We're confusing two separate issues. One is why Jean Charest has been getting $75,000 a year from Liberal Party coffers since 1998 and kept it secret. The other is whether we pay our premiers enough.
They are separate because if the premier's public pay is so low that it justifies getting party money, his predecessors would have done the same thing. As far as we know, they didn't.
Many have said, rightly, that the problem is that this sum, totalling $750,000 over 10 years, was hidden from voters, Liberal Party members and MNAs. But more important is the question of why?
Why hide it until a TVA reporter got the new party director to spill the beans?
Why is there no written agreement between Charest and his party?
Why is this amount not identified in the party's annual financial statements?
It was legitimate for Charest to get a salary from his party before he got elected. But why did it continue after he was elected and got his paycheque from taxpayers?
Why did this party money keep being paid after he became premier and answerable to all Quebecers regardless of party allegiance?
The director-general of elections must demand answers because this raises questions about the ethics of what was done and its secrecy.
After the sponsorship scandal, the Schreiber-Mulroney affair and the Chuck Cadman story, voters are growing tired of not getting clear answers from politicians when they're caught in ethically questionable situations.
The premier gave his answer: This is a "private matter." But money that's not accounted for in party statements and which comes from tax-deductible party contributions and public funds given to parties is a public matter.
Which brings us to the separate issue of whether we pay our premiers enough. MNAs are obviously underpaid. But while a salary hike would also be justified for their boss, the fact is that a premier's standard of living is pretty darned good by any measure. A premier works hard, as he should, but the public purse allows him a comfy lifestyle in return.
Aside from the $75,000 from Liberal coffers, the premier receives $183,061. Taxpayers also pay for an official "appartement de fonction" - a beautiful, stylish two-storey Manhattan-style apartment near the top of the posh Price building.
It has a breath- taking view of Quebec City and a large and beautiful room for special meetings or dinners.
A premier also has his chauffeur and bodyguards. At the apartment or The Bunker, which is on the top floor of the beautiful historic Honoré Mercier building, he has a "major d'homme" who shops and cooks for him. The premier doesn't have to pick up his own smoked salmon at the local grocery store. He goes to the best restaurants, has the best wines, flies in a Challenger jet, travels the world on foreign missions and stays in the best hotel suites. The work is demanding, but the perks are real and warranted.
The premier doesn't have to pay, we do. As it should be, his life is made very comfortable. This allows for his salary to cover his family's private expenses easily, unless their tastes are Mulroneyesque.
Then, when they leave, former premiers are worth a fortune to the private sector. Those who don't retire or weren't independently wealthy before they took office get snapped up by big firms and make big money.
Above all, those who get to the top of the political ladder aren't making a sacrifice. They wanted it badly enough to fight for years or decades to get there. Their real reward is not the salary, it's what they wanted more than anything else: power.
But power has its constraints. One is not hiding or accepting partisan money as a salary. Another is knowing that the lifestyle that citizens pay for in exchange for their premier's service to them should be welcomed by any premier as good enough.
Extra money for the premier raises questions
Why was the $75,000 a year payment from the party kept a secret?