Lately, I’ve been thinking about a conversation that I had some years ago.
I had been chatting with a colleague at work about a variety of topics as the night had been slow and dull. Precisely zero patrons frequenting our establishment and we had exhausted all the usual subjects short of the week’s current events. Me being a gregarious disturber-of-sorts, I went for it, and asked this person about the upset that had been the recent election of an NDP majority in Alberta. I was floored at the response:
“Well, I didn’t vote. I never do. They’re all the same and I don’t get represented.”
The face I made must have been contorted into some deeply unpleasant shape, because my interlocutor quickly asked to change the subject. I dutifully ignored her request and persisted, firm in conviction that of all people, a fellow young person should be the one to convince another to engage in the democratic process.
My tenacity and high-mindedness were rewarded with a final fifteen minutes of frosty near-silence, and not even a look backwards at the end of shift, as the bearer of my indignation sped towards the exit doors and into a more peaceful night.
I should be more precise: lately, I’ve been thinking about how I messed up a conversation that I had some years ago. I failed to consider that final cause of cynicism and its knock-on effect of apathy in our politics: that of the enormous personal wealth of our elected officials.
Now, in my defense, we as society do not often think of money matters as entirely within the public domain. The subject is rendered moot from a young age and well into working life, where most salaries are confidential. Even in the more transparent public sector, where most provinces require disclosure of the names of those making above six figures, there are exemptions and ways to skirt the issue. The publicly-financed CBC does so here.
Fortunately, as we saw this week, politicians’ dollars are not so opaque. For the last fortnight, the oxygen in the media has been consumed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, one of the wealthiest members of the Federal Cabinet. He was caught recently in failing to disclose one of his private companies that administers only one thing: a personal villa in the South of France, ostensibly for the minister’s personal use. Additionally, Morneau used a loophole in federal ethics law to secretively avoid selling one million shares of his ex-business, Morneau Shepell, a firm with whom he should play no role because he now regulates the industry as Minister. The shares also happened to pay a yearly dividend of $780,000, or roughly triple his salary as a member of the executive branch. This in spite of the fact that upon coming to power, all new Liberal ministers were mandated by the Prime Minister to arrange their private affairs so that they may “bear the closest public scrutiny.” Every MP is required to disclose all assets, liabilities, expenses, travel, gifts and other information relevant to discharging their official, conflict-of-interest free duties, something the Minister misled the public about doing. Clearly, Bill was going to have a bad week.
Bad got worse: in an attempt at relatability, MPs took turns standing up in Question Period and disclosing the contents of their private companies – “A rental property! A rental property!” – on the record. They then demanded Morneau to do the same. Insults pelted down from across the aisle. The minister bumbled a non-response and promptly sat back down. The Tories, triumphant, rejoiced with laughter in their great show of transparency. All in the name of the average, private-firm owning, real-estate-investing Canadian.
This sad display highlights the real problem: representatives of all stripes, the same officials also responsible for the loopholes and deductions of the Income Tax Act, frequently paint themselves as the champions of the typical citizen. Yet when in power, these people use the very loopholes they created and twist their being down-to-earth by highlighting the fact that they only own investment property instead of a million shares of a multinational corporation. They do so because this genuinely is their idea of “relatability”. They are simply too wealthy to properly understand the daily struggles of the vast majority of the population.
Consider this: a Member of Parliament is paid a salary of $172,700, more than double that of the median family. Any person with a title beyond that of MP, such as whip or minister, is entitled to more than that. The two opposition party leaders make above $230,000 and the already wealthy PM is on $345,000. A quick survey of the MPs’ biographies reveals the scope of the wealth: corporate lawyer, medical doctor, astronaut, MBA, PhD, professor, dean, hockey team owner. In the case of Bill the Finance Minister, he was an executive chairman, and pockets more salary in a year than some Canadians will see in a lifetime.
On a recent cover, The Walrus highlighted the more typical Canadian plight quite succinctly: a picture of a decrepit Vancouver bungalow listed at $2,198,000 beside the average income of $43,000. In this city, an astonishing 80% of median household income is spent on housing. Previously affordable cities like Calgary and Victoria have seen their real estate shoot up as well. The Globe and Mail recently profiled wage growth and showed its unevenness across the income brackets: Canada’s top three percent, which includes all federal parliamentarians, grew their incomes at 11.1% over ten years. The middle-income group grew their incomes at 5.9% and the lowest-income group saw their salaries shrink by 10.5% over that period.
It is not fair or right to discount people from public office because of their excessive personal fortunes. If wealth is earned legitimately and with reasonable effort, I have no qualms with its pursuit. Additionally, unlike the Conservatives, Morneau raised the top marginal tax rate by 4% and cancelled certain benefits and policies that were purposefully conceived by the previous government to make the rich even richer.
However, to believe that electing a different party to power will succeed in addressing society’s inequality, poverty and lack of representation is naïve and will be so until the full gamut of Canadians may have an unfiltered, respected voice in the House of Commons. Imagine the difference in our financial discourse if a minimum-wage retail worker became a politician. Or if a janitor had Bill Morneau’s job. Or a mobility assistant at a nursing home. Or a homeless person.
A lower salary has an impact. Especially in this world where every service has a fee, every good has a sticker and every price can be counted on to rise. Let us thus begin to bring the levels of money back down towards the levels most common to most people. Let us institute a pay-cut for our MPs, as well as a super-tax, an estate tax and a transaction tax for financial instruments that produce no material value for the economy. I might add that none of this is new or revolutionary; we need only look to Europe for inspiration. But mostly, I propose that we break down the taboo of money when talking about our politicians, and with our minimum wages and student debts, let us run for office ourselves. The issues presented here are ones that can unite non-voters and regular-voters alike.
Canadians are not sybaritic and dedicated only to opulence. Most simply seek a fulfilling life, much like my colleague probably did in the anecdote above. And I firmly believe that she, like most, would engage with this country’s institutions in a better, more sustained fashion if the state of our politics truly resembled the state of our pocketbooks.
Graham Gerein is a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa, studying environmental economics. He is an avid cyclist, a proud Albertan, and a critic of the national political scene. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org