I’ve said it before, and the person who assembled the proverbs and sayings recorded in Ecclesiastes said it a few thousand years before me: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The ancient saying comes to mind again as the mini-Greek tragedy unfolding in the B.C. Legislature entertains, shocks and saddens those who hold the great traditions of democracy dear.
A week or two ago a committee of MLAs — chaired by the Speaker and responsible for the management of the legislature — awakened to the fact that when the legislature granted a two-year “consulting” position to retiring clerk George MacMinn, based on his current salary, it carried close to a half-million-dollar price tag.
NDP MLAs voted against the consultancy appointment and are demanding a full review of the appointment, with its $240,000 annual payments, plus a few perks.
For some background, they should check out the Ontario legislature, circa 1986, when long-time clerk Roderick Lewis retired but continued to serve as “clerk emeritus” for a healthy fee and some nice “add-ons.”
In the early 1980s, Ontario Liberal leader David Peterson, sitting in opposition, had been heard to say that if he ever became premier, Lewis would be “gone tomorrow.”
In 1985, Peterson became premier. Little less than a year later he solemnly informed the House it was his “sad duty” to announce Lewis was retiring.
Lewis demanded conditions and pointed out that legislation passed in 1974 stated he could only be
removed from office for cause — and even then only by a vote of the legislature.
He demanded his annual pension be increased from $38,400 to $60,000 — plus an extra $31,500 a year and an office and staff while he wrote a book — and $117,000 to cover unused vacation time and sick leave.
The government asked Lewis to trim his demands. Lewis told them to “stuff it in your ear.”
In the legislature, a brash young NDPer named Bob Rae demanded details and explanations.
He said his own research had revealed “a so-called attendance gratuity of $64,712; vacation pay of $49,276; benefits of $600; an annuity worth $220,000; a gratuity of $31,500 — plus the use of a secretary, furniture — and a chauffeur.”
Peterson flipped the question to his treasurer, Robert Nixon, who didn’t challenge Rae’s numbers but said there was nothing he could do, that the law passed in 1974 “gave him (the clerk) a lifetime entitlement to that money. I also think it is too much money, but that is what he is (legally) entitled to.”
When our legislature management committee next meets, I anticipate a similar presentation in detail of the MacMinn settlement. I’m sure NDP researchers are already combing public accounts and asking questions about office space, secretarial support, car allowances, retirement allowances, pension payments and any other perks.
Like Rae, they’ll want to know how it all happened. And like Rae, they’ll be told that everything has been done in accordance with legislated approval. We might even hear an echo from new Finance Minister Mike de Jong saying: “Personally, I think the settlement is too high, but it’s what he’s legally entitled to.”
De Jong could even go so far as to ask if MacMinn would be willing in these hard economic times to forgo payment for the second year of the consulting agreement. MacMinn could then reply, as did Lewis: “Stuff it in your ear.”
It really is Greek tragedy material. Two men who devoted their careers to strengthening the foundations of democratic government, endangering what they built for just a few dollars more. Somebody should write the play.
© The Victoria Times Colonist