The surprising reason you shouldn’t complain about MPPs’ pension plans

Ontario voters often get up in arms about MPP pensions. Here’s why their outrage is misplaced.
By Steve Paikin - Published on March 19, 2019
Mike Harris, former Ontario premier
The Mike Harris government eliminated MPPs’ pension plans following the 1995 provincial election. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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How often does it bug you that the 124 members of Ontario’s legislature have big, fat pensions?

The answer should be: never.

I’m constantly amazed at how often I hear people complain about MPPs’ pensions, even though Mike Harris’s government got rid of them more than two decades ago.

Didn’t know that, did you? Apparently, most people don’t. 

Why did the Progressive Conservatives do it? “We did it to rebuild trust, because people didn’t trust politicians anymore,” is how former Harris adviser Greg Lyle puts it.

Lyle was part of the inner circle that came up with the so-called Common Sense Revolution, the platform that Harris successfully took to Ontarians in the lead-up to the 1995 election. The PCs felt that the bridge between politicians and the citizenry had been demolished by too many broken promises and too much bad behaviour. They wanted to come up with a clever plan for rebuilding that bridge. Abolishing the pension plan for MPPs was thought to be a political winner. Voters, we were told, hated the fact that politicians could serve for just five years or win just two elections and be eligible for a lifetime pension, regardless of how old they were upon leaving public life. So Harris and his advisers indulged in the politics of envy: they campaigned on scrapping the pension plan and then did so after winning the ’95 election.

The result has been a kind of political double-negative. The Tories have received no credit for the move, because so few people remember that they actually made it. And voters continue to envy the financial status of politicians, even though those politicians don’t have the pension.

It may well be that citizens are confused because federal MPs still have their generous pension plans in place. In 1993, the Reform Party tried to embarrass the federal government of the day into getting rid of what it called “gold-plated pension plans.” But instead, after their party had promised to reject the MP pensions, most Reformers quietly accepted them, hoping no one would notice the hypocrisy.

People noticed.

Dave Levac, who retired pension-less after two decades in Ontario politics, can work himself into quite a lather talking about this subject.

“I hate the fact that, over the years, we’ve allowed this narrative to persist,” the former MPP for Brant and the longest-serving Speaker of the legislature says. “I worked seven days a week. I worked my tail off for my constituents. Now I’m 65 years old, and I have no pension for that.”

The theory behind giving MPPs a pension for their time served at Queen’s Park was that it was a good way to convince people who had decent jobs to give up those jobs for a time and enter public service. The thinking was: How much of a financial penalty should we ask lawyers or doctors or farmers to pay to do politics? If we’re going to ask them to take a 50 to 75 per cent pay cut, shouldn’t we compensate them in the long run for that short-term sacrifice?

Of course, now that the pension is gone, conventional wisdom holds that no premier in their right mind would dare reinstate it. The political blowback would be too intense.

But a few years ago, Levac thought he’d worked out a solution. As Speaker, he used the authority of his office to bring together the three major party leaders — Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, PC leader Patrick Brown, and NDP leader Andrea Horwath — and he convinced them all to present a united front to Ontarians. The three leaders promised to support the reinstatement of the MPPs’ pension plan for those who would comprise the 42nd parliament (that is, the current one) and not to bail on the agreement to score political points.

“It almost worked,” Levac recalls. “I almost had them.”

In the end, it was Wynne who pulled the plug on the deal. She (not unreasonably) concluded that, as premier, she would take a bigger political hit than either of the two opposition leaders, and so Levac’s efforts turned out to be for naught.

While you may be thinking MPPs have it good enough and it’s no tragedy that Levac’s efforts failed, the people in charge of candidate-searching for their political parties have told me countless times over the years about how difficult it is to attract good, successful people to public life once they find out how low the salary is and that there’s no pension. The typical response is: I’m prepared to take a significant haircut to do public service, but I can’t take that big a haircut. As a result, too many “good people” take a pass.

The other perverse consequence of eliminating the pension is that many longtime MPPs won’t leave. They know there’s no pension (or better job) waiting for them if they stand down, and so they hang on as long as possible. Some have lost the fire in the belly, and, by hanging on, they effectively deny a seat to a potential newcomer, one who might have more energy and new ideas.

Lyle admits that the political climate two decades ago made eliminating the pensions irresistible.

But given all the unintended consequences, he says, “It’s been a net loser for politics in general.”

Would the current Ontario government ever revisit the issue? Given its populist bent, you’d have to think not in a million years. 

The narrative of the greedy, selfish politician continues — facts be damned.

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