No austerity for Quebec politicians

Many of us are expected to work more and earn less, if we’re lucky enough to have a job and keep it. Meanwhile, our representatives are raising their own salaries.

Couillard Bolduc and co
Premier Philippe Couillard (bottom row, second from left) and Yves Bolduc (second row, left)
It’s sad to see the departure of Quebec education minister Yves Bolduc, who resigned from politics last week following yet another incident where he proved the old adage that you really should think before you speak.

Sad not just from the perspective of a pundit or cartoonist looking for easy prey, but sad for the public, because it turns out that Bolduc is a little like those pigs that can find a truffle buried a metre underground. He was the first, after all, to expose the weakness of Quebec’s program aimed at encouraging Quebec GPs to sign up “orphan” patients by offering bonuses to MDs for every person plucked from the waiting lists. Bolduc — a doctor and the former minister who approved the bonus rules — picked up 1,500 of those perks for a total bump of $215,000 during the short 18 months he spent in 2013–’14 as an opposition MP, then dumped all the patients once more when the Liberals were re-elected.

(He would later repay a portion of the bonuses, but only the portion allocated for patients he hadn’t treated for the one-year minimum required by the program. To put it another way: he only repaid what he was legally obliged to repay.)

On his way out of government, Bolduc has rooted up yet another form of gratuitous graft, picking up a $155,000 severance cheque after serving less than a year of his five-year term. Interestingly, the severance program was one of the things the Parti Québécois tried to eliminate while in office, but the Liberals voted it down. Nevertheless, the only other MNAs who have prematurely left office since the Liberals were elected last April — the PQ’s Élaine Zakaïb and Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Christian Dubé — both refused the bye-bye bonus. But in keeping with his proud tradition of greed and gumption, Bolduc ignored not-so-subtle hints from Premier Philippe Couillard and pocketed the cheque as the Ass-Nat door smacked his retreating rump.

And where there’s one truffle, others are not far behind. The boni-bolduc has once more brought attention to an issue the Liberals were hoping we had forgotten about: compensation for Quebec MNAs. At a time when the government wants to freeze public sector salaries for two years, has unilaterally re-opened public service pension plans and intends on eliminating thousands of jobs in health and education, Couillard was no doubt hoping we had forgotten about plans to hike the base salary of MNAs from $88,000 to $136,000. (A tax-free expense allowance ups the current value of the base salary to $121,000, according to a Radio-Canada report.)

Let me do the math for you: 54.5 per cent. But Couillard is quick to point out that the author of the 2013 report recommending the salary hikes, former Supreme Court justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, also recommended other changes such as eliminating the severance pay and other perks so that the overall costs would remain the same.

Or to put it another way, MNAs would have nothing to lose.

Thus our fearless leaders, trumpeting the need for drastic reductions in public expenses to save the state from bankruptcy and inevitable collapse, are prepared to see their lifetime pension contributions climb from the current 21–79 per cent split to 50 per cent as long as they get a new paycheque that’s half as big as their old cheque.

Couillard has the cojones to say this compares favourably to what the government is asking the public sector to sacrifice, which is to work an extra two hours a week (teachers) and to accept a salary freeze for two years followed by increases of one per cent a year for the next three.

Oh, and an undefined number of job losses, but somewhere in the tens of thousands. Whereas the number of MNA job losses being proposed is pretty specific: zero.


CAQ leader François Legault wants the whole MNA-salary issue put off until after the next election, but it’s only appropriate that the public get a detailed look at the working conditions of its 125 elected officials at the same time as they prepare to alter the working conditions of 550,000 public servants. Postponing the decision only takes pressure off the government at a critical juncture, one in which we get to see whether our MNAs can lead by example.

So far, examples of sacrifice on the part of our legislators have been pretty hard to detect. If they want to convince the public that we should all contribute to reducing the cost of government, they should start with themselves.

We’ll know when the compensation package has reached the appropriate level the day it stops attracting truffle-hunters and pension pigs. Somehow, though, it’s hard to believe that day will ever come as long as we leave it up to politicians to set their own salaries and benefits.
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.