Kelly Harris is a former journalist, political staffer and now principal of Harris Public Affairs.
Shortly after the 2011 provincial election I made the decision to take the Queen’s Park Golden Parachute and move on to greener pastures. My numbers may be wrong, but I clearly remember they were a grand total of 12 to 14 weeks and the paycheque I cashed was nowhere near the $450,000 plus two senior staffers to former Premier Kathleen Wynne pocketed.
So I was a little incredulous to see the former premier defend the decision saying it was in line with other jurisdictions, when from my experience it wasn’t even in line with her own – albeit the opposition side of things. I immediately felt what it is in line with is the entitled way her government acted for many years when dealing with Ontarian’s money.
After the annoyance I initially felt started to subside, I decided to think a little harder on the matter.
I know all the arguments. I was a political staffer for years and yes they have enhanced severance packages because it is a very specialized area of work. The enhanced severances are in line with the enhanced work hours – 16-hour days are not out of the norm – an often less than favourable work environment and fewer job opportunities after you get turfed by the electorate.
Additionally, enhanced packages avoid the need for legal proceedings that would run up government expenses. As someone who is still in protracted wrongful dismissal negotiations with my former employer, FirstOntario Credit Union, I can tell you Bay Street employment lawyers are not cheap. Though why a community owned financial institution like FirstOntario hires lawyers from Toronto and not the Niagara region is beyond me.
Before anyone gets down on enhanced compensation there are another couple of points to remember. Firstly, being a political staffer is the only job in the country that allows the government to control and prevent future employment. Lobbyist rules, which seem totally anti-constitutional, force a cooling off period on staffers after they leave political office.
The enhanced compensation is meant to allow these people to feed themselves while they are prevented from working by the government.
The simple fact is for all the huffing and puffing following the Globe and Mail article Wednesday saying the buy-outs are wrong, there is an actual formula. The legislature has an actual standard of enhanced compensation to follow, it’s just that there are easy ways to skirt this that are 100 per cent legal, and governments of all stripes use these tactics.
As the article rightly states, “political staff are entitled by law to 16 weeks’ notice, and an additional week per year after five years of service, plus vacation pay, when there is a change in government. (Mr. Bevan served as Ms. Wynne’s chief of staff and principal secretary for more than two years, and was principal secretary for three years before that. Ms. Rowe, her executive adviser, worked in government for one year and nine months.)”
So Mr. Bevan was entitled to 21 weeks and Ms. Rowe 17 weeks based on the salary of the last position they held. The way around this is to elevate people prior to an election and then they walk away with their entitled-entitlement at the richer amount. So basically, the $450,000 amount being bandied around may actually be correct – at least from a legal standpoint. Ethically, that’s a tougher argument.
The larger issue for me is exactly how much the total compensation following an election truly is.
To understand how much Queen’s Park pays people relies on two methods. The first are union contracts open for public scrutiny and the other is the Sunshine List. For me the Sunshine List has always been problematic as it sets an arbitrary amount for salary and compensation to be disclosed at $100,000 (a pauper’s salary in Toronto).
Maybe it’s the conservative part of my brain, but I truly believe if you cash a taxpayer funded paycheque that compensation should be disclosed – no matter the amount. This system is used in British Columbia. In fact I financed a car using the BC disclosure website to verify my income when I ran northern communications in Prince George for the Gordon Campbell Government.
The long and the short of it is; these stories would be less common, you would hope governments would be more responsible with your money and staff would be better off too. Simply put, if I know what people are making I can be in a better place to negotiate my own contracts. And the public has a right to know, sadly in this case knowledge isn’t power, because the entitled-entitlements may actually be right and the rules were followed.
That may piss you off, but it appears in this case anyway, rules were actually followed.
Kelly Harris is the Principal of Harris Public Affairs and has served as Vice-President Corporate and Public Affairs of FirstOntario Credit Union and on the Canadian Credit Union Board of Directors following a successful career in journalism and politics.