Gravy Train How Saskatchewan's Taxpayers
Are "Ripped Off" By Its Cabinet Ministers And Mla's by F.L. Dunbar.
Published by F.L. Dunbar 1982.
Even though there is great public debate on
the topic of elected members' pay, it is unfortunate that the debate is often
based on a lack of information or a misunderstanding of the role of a member.
The press are often victims and perpetrators of this general exaggeration and
misunderstanding of the amount members are paid in indemnities and expenses as
they fulfill their roles as elected members.
A recent issue of this publication reviewed
two recently published studies in Ontario on election expenses and Members'
pay. The Fleming-Mitchinson review, even with the few inevitable statistical
errors, has contributed greatly to the need for factual information on members'
pay. There is still a need though for a book, written in lay terms for the
general public and based on accurate information, which could inform the
general public and stimulate them to debate the issues based on fact not
Gravy Train could have supplied the needed
objective analysis of MLA pay in Saskatchewan but not so. The use of
inflamatory terms such as "Gravy Train" and "ripped off by ...
Cabinet Ministers and MLAs" in the title and subtitle show that the book
was written in an hysterical vein.
Gravy Train is divided into five chapters in
which the author reviews the methods the Saskatchewan Legislature has used to
study and set MLA pay and expenses; a review of the pension plan; a look at
telephone expenses and a comparison of members' expense reimbursements for an
urban and a northern member in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The format
of the book and the stated motives of the author in writing it are admirable.
However, due to an exaggeration of some of the statistics and a failure to look
at the expected role of. the elected members in today's society, the book lacks
The two examples that the author used as
typical Saskatchewan members, one urban and one rural, represent constituencies
that the author had unsuccessfully contested in past elections. Other examples
could have been chosen which would not have detracted from the author's
Fred Dunbar does raise a valid criticism of
the way the Saskatchewan Legislature has historically amended the Act which
sets the members' pay. He correctly notes that over the years, the government
has introduced such amendments in the dying hours of the session with the
result that public review and debate of the issue was reduced if not
eliminated. Open debate and proper explanation of the facts lying behind the
amendments to The Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act adjusting
members' pay and allowances would perhaps eliminate the charge that members
were ashamed of the level of their pay and were adjusting it by devious means.
Whether fuller public debate would lead to greater public acceptance of the
level of remuneration to members is an open question. Full debate could not
make the situation any worse and could lead to a greater understanding of the
facts by the public.
Mr. Dunbar is critical of the amount of
money spent on members' telephone long distance tolls and describes these
reimbursements as "barefaced raids on the treasury." This charge is
not balanced by the fact that the public has grown to expect direct and
immediate access to their elected representatives. The telephone has quickly
surpassed the written letter as the most efficient means of communication.
The author is critical of the travel
allowances provided to the two northern members, each of whom represents one
quarter of the land mass of the province. No explanation is offered though that
these allowances are higher than other members because of the reimbursement for
two trips per year to each of the northern communities that can be reached by
air. Air charters are very expensive propositions. To argue against this travel
reimbursement is to argue that northern residents should not be able to meet
with their elected representative at least once every six months. Mr. Dunbar
does offer a good argument that such reimbursements for air travel and other
expenses give the incumbent an unfair advantage at the next election. This is
often very true. Yet the general election in Saskatchewan which was held within
a month of the publication of Gravy Train led to the re-election of only
twenty-three incumbents out of sixty-four constituencies.
The book supports another myth that is
widely believed by the public a member is only working while he is sitting in
the Legislative Assembly! Mr. Dunbar states that a member who is working in the
constituency either listening to the concerns of his constituents or helping
them with their problems is working as a representative of a party and not as
an elected member of the Legislative Assembly. Most students of the
parliamentary system would agree that the role of an elected member is not only
to debate and vote on bills and estimates but also to represent and to listen
to the will of the people in his constituency. The public now expect their
member to fulfill the role of ombudsman and social worker an expectation that
has increased substantially in the last decade. To state that members should be
paid only for their role as legislators is an argument based on a lack of
understanding of the parliamentary system.
Gravy Train is critical of the press for not
objectively analyzing and evaluating the pay increases that "members vote
themselves." This is a fair statement. The track irony is that when Gravy
Train was released, the press gave a glowing report of the book without any
attempt at objective analysis or evaluation. The press seemed willing to
perpetuate myths that the public wanted to hear that they were being
"ripped off" by overpaid elected representatives.
The publication of Gravy Train comes at a time
when the public is debating members' pay and expenses and when a factual and
objective analysis of the issues is needed. The absence of the reasons why some
allowances are as high as they are; the author's inability to look at both
sides of the coin and his obvious attempt to rouse the public's indignation by
using provocative words such as "rip off", "barefaced raids on
the treasury" and "Gravy Train" disqualify the book as a fair
analysis of the issue of members' pay and allowances. Hopefully someone will
take the statistical information such as that collected by Fleming and
Mitchinson and will combine it with objective analysis of the needs of the
public and the members in order to produce a book that can be widely read by
the general public. A full public debate on this issue can only improve the
public's understanding of their members' role and responsibility. This in turn
is bound to improve the respect in which members are held by their
It is a pity that Gravy Train went off the
Gordon Barnhart, Clerk, Legislative Assembly Saskatchewan