Let the light in

The Yukon needs more sunshine. Not the sort that has been blistering necks and shoulders lately, but the type that shines a light on how public money is spent by the territorial government.

The Yukon needs more sunshine. Not the sort that has been blistering necks and shoulders lately, but the type that shines a light on how public money is spent by the territorial government.

Hats off to the CBC’s Nancy Thomson for banging away at this perennial issue earlier this week, with a report that highlights the complete lack of interest among our territorial leaders in adopting a law similar to Ontario’s “sunshine list,” which requires the disclosure of government employee salaries above $100,000.

It’s telling Thomson was unable to find a single Yukoner in a position of authority who would express much dissatisfaction with the current arrangement. Instead, she had to shoehorn that in with voices from national groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Elsewhere, political leaders often fear that the actions of government workers will upset the general public. Here in the Yukon, things seem to have gone in reverse: territorial politicians fear the general public will upset government workers, and go to lengths to ensure that doesn’t happen. That’s why one of the more potent insults territorial ministers are able to hurl at the opposition is to accuse them of speaking badly of government workers – as if bureaucrats are somehow protected by the same principle as papal infallibility.

The sheer enormity of the government sector in the Yukon helps explain this timidity. When you count territorial, federal, municipal and First Nation government staff, we’re talking about 8,100 workers, according to the latest figures from March.

That’s 42.9 per cent of the territory’s total workforce. That’s one hell of a big block of voters to potentially alienate. No wonder Thomson encountered so much squeamishness when she asked our elected representatives if they’d support a sunshine law. Currie Dixon, the minister responsible for the public service commission, says that cabinet’s hands are tied by the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which presently forbids the disclosure of specific salaries. This overlooks the fact that if our cabinet disagreed with the law, they could change it. Or the government could adopt its own sunshine legislation – as what’s found in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario – which would supercede the territory’s privacy laws.

In short, the only reason why the Yukon doesn’t have a sunshine list is because our leaders don’t want one.

Yukon’s opposition leaders are similarly squeamish. The Liberals’ Sandy Silver would only say that he’d consider supporting sunshine legislation, while the NDP hedged their bets by saying they’d start by looking to require disclosure of deputy ministers and the head honchos of Crown corporations. Both stopped short of actually committing to implementing a sunshine law.

At this point, some indignant government workers will be huffing about why nosey parkers want to know precisely how much they earn, anyway? The answer, in short, is because they’re paid with our money, and the public should have a right to know how its funds are being spent. This is particularly the case with jobs that involve significant responsibilities in government administration, so as to judge whether we are receiving performance on par with the money being spent.

This is the rationale for disclosing the salaries of government ministers. It stands to reason the same standard should be applied to their senior staff, who, after all, make many day-to-day decisions about administering public funds, and probably have a far better idea of what is going on most of the time than their political boss.

Our government does disclose the broad salary ranges for its job positions. But this information is awfully imprecise – for senior-ranking officials, salary bands may span $60,000.

It would probably be telling to know the actual number of government workers paid more than $100,000. It would also be interesting if we had a law on the books that required the disclosure of severance pay, like what Alberta has, given the recent abrupt departures of senior government staff in places like the Department of Education. How much did these shake-ups cost the taxpayer? We don’t know, and the government wants to keep it that way.

It’s hard enough being a bureaucrat in this town, one official harrumphed to Thomson – at which point, every resident without a government job who was tuned in to the radio promptly rolled his or her eyes. Disclosing salaries could be a security risk, she was also told – prompting Thomson to acidly note that would be true, if government workers kept their savings stuffed under their mattresses.

All this goes to show that the instinct within government tends to be to keep things secret, especially any information that may be deemed, shall we say, uncomfortable. Yukoners who toil away in the private sector are frequently shocked to discover how much their counterparts in government earn, especially considering the leisurely pace at which government workers are known to work and the plum benefits they enjoy.

This is the cause of understandable resentment. But if bureaucrats truly believe they’re worth the money they receive, their salaries should be publicly defensible. Refusing to disclose them simply looks like a tacit acknowledgement that isn’t the case.

If the public disclosure of salaries rubs some senior government officials the wrong way, maybe they’re in the wrong line of work. What part of “public servant” do people having trouble understanding, anyways?