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Alison Redford's public-relations double whammy

Embroiled in a controversy over hefty stipends given to MLAs who sit on a committee that hasn't met in years, Alberta Premier Alison Redford has ordered immediate pay suspensions for Tory members.

Ms. Redford has halted pay for all Tories on government committees, asked MLAs to refuse payment for all-party committees and requested retiring Speaker Ken Kowalski to review committee pay and suspend all committee pay for MLAs.

Monday's announcement stands pending the outcome of retired Supreme Court Justice John Major's current review of MLA compensation and benefits. His report is expected to be completed by the end of next month.

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That's about the same time Albertans are expected to go to the polls. A provincial election could be called within weeks.

"My government will review the recommendations of the independent review carefully," Ms. Redford said in a statement, "but it is my commitment that we will simplify MLA pay into one, fully-taxable salary so that Albertans know exactly what their elected representatives are earning and why."

Last week, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation bestowed one of its annual Teddy Waste Awards to Alberta's standing committee on privileges and elections, standing orders and printing, whose 21 members haven't met since 2008.

Members draw $1,000 per month, while the chairperson receives $1,500 and the deputy-chair gets $1,250. The annual salary pool is $261,000 for no discernible work in recent years.

Ms. Redford initially called the arrangement "ridiculous" and said she would wait until the recommendations from judge Major. But when outrage grew, she changed her mind.

"The decision shows that she is not turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to the complaints, the rightful complaints of Albertans on this issue," said Scott Hennig, Alberta director of the taxpayers group.

Ms. Redford is in the midst of a public relations double whammy.

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Last week, she suspended Gary Mar, Alberta's envoy in Asia, after it was revealed he hosted a fundraiser to help wipe out a $262,000 campaign shortfall after failing to beat Ms. Redford in the Tory leadership contest last fall. The province's ethics commissioner is now probing the situation.

Meanwhile, Ms. Redford reiterated one of her campaign promises as she dealt with the fallout from the so-called "no meet" committee.

"I stated my clear preference for a single, transparent pay structure for MLAs," she said.

While the majority of those on the questionable committee are Progressive Conservatives, it also has members from the Liberals, NDP, Wildrose and Alberta parties in addition to an independent.

Ms. Redford was once a member of the committee, but said she wasn't aware of it and wasn't paid for it.

Alberta MLAs have been allowed to pocket extra cash for committee work – to a maximum of $3,500 a month – and some sit on multiple committees. This compensation scheme was introduced in 2008 as part of a package of significant pay increases for MLAs.

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The committee the taxpayers federation singled out for being among the "worst of the worst in government waste" awards last met on Nov. 17, 2008 – for just 14 minutes. It was one of five meetings that year. Prior to that it hadn't met "for almost 20 years," noted member Bridget Pastoor, then a Liberal MLA, now a Tory.

Some committee members (Liberal member David Swann) have been donating their committee income to charity. Others have pledged to return their earnings (former Tories, Guy Boutilier and Heather Forsyth , who now represent the Wildrose, as well as Raj Sherman, now Liberal leader.) Others were on so many committees they were never paid for this one (NDP Rachel Notley.)

"Donating it to charity is a step above pocketing it," said Mr. Hennig, "but at this point, if the additional MLAs want to give their money back, I want to see it go back into public coffers, not charitable coffers."

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Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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