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Salary secrecy stems from weak leaders, not weak laws

Yukon's inadequate Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is no excuse for the territory to hide the actual salary and benefits it pays its mandarins. Such information is disclosed by the Alberta government...

Yukon’s inadequate Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is no excuse for the territory to hide the actual salary and benefits it pays its mandarins.

Such information is disclosed by the Alberta government, despite there being no legal requirement for it to do so.

Since 1998, the province has required each department to include the salary and benefits paid to its executive staff—this includes deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and other appointees— in an annual report. All the information is public.

“It’s not law. But we’d probably be written up by the auditor general of Alberta if we didn’t include it,” said Gerald Kastendieck with Alberta’s treasury board.

Executive compensation is readily disclosed by most public companies, and Albertans expect their government to be at least as transparent as a corporation, he said.

And their government understands that.

Not so in the Yukon, where the public’s right to know is trumped by the privacy rights of political appointees.

The territory’s public service commission refuses to disclose actual salaries and bonuses paid to deputy ministers. An access to information request made by the Yukon News for this information was refused on the grounds it would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy. The paper is appealing.

The commission will only disclose that deputies were paid salaries that ranged from 8,897 to 0,403 in 2008. Performance bonuses may be up to eight per cent of annual salaries.

Here’s the puzzling part: both Alberta and Yukon have similar access-to-information requirements. Alberta’s law would appear to make the disclosure of actual salaries and bonuses an unreasonable invasion of privacy, too.

Yet the province gets around this through a Treasury Board directive. There’s no reason why Yukon’s cabinet could not give a similar order through Yukon’s Management Board.

Maybe the Yukon doesn’t need better laws. It may only need a premier and cabinet ministers who are willing to live up to the rhetoric about openness and transparency they casually toss about.

Premier Dennis Fentie has been repeatedly asked for an interview on the matter. So far he’s refused.

Yukon’s opposition parties both agree the territory should disclose the money it pays deputy ministers.

Ontario and Manitoba also have similarly weakly worded access-to-information laws, which only require them to release the salary ranges of employees. Yet they also release actual salaries.

They both have additional laws that require such disclosures.

Manitoba passed its Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act in 1996. It requires the disclosure of any government salaries above ,000.

But even prior to 1996, it had been a long-standing practice of the provincial government to disclose the salaries of civil servants.

Ontario passed its Public Salary Disclosure Act in 1996. It requires the government to publish the salaries and benefits of employees that exceed 0,000.

Five other provinces have strong access-to-information laws that require their provincial governments to disclose the actual salaries and benefits paid to civil servants: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

BC’s access-to-information law has other advantages over Yukon’s law, as well, such as a section that requires the release of information that would be in the public interest to be disclosed. Yukon’s law has no such public interest override.

Salary disclosures in BC are bolstered by another law, the Financial Information Act, that has required the province to disclose salaries above ,000 since 1996.

BC further improved its disclosure policies in 2002, when it amended its Public Sector Employers Act to ensure that the entire contracts of senior government employees who earn at least 5,000 are public domain.

These laws probably put BC at the top of the heap when it comes to the disclosure of civil servant salaries across Canada.

At the bottom of the pile is a small club of access-to-information holdouts, of which the Yukon is one member, along with the other territories, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Actual salaries were disclosed in PEI and New Brunswick until several years ago, when their provincial governments rolled back their disclosure policies.

New Brunswick disclosed actual salaries of all civil servants until 2007, when it caved to complaints from some civil servants who disliked their salaries being published.

Employees complained of being spammed by credit card and mortgage companies that had obtained their salaries from public accounts. The province now only discloses salary ranges.

And in PEI, Paul MacNeil, publisher of the Eastern Graphic newspaper, recently fought and lost an expensive Supreme Court battle in which he tried to obtain the salaries paid to employees of his province’s workers’ compensation board.

For about three decades, starting in the 1970s, his newspaper regularly obtained the salaries of civil servants. Then the province introduced its access-to-information law, which deemed such information private.

Now PEI is probably the most secretive of all provinces with its salaries. It won’t even disclose a salary range attached to a person’s name, said MacNeil.

“We’re more restricted than anyone else,” he said.

Strangely enough, PEI’s access-to-information laws are based on Alberta’s. Again, it suggests that laws may be worth less than the extent a government embraces accountability.

Such changes doesn’t happen by themselves. And without pressure by citizens, they are easily undone.

“Governments automatically move toward secrecy,” said MacNeil.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is one more member of the secrecy club: the federal government. It also only discloses salary ranges, rather than actual salaries paid to employees. The same policy is followed by most federal Crown corporations.

This latter practice earned a tongue-lashing by Canada’s auditor general in 2002, when she recommended that federal Crown corporations disclose the actual salaries and benefits paid to its top employees. These recommendations have yet to be adopted, said a spokesperson for the auditor general.

Yukon Energy, which is fully owned by the Yukon government, does not publish the salary collected by its president in any public document. But it agreed to release the information when asked for it.

President David Morrison earned 3,490 in 2008.

Morrison’s post is comparable to a deputy minister. They’re all expected to run government organizations. They’re all paid with public money. Yet the privacy of deputy ministers is apparently more valuable than Morrison’s.

Most onlookers would agree this is silly. It’s entirely possible that deputy ministers themselves would think so.

So Yukon News has offered them the chance to voluntarily disclose their salaries in the spirit of openness and transparency.

For results, see Friday’s paper.

Contact John Thompson at