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

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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?

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Categories Alberta Politics