NDP vows to poke a hole in B.C. Ferries CEO's ballooning pension

July 8, 2011

B.C. Ferries boss David Hahn better hope that the New Democratic Party doesn't form a government before he retires. Because if that happens, it will be going after his pension - or at least one of them.

NDP Opposition Leader Adrian Dix made it clear this week that he considers recent enhancements to Mr. Hahn's benefits package unconscionably excessive. And it's doubtful there are many British Columbians who would disagree.

"I believe his latest pension deal can be rescinded," Mr. Dix said. "And if we form government that's what we'll try and do, absolutely."

Mr. Hahn is relatively famous in B.C. as the highest-paid employee in the public sector. Last year, he collected over $1.1-million in pay and bonuses. His compensation has doubled in five years. When it was first revealed a couple of years ago that his pay had climbed to nearly $1-million, the news incited public anger.

Then-transportation minister Shirley Bond agreed that the pay was extreme and disproportionate to the salaries being paid other top executives in the public sector. She promised any further escalations in his pay and benefits would be closely monitored.

It was all talk.

Mr. Hahn's overall remuneration has continued to climb. What has people really upset this time, however, is the revelation that the B.C. Ferries' chief executive officer was recently given a $237,000-a-year pension boost - allegedly because he had suitors trying to lure him away.

This puts his total pension package up to $315,000 a year - which he can begin collecting when he is 62. That is in two years, when, conveniently, he is scheduled to step down from the job.

This is a problem for B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

During the Liberal leadership race earlier this year, when Mr. Hahn was saying that the corporation might have to raise fares 50 per cent on some routes, she suggested it wasn't right for the CEO to be talking about hiking rates while he and his executive team were making unprecedented public-sector wages.

This was before the latest revelation that Mr. Hahn was recently given the pension increase.

So far, Ms. Clark has remained silent on the matter. So has the Blair Lekstrom, the new Transportation Minister, who refused requests to discuss the issue.

This does not reflect well on the government, and in particular Ms. Clark, a populist who has gone to great lengths to walk a mile in the shoes of average British Columbians. (This included a two-hour stint as a waitress.) It will certainly be difficult for her to front the tough stance the government is taking in negotiations with public-sector employees in which zero wage increases have been decreed, while allowing the province's richest public-sector worker to get a $237,000-a-year pension boost.

The optics are dreadful.

Mr. Hahn has done commendable work during his eight years on the job. He has modernized what was a tired and poorly run operation. But as jobs in the public sector go, his is not nearly as demanding as, say, the deputy minister of health - who makes a third of what Mr. Hahn does. (And a fraction of his pension benefits).

There are others in the same boat.

There seems to be little question Mr. Hahn appeared to benefit from a close relationship with former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell. That appears to be continuing under Ms. Clark - a fact that could be hard to justify come election time. Throw in the Premier's decision to hire her friend, Pamela Martin, to an undefined $130,000-a-year job in her office, and you can hear Mr. Dix sharpening up his lines for the election trail already.

"It sends a terrible message," Mr. Dix told me this week. "I don't want to personalize this. This is not about David Hahn or Pamela Martin as people. Or for that matter the two - two - chiefs of staff the Premier has at $190,000 a year. But how can you stand by and sanction those decisions when you're asking ordinary folk to take no increases?

"Like the hospital workers whose job it is to keep our hospitals clean. That's a pretty important job too. The management class has been seeing its salaries continue to rise under this government, while poor health-care workers and many others get shafted."

As messages go, it's a pretty compelling one. And Ms. Clark should be worried.

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