HALIFAX - A decision by Nova Scotia's NDP government to eliminate a
tax-free, $45,000 special payment for defeated or departing provincial
politicians was motivated by nothing more than crass political
opportunism, says a longtime member of the legislature.

 

Manning
MacDonald, a 16-year veteran Liberal of the house, insisted Friday he's
not bitter about losing the perk. With so many years under his belt -
only one other sitting member has served as long as him - he can look
forward to a healthy pension and severance package, he said.

 

“It's really just a bonus for me,” he said in an interview outside the legislature.

 

What
rankles the member for Cape Breton South is the fact that the New
Democrats said virtually nothing about the payment while in opposition,
even though they had a member on the internal legislative committee
that makes decisions about politicians' benefits.

“The hypocrisy
of the NDP government comes to the front here because in the past they
had members on the Internal Economy Board, and none of them said
anything,” he said.

“It's nothing but politics. The premier is
hoping to curry favour with Nova Scotians by saying, 'I'm taking a
tough stand. (Members of the legislature) are getting too many perks
and I'm going to protect taxpayers' dollars.”'

Since the
provincial election in June, which resulted in the election of Atlantic
Canada's first NDP government, 15 defeated incumbents have picked up a
$45,000 cheque, including former Conservative premier Rodney MacDonald
and his deputy premier, Angus MacIsaac.

In total, that's $675,000 in special payments since the vote.

NDP Premier Darrell Dexter said the real issue is fairness and accountability.

He
said he's not aware of any other legislature that awards such a
payment, and he stressed that his cash-strapped government is looking
for ways to save money.

“It was a straight forward question of
making sure that the allowances ... were what the people of Nova Scotia
would expect,” he said Friday.

The change comes as the
province's auditor general prepares to release a report on members'
expenses, which means the NDP has avoided the potential embarrassment
of having to be told to get rid of the payment.

MacDonald of the
Liberals also said the move unfairly penalizes junior members of the
legislature because they can't collect a pension unless they serve more
than one term in office.

“It's not going to affect me so much,”
he said. “My pension is vested. I've been around here a long time. I'm
not going out the door with nothing. But there are members here who are
going to go out the door with nothing.”

He said the payment
served as an important financial bridge for departing junior members
because they are entitled only to a small severance package that can be
as little as one month's pay after four years of service.

MacDonald said his severance would be almost a year's salary.

Annual
salaries for members of the Nova Scotia legislature have increased in
the last 10 years to $87,000, a jump of about 91 per cent, according to
the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

The premier
earns an additional $109,000 and there's an extra $47,000 for cabinet
ministers, the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition.

As for
those who serve more than two terms, MacDonald said they can't collect
their pensions until they turn 55, and he cited the example of the
37-year-old former Tory premier.

“He needs a job now,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald,
a former cabinet minister and the former mayor of Sydney, N.S., said
the legislature should consider offering departing members a taxable
payment to help ease the transition to another job or retirement.

The
NDP has decided to make the payment available to any politician who
announces his or her retirement within the next two weeks, an
attractive enticement for members who may be thinking of retiring
before the next election.

MacDonald said he is not considering that option and is not aware of anyone within the Liberal ranks doing the same.

“I'm not here for the money,” he said. “I'm here to serve my constituents.”

Upon retirement, MacDonald's annual pension would be close to $60,000, while Rodney MacDonald's would be $61,000.