180 degrees.

180 degrees. About face.

Alison Redford may have been called a flip flopper before, but this time it was a complete polar turn around. To be fair, I see nothing wrong with flip flopping. We all make mistakes and we all make decisions without necessarily considering the complete information. Reversing a decision simply means that a person has given an issue further consideration and deemed that a different decision would be more appropriate. Policy development should be about getting things right and it shouldn’t matter if someone thought wrong before and has since changed their mind – as long as they get it right.

Redford has now gotten it right (sort of). I am talking of course about the announcement made on Thursday that PC MLAs will return their no-meet-committee pay. Clearly, this issue was being heard on the doorsteps as MLAs were canvassing for votes. This issue, it was deemed, was driving down PC poll numbers. A flip was necessary.

And the PCs messaged this one perfectly – in a way very few politicians have had the courage to do so before.

“Growing up I was always taught that the only thing worse than making a mistake was not admitting it and fixing it. I made a mistake on these issues and now I am fixing them,” she said. “Leadership is about making decisions; sometimes difficult decisions and sometimes, admitting you were wrong.”

So, how did they get it so wrong? How did PC MLAs – smart, politically savvy people, with their ear to the ground – not know that Albertans would be so upset about this? I suspect they knew that there  would be backlash, but they felt that the issue had been managed appropriately. Maybe they have a point.

First off, MLA compensation is broken. There is a dominant narrative that suggests politicians are a bunch of pigs at a trough and we pay them too much money. This narrative is particularly strong in Alberta. So, for the past two decades, MLAs have attempted to hide the real amount of compensation that they get. They got rid of the pension plan and replaced it with severance packages. They slashed base pay and implemented tax free allowances. They implemented pay for committee and portfolio work and boosted it by 30 per cent. All of this is done in an effort to make MLA remuneration appear lower than it actually is. Ultimately, it is dishonest and unfair to both MLAs and taxpayers.

MLAs saw the committee pay, not as pay specifically for the work of the committee, but rather just as a part of their actual total compensation. I think that is why Ray Prins was so insulted by this being phrased as an integrity question. For MLAs, being named to a committee meant they were being recognized for good work and the compensation that came with that was part and parcel of MLA pay. That concept that committee pay is about boosting total compensation for backbenchers as opposed to pay for extra work is echoed in statements made by former MLA Richard Marz.

The real problem is that MLA base compensation is too low. A number of MLAs are doctors, or lawyers or business executives and in many cases they now work harder and longer, under closer scrutiny and for less pay than they did before. Our premier, chairman of the board for an organization that manages a $40 billion per year operation – takes in a bit over $200,000 per year. I wonder how that would compare to the chairman of a similar sized organization in the private sector? The average MLA pay depending on the source you ask, is between $125,000 and $160,000. I’m not going to suggest that that is a small amount of money, but if we want the best decisions made, then we need to attract the best and brightest to public office. We have to give them an incentive for taking the risk, making the sacrifices and managing the time and stress associated with the role.

At the end of the day, a review is necessary and Redford has appropriately appointed former Supreme Court justice John Major to lead that review. Policy-wise it was the right decision to make – unfortunately it didn’t work out well for her politically. Hopefully this honest reversal will.

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