Editorial: MLA childcare benefits cast a long shadow

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In the spring of 2018 the territorial government was deep in negotiations with the Union of Northern Workers, which represents more than 4,500 GNWT employees.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for a freeze on MLA salaries to expire but that’s what happened and instead of taking advantage of a political opportunity by going without, on April 1 of that year the 18th Legislative Assembly took the raise, allowing their basic salary to rise in line with the Consumer Price Index, or by about 1.6 per cent to $105,513 per year for regular members. It amounted to nearly $1,700 more in taxable income and kept NWT legislators as the third-best paid in the nation behind those of Alberta and Ontario.

A CPI-based increase to MLA salaries actually wasn’t anything new. For about a decade, those salaries had increased automatically in concert with the index, which is usually a reliable indicator of inflation and tends to be about two per cent or less. But MLAs had decided to make a political gesture by forgoing the indexed increase in 2016 and 2017. The message was that they were in tune with the fiscal challenges facing the GNWT. So if the 2018 increase was $1,662, skipping those two years cost the MLAs about $3,000 in gross income, but more importantly, it actually created the political time bomb that went off on that aforementioned April Fool’s Day.

There was no vote held or other step taken by MLAs to authorize the increase to their paycheques but the optics were bad, especially considering that the offer before the union at the time, and what was finally settled upon, gave the rank-and-file workers no increase whatsoever in the first two years of the contract, and increases in years three and four that fell short of the CPI. Do as we say, it screamed.

All this is to say that reading about the current assembly’s recent decision to have taxpayers foot the bill for childcare for MLAs has our ears ringing at a similar frequency.
There are great reasons to offer such a benefit and they shouldn’t be forgotten. Access to affordable childcare is a barrier to anyone with young children who aspires to public office, and removing that barrier is an important step to attracting more parents to the demanding world of politics.

But what about the rest of the NWT residents with young families who are interested in advancing their careers? Here is another political opportunity. If MLAs were really concerned about attracting more women and parents to run, and unbothered by the idea of paying for their own childcare for the next three years or so, why not make the change effective at the start of the 20th Legislative Assembly?

It’s a convention in many municipalities across Canada to handle the political hot potato of self-pay increases by doing just that, making a raise effective after the coming election. It allays the concerns of conflict of interest by preventing decision makers from determining their own salaries, and gives anyone thinking about re-election a reason to make a good impression on voters in the meantime.

Which the 18th assembly clearly failed to do. Aside from the premier herself, how many MLAs from that crop are still in office? That group of legislators near the start of their term decided universal childcare for the entire territory was too costly at about $20 million annually, but somehow thought giving themselves a pay raise a couple of years later made for solid ground to walk upon. Voters proved them wrong in October.

But there is something to be said for taking aim at an attainable goal and crossing it off. Offering childcare support to parents serving in the legislature is a bona fide step forward and it would be encouraging to take as a sign of things to come.

Universal affordable childcare, a listed priority of the 19th Assembly, remains a worthy pursuit. But it would be a shame and another round of bad optics if only MLAs get the benefit.

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