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Breaking news: Ontario has good idea

By: | January 17, 2012

Ontario publishes the salaries of its highest-paid public employees. Why don’t we?

Ontario may be a confusing and disheartening mess of privatized services, underfunded and decaying schools and racial profiling, but they’ve managed to hit on one good idea that other provinces would do well to emulate.

In fact, several provinces already have.

But not ours.

That idea is the Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act. Under this law – dating back to 1996 – salaries of all public sector employees who earn over $100,000 must be made public. It covers a wide range of employees – in universities, municipal governments, school boards, Crown agencies, and more.

In fact, not only does Ontario make this information available to the public – as do British Columbia and Manitoba – but they do proactive disclosure of the information, releasing it annually on a government website.

In British Columbia, where the information is not proactively disclosed, the Vancouver Sun filed for the information and has created its own interactive database to enable the public to access this information.

Last year, Nova Scotia also introduced a Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act and beginning later this year, agencies will have to start providing this information.

That information is not impossible to obtain in Newfoundland and Labrador. Both The Telegram and CBC have done excellent work in publicizing some of that information – but it’s been limited to the top executives of Crown corporations, and they’ve had to file special requests to get it. Some of this information is found scattered throughout various reports on the Auditor General’s website. Ontario’s approach is far more thorough, accessible and comprehensive…and something for us to consider.

Accountability! And more accountability!

This month, public accountability was further expanded in Ontario as hospitals and health care boards were officially recognized as falling under the the province’s Freedom of Information laws, meaning that journalists (and others) would be allowed to file requests to find out what sorts of salaries and benefits and other perks and treats the senior administrators of health services receive. In anticipation of a flood of requests by journalists and an understandably inquisitive public, hospitals were ordered to post the details of these contracts on their websites for everyone to see.

The results have been…revealing. For instance, CBC reported that:

The original contract deal for Ruby Brown, the acting CEO of Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga, included offers of cosmetic surgery, fitness equipment and a free Jenny Craig weight-loss program plan…Those bonuses are not contained in Brown’s latest contract due to the 2010 Ontario Broader Public Sector Accountability Act, which removed contentious perks from public-sector employee contracts.

One of the (few) arguments against public disclosure is that it impacts the privacy of those employees whose salaries and benefits are publicly disclosed. Opponents argue that it could be…awkward…for lower-paid public employees to have it made public that their counterparts somewhere else earn more. Well, really that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To highlight discrepancies, and hopefully fix them? And better yet, to highlight ridiculously high salaries, and hopefully fix them too?

…privacy rights must be balanced against public accountability, and when governments use our money to pay public managers far more than an average wage…then the public deserves to know…

But for this reason – protection of privacy – Quebec only allows broad salary ranges to be published, not actual salaries. But the counter-argument to this, of course, is that privacy rights must be balanced against public accountability, and when governments use our tax money to pay public managers far more than an average wage – and $100,000 is far, far above average for most of us – then the public deserves to know who they’re paying it to, and how much, and why. That’s a position I can totally get behind.

And so have at least three other provinces.

But not our own.

It’s not about good hard-working public workers. It’s about their overpaid bosses.

Now let’s get one thing clear – this is not another uninformed “public sector workers get too much!” rant. The public sector workers raking in the cash and bonuses and perks and benefits are not the unionized garbage collectors, nurses, bus drivers and front-line service staff that governments love to scapegoat and target for cutbacks. On the contrary, many of those workers ARE underpaid and overworked. The ones who are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars are, for the most part, their managers and supervisors – the ones talking dirty about them and saying that cutbacks are necessary.

Laws like this won’t prevent those overpaid managers and CEO’s from continuing to be overpaid. But it will at least allow us to know when and where it’s happening, and chart how it’s changing, and – hopefully – enable us to bring pressure on governments to rein in these absurd public sector CEO / executive salaries. For instance, last year Ontario’s “$100K Club” increased by 11% – at a time when these same employers were claiming they could not continue to pay their lowest paid workers their meager salaries. Seeing this sort of information lets us see what our government’s fiscal management policies are really all about.

The public sector workers raking in the cash and bonuses and perks and benefits are not the unionized garbage collectors, nurses, bus drivers and front-line service staff that governments love to scapegoat and target for cutbacks.

To its credit – and to the credit of the students and faculty who successfully pushed for more public accountability – Memorial University publishes the entire contract for its president online. For real! You can go see it right here (it’s an interesting read).

That’s a great start. But it’s only a start.

The right to know

Is there a need for such a bill in Newfoundland and Labrador? I think so. I’d like to know which professors are being hired at the university at rates far above those which long-suffering local instructors are being paid at. I’d like to know what the CEO’s and administrators of our long-suffering health care system are earning, at the same time as that very system is being starved of the funds it needs to keep us alive and healthy. I’d like to know how much the employees and consultants and hangers-on at our provincial government, and its arms-length bodies, earn.

I’d like to know what all those human resource managers are taking home every year, while they argue there’s no money in the coffers to pay the hard-working front-line service providers who actually do the work that they take the credit for.

A public sector compensation disclosure act mandating clear, comprehensive and centrally organized, publicly accessible compensation information is an idea whose time has come. It’s come in a growing number of provinces. It’s time for it to come in ours. For once, let’s not be the last in line to adopt a good idea.

Even if it does come from Ontario.

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