Frieda Martselos in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Some Northwest Territories MLAs are trying to enact legislation that will stop their own automated salary hike of nearly seven percent going ahead on April 1 this year.
At the moment, NWT MLAs’ pay is adjusted in direct correlation with the Canadian consumer price index change for the past calendar year. For 2022, that figure was 6.8 percent.
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby told colleagues that rule must change so “it doesn’t look like we are taking advantage of an odd spike in the CPI.”
Legislation proposed by Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, and seconded by Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, would instead immediately switch MLAs to an increase based on a five-year average of shifts in the consumer price index.
In this instance, that would instead mean an April 1 pay increase for MLAs of 3.02 percent.
In a statement, Martselos – caucus chair for the group of 19 territorial MLAs – said: “Due to the high rates of inflation that we have seen across the country this year, we believe that this new method of an annual adjustment will help smooth out large spikes in inflation such as we are experiencing right now.”
But not all MLAs agree with the proposal.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said he believes any move by MLAs to reduce their pay increase this year would have an inappropriate impact on forthcoming collective bargaining between the NWT government and Union of Northern Workers.
The existing collective agreement between the two expires at the end of this month.
“The timing of the bill is the issue,” said O’Reilly.
“There’s going to be perception that these changes are really interfering with the upcoming collective bargaining with the Union of Northern Workers for the majority of our employees.”
He said reducing the pay bump would also reduce “our ability to attract quality people to this assembly and to political life,” and sitting politicians should not amend their own pay.
“I’m not opposed to going to a five-year rolling average of the consumer price index to calculate increases to remuneration, but that should apply to the next assembly,” O’Reilly said. A territorial election is due this fall.
Premier Caroline Cochrane, responding to O’Reilly’s concern, said the proposal had not come from cabinet and was not, in her view, associated with collective bargaining.
“All of us at this time of what’s happening, not only in the NWT but across Canada, have to be conscious of what we’re doing to stop the rising inflation,” Cochrane said.
“In my opinion, this is part of that – that we would try to curb the inflation rates that are going to be unacceptable and unliveable for many people and residents of the Northwest Territories.”
‘Freeze pay’ says one MLA
O’Reilly isn’t the only MLA who doesn’t support the proposed legislation, though others have different reasons and solutions.
Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson said he wants to “freeze this year’s increase and then go to a rolling average starting in a year from now,” meaning there would be no pay increase at all for MLAs in 2022.
“There are a lot of people out there struggling and I think it’s important that we do our part as well,” Simpson said.
“A lot of people here, maybe they made more money in other jobs, and that’s their choice. If they want to go back to that, that’s fine.
“We talk about recruiting people by having a higher remuneration for politicians, but I don’t think that’s true. I think at the end of the day, we probably attract more people who really want to do this job.”
Simpson agreed with Cochrane’s view that what happens to MLAs’ pay has nothing to do with unions or collective bargaining, but Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong directly tied the issues together, stating: “Whatever the UNW gets, I strongly believe that MLAs should be getting the same.”
She said she would support “zero percent with some amendments made that are reflective of the UNW collective agreement,” though how that would work with no new agreement in place for April 1 onward is unclear.
Further discussion of the proposal is expected in the coming days.
In December 2021 – before the recent high inflation rate developed in earnest – a three-person panel recommended no significant changes to how NWT MLAs’ pay is worked out.
MLAs currently receive $114,527 per year, a sum augmented by top-ups based on additional roles like chairing committees or becoming a minister.