N.S. government readies legislation to block pending MLA pay increase

·5 min read
MLA salaries in Nova Scotia have remained frozen since 2013. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
MLA salaries in Nova Scotia have remained frozen since 2013. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Premier Tim Houston will use his majority in the legislature next week to block a pay increase for MLAs recommended by an independent panel.

"This is not the time to be adjusting the compensation of MLAs," Houston told reporters on Tuesday.

"We have record-high inflation, we have a number of issues the province is faced with."

Houston said candidates who stood with him during last summer's election knew the existing compensation when they signed on to be candidates. Opposition leaders indicated they would support the effort.

The remuneration review panel released its report Tuesday. It calls for the base pay of MLAs to go from $89,234.90 to $100,480.91 over the next three years. The base pay has been frozen since 2013.

"It is critically important to democratic government that no one is dissuaded from seeking public office solely on account of perceived financial risk or certain disproportionate financial loss," the committee writes in its report.

"The central principle is to widen the opportunity to attract leaders from the community to participate in public office."

The panel also calls for the salaries of the Speaker of the House ($49,046.51), deputy speaker ($24,523.25), Opposition leader ($49,046.51), any other recognized party leaders ($24,523.25) and cabinet ministers ($49,046.51) to remain the same.

Two of the three members of the panel recommended the salary of the premier be reduced from $112,791.20 to $101,565.19. With the base salary increase for MLAs, the premier's overall salary would remain the same.

Binding recommendations to be blocked

The recommendations of the panel are binding. Reviews are supposed to happen after a provincial election — the last review in 2014 recommended no change in salaries — and are intended to remove politics from setting MLA salaries.

On Tuesday, however, Houston wasted little time in asking Speaker of the House Keith Bain to recall the legislature. Bain exercised his right to bring back MLAs on short notice because he believes the issue is a matter of public interest.

MLAs will gather at Province House on July 26. At that point, the government will introduce legislation that would block the pay raise.

Liberals plan amendment

The former Liberal government made a pre-emptive move when in 2015 it passed legislation blocking a pay review for three years.

Current Liberal Leader Zach Churchill was a part of that government. On Tuesday, he told reporters that MLA compensation is not the pressing issue that needs to be discussed in the legislature.

"We do have real emergencies going on right now in Nova Scotia," he said.

"Individual families who are struggling to put food on the table — that's an emergency for them. We've got hospitals that are overrun at the early stages of a brand new wave of COVID-19 and the government doesn't treat these issues like emergencies."

Churchill said his caucus would support legislation to block the pay raise, but that it would be making an amendment to have the premier's salary reduced by the rate recommended by the panel.

It doesn't appear the premier will oppose the amendment.

"I know that Nova Scotians are struggling," he said. "I'm happy to show that type of leadership and I would also expect the same leadership from the leaders of the opposition parties."

NDP wants focus on other issues

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said her caucus would also support the blocking of the raise.

She told reporters in Halifax that the real emergency that should be debated in the legislature is what's happening with health care and cost of living.

"I just got off the phone with a friend who was at the IWK for seven hours last night with her eight year old and left without being seen," she said.

"And then had to go to three pharmacies to find Advil because there's some kind of supply shortage. We have people who are very concerned that they cannot access health care in this province."

Houston said the goal of next week's session is to deal with the panel's recommendations, but his party is "happy to discuss any issue on the floor of the legislature."

Ways to make Province House more inclusive

The review panel also put forward several non-binding recommendations intended to remove barriers to a more diverse legislature.

It's calling for greater efforts to fill the seat in the legislature allocated for a Mi'kmaw representative. Since the creation of the seat in 1992, it has remained vacant.

"Revisited in good faith, we agree with Mi'kmaw Senator Dan Christmas that fulfilling this position could do a lot of good for the people of both Nova Scotia and Mi'kma'ki," the panel writes.

There is also a non-binding recommendation that the legislature consider establishing a fund that would be accessible to MLAs who are parents who need help with child-care expenses.

"It is our understanding that the cost of such a fund would be small, but its benefits would have more of an impact on women and gender-diverse individuals, and on their decisions to run for office."

Chender said politics remains a place where it is "simplest to run if you are older, if you are whiter and if you are richer" and MLAs need to find a way to make the legislature more reflective of society.

The panel also suggests future work be given more than just 30 days and that it examine all forms of MLA compensation.

Panel members were university professor Ajay Parasram and lawyers Burtley Francis and Kyle MacIsaac.

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