Wanderings – Sunshine and accountability

Last week was the release of Ontario’s yearly “Sunshine List” of annual salary and benefit disclosures. The intent of this yearly airing of financial laundry is to hold government employees accountable for money they earn. Really it’s an exercise in fiscal voyeurism.

The list was started by then Premier Mike Harris 26 years ago. Government workers who made more than $100,000 were put on the list. That first year about 4,200 people were on the list. These were senior managers, department heads, deputy ministers, and other political mandarins. For politicos who were hell-bent on their “common sense revolution” outing the top one per cent made sense.

This year that list has over 255,000 people on it. These aren’t just the top government earners, it’s about 20 per cent of all government employees. Middle managers and front-line workers make the list. Is that right? No.

The reason for this increase in size of the Sunshine List is that while wages have gone up and the price of everything has gone up, that $100,000 per year benchmark hasn’t. If you factor inflation in, $100,000 in 2022 is equivalent to $56,000 in 1997. That amount is not much higher than the average earner in Ontario back then.

Not indexing the list to inflation is a political move for a political list. Politicos say they can’t increase that $100K benchmark because it allows people to compare like with like across the years. Really it’s a way of creating more division and placing an emphasis on “us” versus “them”.

A majority of the new people on this year’s list are teachers and health-care workers. Union contracts put teachers over that arbitrary government benchmark, and overtime due to the pandemic did the same in health-care. Fitting fodder for an upcoming provincial election where certain political parties rail against unions.

Publishing the salaries of top-paid government employees is a form of accountability, but it’s only really effective when it is the top-paid employees. Is it good that we know what the salary is of a teacher, a municipal Chief Administrative Officer, or a former employee is? Maybe. Accountability is not a one-way street though.

While politicians talk about what employees make, the Ministry of the Solicitor General is spending tax money on a challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada to keep the marching orders of cabinet ministers confidential. A move that has not been done in the modern era of government.

Since taking office in 2018, the mandate letters for Doug Ford’s cabinet ministers have remained un-released. Mandate letters are the directions from the top of how a ministry is to be run and what the minister will do.

These letters have been released by federal and provincial governments for decades, except by this government. The battle for keeping these secret is ongoing, despite every level of court saying it cannot keep these documents secret. Four years later, that battle will go to the top court of the land.

Ontario residents get to see what teachers at our local schools or workers at the cancer clinic make per year – but we don’t get to see the direction given by the Premier on how cabinet ministers should run the Ministry of Education, or Health, or Long-Term Care? Accountability in secrecy.

If a government claims it is accountable to the people, it should be consistent in how that is delivered. Holding employees accountable without holding government to the same level of accountability is unacceptable. When airing laundry, do the full load.