NWT MLAs’ salaries should be slightly reduced and then reinstated only if they show up for committee meetings, a three-person panel recommends.
The report, authored by an independent commission on MLAs’ compensation and benefits, was tabled in the NWT legislature this week. For the most part, the changes recommended are minor.
For example, there are no significant amendments to pay. Some of the recommendations deal with items like how MLAs are orientated on entry to the legislature and how their work is publicized.
But a key recommendation focuses on MLAs’ perceived lack of participation in committees.
The commission recommends that each MLA’s base salary of $110,761 be reduced by $4,000, then topped back up with a $2,000 stipend for each committee they sit on, to a maximum of $4,000.
Eleven of the 19 sitting MLAs earlier this year were surveyed for the report.
“Most agreed that committee attendance is poor,” the report states, adding MLAs polled felt “there should be an obligation on members to participate on two committees and be present and participate in those meetings.”
Committees are where much of the granular business of legislating takes place, including detailed inspection of bills and examination of the work of ministers and senior government officials.
That work takes time. In 2020, for example, the standing committee on economic development and environment met 54 times for a total of 152 hours, the equivalent of 19 full eight-hour days.
Committees usually feature regular MLAs as the role largely involves scrutinizing the work of those in cabinet.
Regular MLAs are expected to sit on at least two standing committees. At the moment, the NWT’s 10 regular MLAs all do so – though whether they consistently attend and contribute to committees is another matter – but that hasn’t always been the case.
In late 2019, for example, the initial guide to committee participants for the 19th Assembly listed then-Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty only as a member of the standing committee on accountability and oversight, which includes all regular MLAs by default.
“Members had differing views on payment or compensation to attend meetings,” the commission’s report states.
“One noted being on committees is part of the salary, as it is part of the job. Others noted members should be reimbursed for attending meetings. Their reasoning was that if there is compensation for attendance, that might ‘fix the lack of participation.’
“But it was also noted that people ‘cannot just show up to get a check mark and then leave; they need to be there and present.'”
Training, ‘triage site’
The commission’s other recommendations include changing the parachute payment MLAs receive on leaving office to what the commission feels is a system that better recognizes ministerial service.
The report also proposes revamping support for parents, including foster parents, who serve as MLAs. Noting a “stigma” attached to claiming support, the report suggests that $2,000 per year be paid to all MLAs with dependent children, regardless of the number of dependent children they have.
Yellowknife MLAs should consider banding together in one central, shared constituency office, the report recommends.
“This would be used as a ‘triage site’ for all Yellowknife residents. A joint, accessible constituency office would be beneficial, more friendly, and more convenient, and may seem safer for members of the public,” the report states.
There is also a recommendation that a total of $30,000 per year be set aside for the professional development of MLAs.
“Funds could be made available for such needs as public speaking, crisis management, improved writing and research skills, or strategic planning,” the report suggests.
At the moment, the base salary of an NWT MLA is the highest of any territorial or smaller provincial government. Other than the mechanism to incentivize committee participation, no change to that salary was suggested.
“Some of the MLAs interviewed noted they ‘made more in their jobs prior to becoming a politician.’ Some suggested that the basic salaries should be increased, based on their experience, coming from working in a government position,” the report states.
“One suggested it would be fair to look within the civil service to find a comparative salary, for a position with similar responsibilities and duties. But this would be difficult to find, as others noted, because of the long, irregular hours MLAs work and the responsibilities of the members. Many noted that the compensation was ‘just fine.’
“Almost without exception, the MLAs interviewed recommended that the allowances for the premier, ministers, and speaker were adequate and not excessive given the work requirements and time commitments.”
The report was compiled by commission members Joe Handley, Janet Toner, and Glenn Tait.
Handley is a former NWT premier, Toner is a chartered accountant, and Tait is a lawyer who now serves as executive director of the Law Society of the Northwest Territories.