Alberta Politics
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Alberta Bill 5 and sunshine lists generally are lousy public policy and a serious invasion of privacy

Posted on November 10, 2015, 1:22 am
10 mins

PHOTOS: The Alberta Legislature in the sunshine. It doesn’t matter that no individuals are visible, does it? Below: Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley and Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt, back when he was a Canadian Taxpayers Federation agitator.

So-called sunshine lists, which publish the salaries of public employees who are paid more than an arbitrarily set amount along with the names of the individuals who earn those salaries, are both a serious invasion of privacy and lousy public policy.

I’m troubled that Alberta’s New Democratic Government, which I generally support, announced plans last week to expand the original list ginned up in 2013 by former Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford and her strategic brain trust by adding the names and private information of hundreds of additional public-sector employees including university teachers, health care workers and employees of publicly funded boards and agencies.

GanleyThe NDP’s Bill 5 will sensibly raise the annual salary that gets caught in the net this sunshiny nonsense, but not by nearly enough. The threshold will now be set at $125,000 per annum, up from the $100,000 level in Ms. Redford’s policy, which reached back to 2012 to report the salaries paid to more than 3,500 government employees above the arbitrary line.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley says “this government is serious about increasing transparency and this bill will show Albertans how their tax dollars are being spent.”

But this is totally unnecessary in the sense Albertans already know with great specificity how their tax dollars are being spent without the privacy of individual Albertans being invaded and, in some cases, their safety put at risk. Where the public doesn’t know, this reporting deficiency could be easily fixed without infringing on the privacy rights of individuals.

If you ask me, sunshine lists are an excuse for attacks on public employees by market fundamentalist ideologues in the Opposition and they’re an opportunity for lazy and gossipy journalism, but that’s about it.

The NDP of all people should know that there’s a good reason these privacy-shredding lists were cooked up and are beloved by right-wing governments. They’re an excellent a way to single out and shame highly skilled, educated and committed public sector workers for the pay they have earned and are entitled to. The goal is to make public service careers less desirable and give the misleading impression public employees generally are paid more than they deserve.

In a democracy, there is an obvious need for citizens to know how much public employees are paid in aggregate, as well as what the pay is for various categories of public sector work. You’ll get no argument about that here.

As it happens, with the kind of front-line jobs filled by civil servants (included in the Redford law), by nurses (who will now be covered by the NDP’s new legislation) and by teachers (who will not … yet, anyway) this information is available right now to anyone who takes the trouble to look because those professions’ collective agreements are public documents that are easily accessible.

FildebrandtThis is as it should be. But there is no public value to be derived from publishing the fact that, say, Prof. Joe Bloggs is paid $131.245.27 by the local university or that his wife Mary, a nurse, made $125,000.01 last year after being made to work a lot of overtime or be on call for long periods because her employer has made the decision not to employ enough nurses.

This should be a fairly simple concept from a public policy perspective: Publishing professors’ salaries: good. Publishing Prof. Bloggs’s salary: not good.

There may be, in fact, considerable potential harm from publishing this private information, for reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone with a lick of sense. That was why, quite rightly, Alberta’s Crown prosecutors went to court last year to keep their names off the list.

“Crown prosecutors take a lot of risks in the work that they do. They deal oftentimes with dangerous people, people who are often motivated to do harm to Crown prosecutors,” one of the lawyers who argued the case told the court. “The more information is out there in the public domain about a Crown prosecutor, the less secure they are.”

Of course, that’s not just true of Crown prosecutors, is it? It’s also true of provincial Correctional Officers, social workers, health care workers and, really, anyone who earns a salary from any employer and might have someone in their life who wants their money or means them ill, never mind why.

What irritates me about this is that all the public policy goals that are supposedly served by these lists could be served better by separating the names of individuals from the category of work.

In a few cases – provincial meteorologists, perhaps, the famously highly paid former deputy minister of health, for sure – this would be tantamount to identifying the recipient. But in hundreds of cases now negatively impacted for no good reason, it would not, and without harm to society’s important policy discussion.

You tell me, what possible public policy good can be served by me knowing my next-door neighbour’s salary, or my brother-in-law’s, whether or not they happen to work for a public agency?

People like Derek Fildebrandt, who is now the Opposition Wildrose Party’s finance critic and back in January 2014 was the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s chief Alberta agitator, love sunshine lists because (based on Mr. Fildebrandt’s performance in 2014) they provide both an opportunity to attack and shame specific individuals for their pay to score political points, and to undermine the entire concept of public service and public enterprise.

The CTF, regardless of what it claims, is an anti-tax organization that exists to lobby for the corporate agenda. Its modus operandi is often ad hominem attacks on individuals. This is why CTF operatives attacked and mocked promising young Canadian academics for the government grants they received based on the CTF’s misrepresentation and trivialization of their scholarly work.

This is their right, I guess. But I fail to see why they should be abetted in singling out individuals and invading their privacy by a progressive government when there is no public policy benefit from doing so.

Shaming and bullying, obviously, was also part of the reasoning behind the former Harper federal government’s Bill C-377, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to repeal, which would have required publication of names and wages of union employees’ salaries on a government website. It was wrong to do this in Ottawa and it’s wrong to do the same thing to provincial public employees.

If all this information is such a good thing, why not require publication of the personal financial details of corporate executives whose companies do business with the government? Or who receive a corporate tax break? This was pretty much the justification used by Stephen Harper to push the Bill C-377 sunshine list.

Why do I think the CTF would find an argument for sunshine penetrating that deeply less compelling?

It also bugs me that no one, it seems, wants to speak out against this obvious policy stinker. Yeah, I get it. It’s politically irresistible, regardless of where you’re located in the political spectrum. But it’s still bad policy.

The NDP has promised us evidence-based decision making, and in some cases it has delivered. But where’s the evidence Bill 5 will do any good?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

24 Comments to: Alberta Bill 5 and sunshine lists generally are lousy public policy and a serious invasion of privacy

  1. Adam

    November 10th, 2015

    Another problem with sunshine lists – they are often counterproductive. In Ontario, for instance, they can encourage peopllet to ask for higher salaries. If you know that your colleague, seemingly with worse credentials who was hired the same time as you is on the sunshine list, it becomes a reason to demand a raise. Since public servants are often very well educated and hard to replace, that demand for a raise can be hard to refuse.

    Reply
  2. TransparencyCNP

    November 10th, 2015

    In Scandinavia, all expenditures down to the last paper clip are on the government websites. I think that is a good idea. Also all contracts with private companies should be published. This should also apply to municipal governments. As it is, the published budget and “audited” financial statements don’t tell us much.

    Reply
    • Sherry Bellamy

      November 10th, 2015

      “Scandinavia” isn’t a country, could you be more specific? Are the names of each employee public knowledge, or just the positions? David has no issue with finances re: salaries being public; he’s rather clear on that point. Having said that, individuals can be put at risk when their names are published, as has also been made evident. As for contracts with private companies being made public, laws already exist for that. It becomes murky when one actually tries to view such contracts, because typically, privacy is easy to achieve for government contractors, due to “competition” clauses. Our tax dollars buy a lot of secrecy once a private company is involved. I’ll let you ponder the irony of that.

      Reply
  3. Raj

    November 10th, 2015

    As a family physician working with in setting where there are a significant proportion of patients that are seeking narcotics or who have personality disorders, I shudder to think these patients having my personal information. In addition to issues David mentions, there’s a couple of additional problems when it comes to physicians: 1) Physicians are basically forced into working in the public system, and so they have no ability to opt out if they see this as an egregious invasion of privacy and 2) Physician billings are used to pay for overhead including staff salaries, so they don’t even give an accurate representation of what physicians are billing. I think anonymous data would potentially be helpful–and might highlight how much some specialists like opthamologists get paid, or even some family physicians who are seeing 80 patients an day (getting paid the most while delivering ppor quality care). Citizens have a right to demand accountability for public funds (and I do think spending on physicians needs to be assessed as it has been a major cost driver), but there is no need to shame people for the sin of working for the government. Would it really be better for society if I started doing botox injections at a private clinic, instead of dealing with chronic pain and mental health?

    Reply
  4. lungta

    November 10th, 2015

    i think
    as a shareholder in the alberta experience
    i am entitled to know
    who we are paying what
    and let the embarrassment and shame fall where they should
    it is really untenable to let two people negotiate a wage
    using a pile of other peoples money
    and then swear the deal to secrecy
    leaving those “others” in the dark

    Reply
    • David

      November 10th, 2015

      This totally ignores the costs of disclosures and the limits to transparency. Should all government meetings (such as Cabinet) be transparent? Should all interactions with governments be ‘transparent’ Who bears the costs of transparency? Will corporations be free to opt out disclosure clauses in contracts with government? Should exemptions be permitted for any contracts in the name of privacy or private or competitively sensitive information? The only advantage of knee jerk appeals to limitless transparency is that such disclosures will destroy one of the motives for ‘public private partnerships?

      Reply
      • lungta

        November 10th, 2015

        how foolish of me
        opacity is good
        as long as you wish to pay double

        Reply
      • Mark

        November 10th, 2015

        As far as tendered contracts go, there’s a mine field of trade secrets etc. Where wages are concerned I think it’s best to anonymize the individual. The important outcome from wage spend disclosure (whether contract or salary) shouldn’t be friction, it should be consensus.
        That said, and as just one example, dealing with the fact that only thirty percent of nurses are full-time in a 13ish billion dollar health care system is lunacy. The overtime is likely upwards of 30% of frontline nursing budget. Do nurses have to work 40 hours in week or 8 hours in day before overtime? No. The part time positions receive over time rates on any call in. This creates a system where one nurse will call in sick (paid time off) and another ostensible part time nurse will report and be paid overtime. A triple pay shift. That should end tomorrow.

        Reply
        • jerrymacgp

          November 11th, 2015

          What you said about part-time nurses is simply not true. For those nurses represented by UNA (of which our blogger here is an employee, BTW), meaning Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses, full-time employees get a certain number of designated days of rest every week, days on which if called upon to work, they are paid overtime. Part-time employees get those days too, the same number per week. However, as part-time employees, there are also days on which they are neither scheduled to work, nor designated days of rest; on these so-called “blank days”, they can voluntarily pick up additional shifts, and the employer doesn’t have to pay them overtime.

          What you fail to understand though, is that the role of overtime in UNA’s view is as a disincentive to understaffing. In an ideal world, very few nurses would ever get overtime, because the health care system would be staffed appropriately, at levels that not only provide safe, quality care for all during normal operations, but with surge capacity for dealing with unexpected demands for care, which are the nature of the beast in health care. This is why, for example, unlike many other collective agreements in other sectors, overtime is not offered first to those with the most seniority. Overtime is not seen as a privilege or right in our union (yes, I am a UNA member), but an all-too-necessary evil, brought about by employer decisions such as “just-in-time” minimum staffing models.

          Want lower overtime costs? Put enough nurses in the system that it doesn’t need to be paid.

          Reply
    • Raj

      November 10th, 2015

      Do you feel entitled to know what your family doctor makes? I’m not talking about doctors generally, which is fair game, but the exact salary for your specific Doctor? What is that Doctor turned around and said “Fine, I’ll tell the government to keep their public funds, and I will bill you directly so you know the exact cost?”

      Reply
      • lungta

        November 10th, 2015

        i know what my doctor makes ….254k on average
        specifically what does it matter?
        come down any weekend you can watch them take turns going thru the lodge asking “how are you ” and billing for “i’m ok”
        it is a known fact for years that the biggest drain on health care is double billing

        Reply
  5. political ranger

    November 10th, 2015

    I’m on-side with our poet above …. very nice, btw.

    I’ve long been bothered by this idea that we must pay the going market rate if we want the best-in-field for our public service positions.
    In the first instance; there is very little evidence today, or any time in the past few decades, that the highest wage in the land got the people of Alberta any sort of high-quality or even highly competent employees or, more likely, managers.
    Second, the public service is not a business nor a market driven exercise. It is a service. Those that want to provide service should find a welcoming and well-paid space for professional service delivery. Those that want to suck up every little morsel for themselves should look in the marketplace. They should not be welcomed into the public service. This will mean, although it’s not a given, that public service compensation will generally decline. Certainly, the lofty 6-figure salaries will disappear.
    And so too, I wager, will the general resentment the public has towards over-paid and under-worked public servants.

    Reply
  6. November 10th, 2015

    Creating more sound bite info for the CTF who naturally wants to have thier membership and funders remain secret from the public. I think the government can achieve a level of transparency by releasing org charts and detailed lists of positions in place and salaries attached without formally attaching names to anyone who is not a political appointee or believe a certain level ( say maybe an Assistant Deputy or equivalent ?). I also believe the public could benifit from seeing Data at a higher level of groups such as first responders, so we know that we need to be doing more to support , understand and improve in certain areas how we react and support those groups of people who do crucial challenging work on our behalf.
    I personally don’t see why let’s say a nurse ( or other front line health or other worker) sacrifices huge amounts of thier time off in a year and works tremendous overtime under a negotiated collective agreement I feel we benifit by having his or her name published on the Internet…
    The personalizing of things like physicians and other salaries by using names attached to earnings, ignores attaching the lives they may have saved and doesn’t address the fact we need more of them even as much or more than what they earn.

    Reply
  7. Laura Servage

    November 10th, 2015

    Interesting. I can see both sides of the debate. I honestly hadn’t considered the privacy angle, but it is important. I also get the argument that it provides fodder for attacks on the public sector, which more often than not seem to be driven by ideological frothing-at-mouth. On other hand, at least these lists start conversations about income disparities, and what does (and should or should not) count as “fair compensation.”

    Reply
  8. Karen

    November 10th, 2015

    This sunshine list is another example of the NDP trying to placate the market ideologues. They need to stop trying to make the right wing happy which they can never do while being NDP and instead work to make the left wing – their base – happy. It’s what the Conservatives did successfully for 30+ years. It’s time for NDP in all provinces and at all levels to realize the right wing will never compromise on what it wants and so it’s useless to attempt to make them happy.

    I’m disappointed in the extreme by how the Alberta NDP has been compromising itself into a center right party.

    Reply
  9. Eric Cameron

    November 10th, 2015

    Way back when (1980) when I worked for the Province of Nova Scotia, anybody who was paid $44k or more was put on the list. We used to brag about the fact that we had made the list. Hey, they published my name in the Chronically Horrid. Public disclosure of corporate salaries would not be a bad idea. I am appalled at the compensation of corporate executives and members of corporate boards which I obtain as a shareholder. If the public were aware …

    Reply
  10. James Caldwell

    November 11th, 2015

    Ladies and gentlemen, I know this off topic, but I beg your indulgence. I’ve been hopping around the more active political forums in the hopes that I might share some information regarding current happenings that are of concern to Canadians. I believe most are by now aware of the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, and I believe most are aware that this agreement will seriously affect the cost of medicine, the stability of many of domestic industries, the way Canadians will utilize their internet services, and the public domain and copyright law in Canada. I believe that it should also be known that the agreement was negotiated by our previous administration in a series of closed meetings, and that the current PM and his cabinet support the agreement, though they walked a fine line during the elections due to the unpopular and controversial nature of the proposed agreement. This will affect the free exchange of ideas and materials in Canada, making our citizens subject to the latest brand of U.S. international law. For instance, our sensible court ordered removal system for material suspected of infringing on copyright will be replaced with the fire-and-forget style of U.S. enforcement. Canadians will be subject to legalized search and seizure of materials and equipment suspected of having been used in the infringement of copyrights, as absurd as that notion sounds. The public domain in Canada will altered from the international standard (life of creator +50 years) to the standard set in place in the U.S. with the advent of the controversial Sunny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (life of creator +70 years) – otherwise known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act act due to Disney’s massive lobby efforts at a time when Mickey Mouse was approaching the public domain. If this agreement is ratified, we stand to lose thousands upon thousands of works that now serve us as public domain materials. We will be allowing the powerful lobbies of a foreign nation, whether they be entertainment, dairy, tobacco, medical, or otherwise, to steer the course of our nation’s trade and legal policies. These were backroom deals that were conducted without the public’s knowledge, that were conducted on behalf of Canadians by an administration that allowed itself to be bullied during the negotiations, and that are now being supported by the new administration. Prime Minister Trudeau has let it be known that he will condone no free vote from his members on the matter. He supported the agreement, quietly of course, when it was being negotiated, and his government has been hoping to slip this into and out of the house as quietly as possible. This is not to be the case, as many of Mr. Trudeau’s supporters and detractors have called his new government out on the matter, and it is getting uglier everyday. If you know about it, tell someone. If you don’t, read about it and come to your own conclusions. Find the petitions, folks. Stop the Secrecy has them, so do many others that feel our new government is already trying to sell us down the river on a raft they inherited from the last crew of yahoos that sat in the big room on the hill. See what you think, and get loud either way. Have a good one, folks.

    Reply
  11. PJP

    November 11th, 2015

    David,
    Thank you.
    I wrote the premier, my MLA, and Ms. Ganley- the minister that put the Bill forward,

    If the public sector need to make all this public, all corporations should too…good for the goose and all.

    Reply
    • Cindy

      January 13th, 2016

      PIP, here is a tip. Go to SEDAR website. Look up any annual report or AIF of a company of your choice. The top 5 earners are listed in the notes. This is a requirement. They have been doing that for a million years. Knock yourself out.

      I think this is a huge waste of time and resources. All this information is available via FOIP and top earners are usually reported in annual financial reports. All this does is make busy public servants even busier since they have to put this together with no real guidelines, or rules.

      It is hard enough to get highly trained, skilled workers to stay in the public service and now you want to shame them for their service. Politics of envy gone crazy. Heaven help us!

      Reply
  12. AJR

    March 13th, 2016

    What right does somebody in Australia have to see what our public servants in Alberta are earning? Is there any justification for putting this out on the WORLDWIDE web?

    Reply
    • Obmd

      May 23rd, 2016

      AjR- Agreed! Does this mean (as a physician whose annual “billings” are not at all indicative of what I take home a year) that any time I leave the country, people are able to look up how much I make? Does this not open me up to exploitation? A MAJOR safety concern, not only for me and my family at home, but also anytime I want to travel.

      Sure, go so far as to publish billings under “physician 1, physician 2, etc”. That allows the public to see exactly where their expenditures are without putting individuals at risk. But also explain that while most people who take home a salary, take home all of it, we as physicians pay out massive overhead, insurance and salary costs (my overhead is over 200k a year, making my gross billing a year grossly over represented). And also explain that I work on average 100 hours a week, over double what an average salaried worker is paid for. This is not by choice but rather because the patient load I’m expected to care for is under serviced.

      I agree transparency in our government is a positive thing. But there are ways to do it without jeopardizing personal safety.

      Reply
  13. Bombi

    April 3rd, 2018

    Well yeah. People on Income Support and AISH must declare their spousal/ co-habiting partner relationships and their income and assets are routinely scrutinized by the government for the money they receive which barely covers their living costs. Even a small amount of allowances from their family members will be deducted dollar for dollar as an income. So you are saying that privacy for those who make lots of money should be respected while privacy for those who make the least don’t? Why you feel that you are entitled to know every small or big details of the poor is righteous while you feel outraged when the privacy of public servants is questioned? They do get their pay checks from tax dollars and I want it transparent and hold them accountable for what they do for Albertans.

    Reply

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