By Janet Keeping, leader of the Green Party of Alberta
The recent controversy over whether the amount of severance paid an Alberta government advisor should be made public tells us a lot more than how much money Steven Carter received when he left the premier’s office. It also shows that the present government has little appreciation for the role that transparency should play in the public sector. In a democracy government is supposed to serve us, and do nothing other, ever. Accordingly the information government holds is ours and must be readily divulged, except where there are exceptionally compelling reasons for secrecy. Saving the inner circle of government from embarrassment over excessive severance paid to one of its friends is never justified.
The premier’s former chief of staff Stephen Carter left government in 2012. Journalists and others tried for months to find out how much he had been paid upon voluntarily quitting. The government refused to say on the basis that Carter was entitled to privacy. But this is nonsense: Carter was fulfilling a public function and being paid by taxpayers’ dollars. Of course we the citizens of Alberta are entitled to know how our money is being spent. Several Canadian provinces have been disclosing much more than severance for years now. For example, since 1996 Ontario has required that all organizations receiving public money (including universities, health care facilities and Crown corporations) disclose “the names, positions, salaries and total taxable benefits of employees paid $100,000 or more annually.”
Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled against the government saying there was no valid reason not to release the amount of severance paid to Carter. This was predictable: the Commissioner made the same ruling in 2007 regarding severance for other provincial officials. But only after the recent ruling did the government announce it was developing policy on disclosing salary and severance paid to senior government officials. In the end it was Carter himself who spilled the beans by revealing he’d been paid $ 130,000, which was equal to six months of his salary, a pretty rich pay-out and, protestations of protecting privacy aside, likely the real reason the government wanted to hide the amount.
But putting the amount of Carter’s severance aside, there is a lot wrong with this picture. For one thing, the government has had to be forced to promise openness on salaries and severance when such data should have been routinely available long ago. In fact the amount paid Carter should have been publicly announced as soon as it was decided upon. Instead, as one critic has said, the announcement of a new policy is “being done only after extreme pressure. Really, it’s a baby step forward.”
This baby step is a long cry from the kind of legislative change we need to ensure open government in Alberta. The list of deficiencies in our access to information act is long. But even worse, there are 38 examples of what are called “paramountcy clauses,” legal provisions that have been adopted explicitly in order to make sure there is no access to information.
Amazingly, one of these paramountcy clauses is found in Alberta’s 2002 Emergency Management Act which makes information on “preparing or administering a crisis management plan” unavailable to the public. This exemption has had questionable consequences. For example, the City of Calgary claimed it could not divulge the results of a May 2012 test of its flood preparedness because of this law. But the Freedom of Information Act for years has contained exceptions allowing government to withhold information where to do so is expected to endanger health or safety or interfere with law enforcement operations. And if there is no harm to law enforcement or health or public safety posed by the release of information about how well Calgary’s city government was prepared for a flood, then of course Albertans should have access to that information. How else are we going to be able to hold government accountable for adequate flood planning?
So there never was any need for the additional layer of secrecy imposed by the Emergency Management Act, and the same can no doubt be said of many of the province’s other 37 secrecy clauses. As Alberta’s former Information and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work has been quoted, these exemptions make “Swiss cheese” of Albertans’ legally protected access to information. Or as a friend of mine says, you could drive a Mack truck through many of these legal holes.
A reasonable person has to conclude that this government does not see itself as under any obligation to empower citizens. They seem to prefer that we put up and shut up. But this is not how democracy works. We have a right to speak up – even, many would say, an obligation to do so – and we need access to the relevant information to speak up knowledgably and effectively.
As political scientist Chaldeans Mensah has said “Transparency cannot be half-hearted. It’s got to be a full commitment to the principle.” Either a government demonstrates that it gets the principle or it doesn’t, in which case voters should elect a different one that does.
This op-ed first appeared on Troy Media’s website: www.troymedia.com