People don’t like paying politicians.
When Whitehorse City Council recently moved to give the full-time mayor and each of the part-time councillors a modest raise the Internet commentariat reacted with predictable howls of outrage.
So I suspect I will be defending an unpopular thesis when I say that it is necessary to pay politicians a reasonable salary and that a “reasonable salary” may be more than you and I actually want to pay them. Moreover I think that specifically Whitehorse’s municipal politicians deserve the small raise they received – even if they gave it to themselves.
The reality is that if we want to attract the “shining stars” of our community to choose public life the compensation is going to have to be reasonably competitive.
We occasionally hear the argument that if people want to be involved in politics they should do it out of a sense of civic duty and they should accept minimal compensation for their time. Some even argue that politicians should volunteer to do the job.
This strikes as a dangerous idea if we want our politicians to be “people like us.” Who would enter politics if that model were to prevail? We would probably be led by independently wealthy businesspeople and maybe a handful of idealists living in their Volkswagen vans who “don’t need money” – not necessarily people who can relate to the struggles and aspirations of ordinary citizens who go about their lives raising children, paying bills and trying to put away a little bit of money for retirement.
No, we want intelligent, knowledgeable, practical, compassionate and articulate people who are ordinary enough to relate to the needs of their fellow citizens. You are going to have a difficult time luring such people away from their current jobs or encouraging them to take on the added commitment of a seat on council by being overly stingy with their compensation. These are people with financial responsibilities of their own that they need to live up to.
The raises voted on by Whitehorse City Council were modest and reasonable. The mayor’s salary was increased by about $4,000 to just shy of $88,000 per year and the salary of each council member by $900 to around $20,500 – amounts which were set to correspond with the rate of inflation.
Combined, these are barely more than the salary of the city’s top bureaucrat or a Yukon government deputy minister. Nor do these salaries comprise a significant part of the city’s $173 million budget.
When one councillor said that the amount of these raises was the “bare minimum” and that they may deserve even more I was inclined to agree. Steering a city is an important job.
The performance of the job of mayor has important implications for residents of this community, yet he currently commands a salary that is less than that which is paid to all but the very lowest level of Yukon Government management.
The formal demands placed on members of council sound fairly minimal but I understand the reality to be quite different. Between handling citizen correspondence, preparing for and attending at council meetings, and staying on top of new bylaws and the various financial issues that council deals with the role demands a fairly significant time commitment. Certainly more time than one might expect for a $20,500 salary.
Negative reactions to increases in political pay are probably partly due to the optics of people giving themselves a raise. Unlike most of the rest of society, politicians have the luxury of determining their own salary and they can do so without reference to profitability or performance. Politicians are limited only by what they think they can get away with in determining how much to pay themselves.
And the sense that one is underpaid for his or her work is a part of the human condition. If you ask 10 people if they deserve a raise nine will say yes and the tenth will want one anyway (not an actual statistic, simply a rhetorical device designed to make a self-evident point).
So why should politicians get to pass judgment on their own paycheques when they are being paid with our tax dollars?
Fair enough, and I think there is a good case to be made for establishing an arm’s length process for setting the salaries of politicians.
But in this particular case, because of the reasons cited above, I think the raise was warranted.
It is not like politics at any level – and particularly municipal politics – is all glamour, tax payer funded junkets and expense accounts as we may perceive it to be. Politics is a thankless, demanding business.
Just by putting your name forward – before you are even elected – you risk the embarrassment and sense of personal rejection that comes along with humiliating defeat. You can expect to be attacked mercilessly for every decision you make sometimes in a very personal and vitriolic manner. And like those in a number of other professions you will have to deal with the stress inherent in having to make high stakes decisions with significant implications for the public in a timely manner and often on the basis of imperfect information.
It is not a job I would want for any amount of money.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.