Ottawa needs to follow Alberta’s example and be accountable for executive pay

Alberta just became the seventh provincial government in Canada to let taxpayers know how much they are paying senior government employees.

Gregory Thomas, CTF Federal Director

Alberta just became the seventh provincial government in Canada to let taxpayers know how much they are paying senior government employees.

And Alberta’s new sunshine policy is the most sweeping and comprehensive in the country. For any employee earning over $100,000, salaries, benefits, bonuses, employer-paid pension contributions and deferred compensation, even severance will all be public information. In making thousands of her senior officials accountable to taxpayers for the money they earn, Premier Alison Redford has demonstrated courage. She deserves praise for this progressive reform.

Redford’s courage stands in marked contrast to Ottawa’s approach to pay accountability. In a city racked by scandal over expense fraud, where the wanton greed of some senators has done incalculable damage to the reputations of all politicians, providing taxpayers with salary disclosure should be a no-brainer for the government.

Instead, insiders from the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO) arranged in June for a Commons committee to gut the salary disclosure provisions of Bill C-461, the private member’s bill brought forward by Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber and passed in its original form by a majority of the full House of Commons. The political operators in the PMO, who are not themselves subject to any salary or severance disclosure, arranged for the committee to raise the disclosure threshold to $441,661, exempting all but a handful of government officials from any public scrutiny whatsoever.

For a government that has raised payroll spending from $28 billion to $44 billion in just seven years, its determination to cover up salaries, six-figure bonuses that can add up to 40 per cent of total pay, benefits, pension entitlements and severance packages, simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

It’s hardly surprising four of the seven Conservative MPs frog-marched into the committee to vote against salary disclosure were not even members of the committee, but acting members. Or that all but one western Conservative were absent that day, leaving six Ontarians, mostly newcomers to caucus, to carry out the dirty work. Or that many weren’t present to hear the testimony of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation or the National Citizens Coalition, where Stephen Harper once campaigned for accountability as its president.

Defenders of the Harper government cite a non-existent right to privacy for government executives as justification for salary secrecy. They make specious arguments about jealousy around the water cooler in government offices. The logic, for want of a better term, that they apply, is that once government employees know what their co-workers are making, their salary demands will escalate, and taxpayers will lose.

They cite a single 2010 study from the University of Toronto, whose principal author actually appears on Ontario’s Sunshine salary disclosure list, a study cited nearly nowhere in academic journals since it was first published, and whose mathematical underpinnings have been thoroughly debunked by researchers at MIT.

The truth is that employee costs have been skyrocketing in Ottawa, in provinces with sunshine lists and in provinces without sunshine lists. In fact, the average payrolls cost for a single federal government staffer have gone from $86,000 when the Conservatives took office in 2006 to $114,000 last year. The Parliamentary Budget Office forecasts it could reach $129,000 by 2015.

Further, how are taxpayers supposed to judge whether these high salaries, and even bonuses, are warranted when they haven’t the foggiest idea of how much they are?

On salary accountability Conservatives in Ottawa need to change course. They need to follow the lead of Conservatives in Alberta, conservatives like former premier Mike Harris, who brought salary accountability to Ontario, and conservatives like the Stephen Harper who fought for accountability so long ago.