but to make tough decisions. But before politicians can sell these tough decisions to the bureaucracy and the public, they will first need to demonstrate their own willingness to make a financial sacrifice.
Alberta’s politicians must take a cue from leaders around the world, do their part during this downturn and take a pay cut.
This column originally appeared in the Calgary Herald on April 29, 2020