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Political Interference: Sunshine lists focus taxpayers’ attention on the wrong salaries

Alberta’s Bill 5, the Public Sector Compensation Transparency Act, has now passed third reading in the Alberta Legislature and is on its way to becoming the law of the land.

This is the bill that takes the so-called sunshine list passed by former preimer Alison Redford’s government in 2013, whereby the names of all government workers earning over $100 000 would be disclosed, along with their total compensation, and expands it to include a raft of other public-sector workers like university employees, doctors, nurses and the staff of the province’s boards and agencies.

Because the original bill was designed to be sensitive to inflation, the current threshold for direct government employees will be $104 754. The threshold set for the workers that fall under the expanded legislation will be $125 000.

The theory behind these lists, largely the brainchild of market fundamentalists, anti-tax and anti-government extremists, is that they provide transparency and accountability for how the government is spending public dollars, and that the public scrutiny helps keep government expenditures and salaries in check. There is no question that these are worthwhile goals.

Unfortunately, the experience in jurisdictions where these lists have been implemented is quite the opposite. A recent study by University of Toronto professor Rafael Gomez highlights the degree to which sunshine lists tend to result in higher salaries, as knowing the salaries of colleagues can provide a useful bargaining chip for individuals who don’t earn as much.

Likewise, simply publishing names and total compensation with no context around qualifications, experience, job description and hours worked does absolutely nothing to inform the public as to why any given individual made what they made in any given year. Without that context there can be no real accountability, as it is impossible to determine whether the public is getting its money’s worth for that individual or not.

Given that these disclosures tend to fail both in terms of salary suppression and public accountability, what is the real point of them—and why are groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), the Wildrose Party and the Fraser Institute such big fans of them?

Fundamentally, it is because of the role these lists can play in furthering their anti-government, anti-public sector rhetoric. When the lists get released, it provides them the opportunity to highlight that professor John Smith or nurse Jane Jones made $127 000 of your tax dollars last year. The result is a loud and public shaming and bullying of those individuals, based on the knee-jerk belief that because I don’t make that much then nobody else should—especially someone being paid by the public purse.

For close to 40 years these right-wing ideologues have gone out of their way to convince people that government is, by definition, ineffective and inefficient, that taxes are tantamount to theft, and that public servants are lazy, entitled and over-paid. Their privileged access to the media has meant that, even despite tons of evidence to the contrary, people have heard those messages so often and regularly that they have come to accept them as truth. The publication of high public-sector salaries, without any context, just helps them reinforce that message and further promote their rhetoric and ideology.

Ultimately, all the information required for transparency and public accountability around public sector salaries is already public, as collective agreements and salary scales for most of these positions are in the public domain for anyone to see. For those out-of-scope positions whose salary scales are not currently public, the same could easily be accomplished by publishing aggregate data around how salaries are calculated and how many people currently occupy each salary range. How does attaching a name to a salary and publishing it—without any further information—provide any more accountability or transparency than that would?

If it was truly about transparency, accountability and cost control, these folks would put as much energy and effort into the full public disclosure of public-private partnerships and other government contracts with private businesses—but they don’t. Those contracts have at stake the quality of our infrastructure and include guaranteed profits for the corporations involved, but somehow the CTF and Fraser Institute are much more interested in disclosing the $140 000 salary of some professor than they are in disclosing the billions of dollars in corporate profits that we are paying every year through these arrangements. Clearly, it’s not about transparency or accountability at all—it’s about ideology, and it’s a shame our provincial government has chosen to buy in.

Do Albertans deserve transparency and accountability from their government? Absolutely. Does the sunshine list accomplish either of those? No. Let’s stop kowtowing to right-wing rhetoric and begin instituting processes that will really impact transparency and accountability in a significant way.V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

2 Comments

  • Most succinct article on this I have read. Thank you. While I support almost everything else this government has done to date, this bill is misguided and an obvious salvo to the right wing. I’m hoping they rethink the concept in future.

  • What? This was passed by an NDP social democrat majority. Tell me how they are right wing extremists. You make it sound like it was a right wing bill. Think you are bonkers.

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