Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sweet deal leaves me with indigestion

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
July, 2011

I’m starting the day with precisely $61. That’s a Mackenzie King red bank note ($50), a purple John A. Macdonald ($10), and a golden loonie coin. Plenty of dough for someone in search of three square meals.

My day usually begins with simple coffee and toast, or perhaps some pan dulce (Spanish for sweet bread), but since this is being done on someone else’s dime, let’s splurge with restaurant meals.

We’re doing the 9-to-5 today, so we’re hunting for a standard bacon-and-eggs breakfast instead of a fancy brunch. The workday is to be spent near the Inner Harbour, so we’ll limit the hunt to the downtown area.

John’s Place at 723 Pandora Ave. has long been a place to go for yeast-batter Belgian waffles ($6.25) with dark roast coffee ($2.75). That’s $9.

Or we can launch the day with brekkie at Mo:Lé, at 554 Pandora, where one of the morning specials is the Simon Whitfield Yam Omelette (“eat like an Olympic champion”). That’s $13 for a heaping helping of health.

For lunch, let’s splash into a big bowl of barbecue pork and wonton noodle soup at Wah Lai Yuen, 560 Fisgard, for $9.50. Comes with Chinese tea. My other choice would be a pulled pork sandwich ($6.50) with a side of beans ($1.75) and cornbread ($1.75) with ice tea ($1.50) at Pig BBQ Joint, 1325 Blanshard. Southern comfort? I’m in a Southern coma after that delicious pig out.

Some other possibilities for the midday meal: five tacos de pollo on handmade corn tortillas for $5 at Hernande’z Cocina, a slice of El Salvador located in the ground-floor walkthrough of an office building at 735 Yates St.; or, some Ocean Wise-approved, tempura-battered halibut fish ’n’ chips ($13) at Red Fish Blue Fish in the converted shipping crate on the pier below 1006 Wharf St.

Supper is an easy call for me. One of two places. At Zambri’s, I’d start with fried mozzarella ($9) followed with lamb shank contadina ($30). At Brasserie l’Ecole, I’d scarf a couple of oysters on the half shell with sweet, sour and spicy mignonette ($2.50 each) followed by steak frites ($23 for the 8 oz. sirloin). Rare, of course.

What a feast. Three terrific meals by local chefs in some of the city’s best restaurants.

Alas, my personal budget does not permit three restaurant meals per day on any day, let alone on every work day. Few jobs permit such profligacy.

One that does is to be an elected servant of the people. Look in the finance ministry’s Core Policy and Procedures Manual. Under the travel section, in paragraph four of subsection 10.3.7, it says members of the Legislative Assembly can claim a $61 meal allowance each day they’re working.

Last year, reporter Rob Shaw of the Times Colonist reported that Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong had claimed $5,921 in meals in 2009. This seemed a large sum, not the least because a) Chong is moderate in character, not gluttonous, and, b) her home, no doubt outfitted with a kitchen, is no more than a 20-minute drive from the Legislature.

Asked for comment, the Opposition NDP declined to complain, giving rise to the reasonable supposition that its local members, too, were claiming $61 in daily meal money.

The MLAs do not even need to submit receipts.

It’s a sweet deal that leaves me with indigestion.

Being an MLA is not easy. The hours are long, the files complicated, the public demanding. For this, they are well recompensed. Elected representatives earn a base salary of $101,859, with many of the 85 MLAs earning substantial additional salaries for other roles (premier: 90 per cent extra; cabinet with portfolio, 50 per cent extra; government whip, 20 per cent extra). Even a lowly deputy chair of a committee earns an extra $10,185.90.

We are not talking about people barely able to make ends meet.

Jane Sterk, the leader of the B.C. Greens, has a suggestion: “Bring meals from home.”

Or buy your own lunch with your own dime, just like all the rest of us mop-wielding, pencil-pushing, working stiffs.

Some of the people serving high-on-the-hog politicians earn minimum wage, which increased to $8.75 per hour in May after having been frozen at $8 for a decade. That’s $70 per day in earnings, before taxes.

The $61 food allowance is a gravy train that needs to be derailed.