One step forward, two steps back

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Thursday, the provincial government finally crept into the 21st century, doing what a host of other provinces have been doing for years: it put restaurant inspection reports online, so that the people who spend money to eat at restaurants can find out if the places they patronize pass the basic rules of food hygiene.

It’s something the province has resisted for years, saying there’s no need for the information to be in the hands of the dining public.

But how things change.

“Today’s announcement is a great example of how the provincial government is working to proactively disclose information that is available upon request,” Keith Hutchings, the province’s public engagement minister, was quoted as saying in a Thursday news release.

“Through the new Office of Public Engagement we will assist in identifying information that should be available for routine disclosure such as restaurant inspection reports. It is all about making access easier and this new web resource will do just that.”

It is a marvellous thing — but hardly rocket science, when, in Toronto, a restaurant’s inspection report is posted clearly at the front door.

Now, to slightly less of a “great example.”

It hinges on a slight change brought in with Bill 29, the provincial government’s adjustment to provincial access to information legislation.

As a result of the change, you’re no longer allowed to ask for the remuneration paid to provincial employees or appointees; instead, you can ask for their “salary range.”

A salary range offers up the bare bones: the base and maximum salaries that the holder of a position would be eligible for.

Remuneration, however, means something different. It means all the benefits an office holder might get, regardless of whether they are part of the base salary or not.

Even now, the government refuses to admit the legislation change does anything, and claims the same information is released now as was released before.

That is, unfortunately, a lie.

Why?

Because last week, a CBC test of the legislation showed that information that had been released under the old act is now held to be secret.

And it’s not only the CBC: The Telegram regularly asked for, and received, information about remuneration and got the information. On at least one occasion, we asked for severance payments to a health board official, were told we couldn’t have it, and used the old legislation to actually force its release.

No more. Now, that information is private, between the province and its employees.

Why does it matter?

Because, when you get right down to it, a salary range is not what an employee is being paid.

The devil is in the details, and taxpayers are paying for those details. And Kathy Dunderdale’s government feels you have no right to know where that money’s going.

The CBC cited the example of Len Simms, a former PC leader who has been running the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation for several years, except for the two times he has quit to help run the Tory provincial election campaign (and subsequently was put right back in his old housing job).

In the past, getting copies of Mr. Simms’ employment contract was  as simple as making a request.

Now, portions are blacked out, because the contract is now “personal information.”

CBC has already determined that the government is refusing to outline the amounts the taxpayer is pitching cash into RRSPs for some appointees like Simms, a payment that even the taxman would recognize as part of someone’s income.

What else could be outside the new rules?

Well, car allowances, vacation allowances, performance bonuses, cash payments in lieu of vacation, travel bonuses (some contracts include regular paid travel out of province), overtime, special severance deals, clothing allowances — the list goes on.

Why would those numbers matter? Maybe they wouldn’t — or maybe they could hide significant payments to staff.

For example, the provincial government paid Nalcor boss Ed Martin $112,491.81 in cash for the vacation days he didn’t take during the period 2005-2009.

Do numbers like that add up in a hurry? Sure they do.

If you take the eight top positions at Nalcor below Ed Martin in 2009, the incumbents totalled up $322,625.66 in “other compensation” for that year alone — all of it money that taxpayers are no longer allowed to know the executives received.

Add in Martin’s one-time vacation cheque, and nine executives split more than $430,000 between them that single year.

It’s one thing to know that the vice-president and general manager of Churchill Falls made somewhere around $154,000 a year in salary in 2009. It’s something else again to know that the same manager actually took home $207,041 in salary and other compensation.

What the government has done — what they have denied doing, and now have been proven to have done — is to supply a mechanism that can be used to reward favourites financially and hide those financial rewards from the people who are actually providing the money. There’s the salary that the public sees, and the jam that can be spread around in benefits.

The irony of it all?

Governments already know the difference.

They don’t make you pay income tax on your salary range.

They make you pay tax on the pay and benefits you receive.

So about that one step forward and two back?

Now, maybe you can look up your favourite restaurant and eat with a little more confidence.

But the hypocrisy of the Dunderdale government about the benefits of releasing information can still turn your stomach.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: CBC, Office of Public Engagement, Newfoundland and Labrador Housing

Geographic location: Toronto

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Recent comments

  • Corporate Psycho
    November 26, 2012 - 20:10

    Just seen a NL Victims Services commercial on TV. Seems to me the government is now spending our money promoting the Conservative Party at our expense.

  • Colin Burke
    November 26, 2012 - 07:33

    Mr. Adams, dependency is practically our whole way of life: our government, like most of our mechanized methods of production and travel, are not ways in which we ourselves do things, but rather ways we only encourage events to occur, as riding a bicycle is something done while a car's movement mostly only happens after what we do is to turn a key and press a pedal. "That's progress." When we learn mostly to help one another do as much as possible for ourselves instead of doing things for one another, then maybe we may be qualified to govern ourselves together with the apparatus of government as an instrument rather than an engine operated by experts.

    • Winston Adams
      November 26, 2012 - 15:24

      Indifference seems to be the easier, but not the best or wisest part. And indifference is easier when truth is uncertain or another path requires some sacrifice. Leave it to the governments experts, yes that's considered progress, until something goes terribly wrong.

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 25, 2012 - 11:19

    As usual, Mr. Wangersky, you have called the government to account for their deliberate attempts to hide the way they disperse our money. They have long since forgotten that it is OUR money that they choose to dole out in secrecy. The sad thing is that they seem to have lost any sense of propriety and will do almost anything to hide these facts from us. The feudal system is still very much with us, the most outrageous violations being hidden by draconian legislation. Then, we are simply asked to trust the most secretive and arrogant Cabinet we have ever seen, all propped up, over the last decade, by the weakest caucus we have ever known. Like all dictatorships, they believe they can do no wrong and that everybody loves them. While it does not say much for the opposition, may we remind them one again that less than 35% of eligible voters supported them in the last election.

  • Winston Adams
    November 24, 2012 - 09:41

    You tell it like it is. Unfortunately, those that brought in these secretive measures have no shame and suggest that it is needed to protect privacy. There are a select few who benefits from such privacy protection. We seem to have a population rather indifferent to being screwed by our own government. In Egypt they took to the streets to get rid of a dictator. A Muslim brotherhood member then came to power. He just this week brought in laws to make himself unaccountable, a move only a dictator would do. And the people again have taken to the streets to protest. Here, we are indifferent. An assembly of the people to protest a high risk project that is a gamble and will raise our power costs substancially draws 100 people. A act to cut freedom of information, which facilitates this risky project, likewise had little opposition from the public. Perhaps we like dictators? It is easier to be indifferent than to be aware, to question, and demand accountability. There's that old phrase "Nflders are too green to burn". We are not stupid. We have intelligence as good as any place. But indifference we seem to have too much. Perhaps it's from our history, isolated communities,too dependant on a church minister, a merchant or a MHA, where corruption flourished and we gladly gave up democracy and lost our country to a commission dictator government. It is well known that small oil rich nations around the world are ripe with corruption and find ways to squander their wealth, benefit a few, and impoverish their people. For the first time in 500 years we are on the verge of fiancial good health. We have 2 billion dollars offset by some 8 billion debt and 4 billion in unfunded pensions. We are far from rich . Yet already our goverment seems gone mad, with a high risk scheme poorly thought out, to cost 8 billion dollars or more. Being green is generally a good thing. Being indifferent and green ,is a different thing.

  • Skeptical Cynic
    November 24, 2012 - 07:40

    Bill 29 and the Dunderdale regime's big-brother approach to selling MRF,by further stfling the flow of information with the marginalization of the PUB and asphyxiating open debate in the HOA, has already sealed its fate politcally... the Dunderdale regime's plunging polling results clearly indicate that. The question is, with regards to the damages done to peoples' right to know with the abominable Bill 29, will the party elected to govern NL post-Dunderdale commit to undoing these damages by repealing the Dunderdale regime's version of the Official Secrets Act?