July 6, 2010

Money on the side

By Alison Loat

Canadian Press recently reported that 151 of Canada's 308 MPs earn income above their parliamentary salaries, or have investments in businesses of various sorts, including rental properties.  While it's not stated directly, it can be read from the journalist's lede and subsequent framing that she holds some contempt for this prospect.

The figures come from the office of Parliament's ethics commissioner, to whom MPs must disclose whether they earn more than $10,000 from outside interests (you can read the MPs' conflict of interest code here).  Putting aside the question of whether the $10,000 threshold includes investment income (such as from non-registered retirement savings), it is worth asking the larger question - is this a problem?

On one hand, we'd probably all like to wish that our MP focus solely on his or her job and give up any other business or income avenues he or she may have pursued before entering public life.

But on the other, that wish is not only unrealistic, but it's probably also undesirable.  Furthermore, it holds politicans to a different standard than other public servants, many of whom are in much more stable jobs, earn similar salaries to that of an MP and are free to earn additional income without scrutiny.

Most MPs come to public life in their mid-to-late 40s, having spent a generation pursuing other interests, and these interests are not always easily dropped (for example Keith Martin, a medical doctor, still practices occassionally to keep up his skills and credentials).  Furthmore, as the article points out, electoral politics are inherently unstable, job-wise, so asking MPs to "ditch their professions and businesses" will make it more difficult to recruit candidates to run for office, lest they have nothing to fall back on if they're defeated at the polls.

Furthermore, plenty of other public servants work side jobs or have other investments.  For example, many professors, who earn as much and often more than MPs, consult for corporate or government clients, teach in lucrative executive education programs and charge speaking fees.  I know a few teachers who tutor in the evenings, others who write articles for money and others who work in restaurants to supplement their income.  It's also fair to assume that at least a few bureaucrats collect pensions and consult on the side, or own rental properties.  Should these activities also be disclosed and/or curtailed? 

The concern, of course, is rightfully making sure these outside investments don't distort the MPs' priorities or impede them from fulfilling their responsibilties as an MP.  If there is compelling evidence that is happening (which I'm not sure I've seen reported), it would be worth questioning whether further disclosure (e.g., the hours spent on these outside interests) is needed, or if it would simply create more paperwork with no discernable difference on outcomes.  To quote Professor Ned Franks, one of Canada's sagest Parliamentary observers: "We don't want a Parliament of eunuchs. On the other hand, you don't want a Parliament of rich people looking after their own interest."

 

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andrew potter

July 6, 2010 19:15 PM

Thoughtful post Alison. It also seems to me that an upside to MPs having other sources of income, and other skills they could monetize outside of political life, is that when it comes to being an MP, they don't need the job. Why could this be a good thing? Because it means they are likely to be less willing to bow to the pressures of the party's central authorities, less likely to stick around and swallow their pride in the hope of getting into cabinet, and so on. To the extent to which we value independence in our elected representatives, I don't see this as a big deal at all.

Alison Loat

July 6, 2010 19:42 PM

Thanks Andrew.  That's an excellent point.

andrew potter

July 6, 2010 20:04 PM

Of course, the big qualifier is "to the extent to which we value independence" in our MPs. Some value it a lot more than I do.

www2.macleans.ca

July 6, 2010 22:52 PM

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Cut your hair and get a job - Beyond The Commons - Macleans.ca

Samara

September 5, 2010 02:16 AM

Fun fact of the day - the long weekend edition!

Fun fact of the day - the long weekend edition!

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