Amid the recent furor in Ottawa over backbench MPs being muzzled by the Prime Minister's office, an important private member's bill passed second reading on the final day before the Easter break. Bill C-461 could be a game changer -- the most important legislation put before the current Parliament to make politicians and bureaucrats more accountable for the taxpayer dollars that they put into their own pockets.
The bill does two things; first, it fixes a flaw with the current access to information law that resulted in Canada's Information Commissioner taking the CBC to court over whether her office has the authority to adjudicate on access request appeals.
Twice the courts have ruled in the Commissioner's favour, but they also acknowledge that the law needs to be re-written. Bill C-461 cleans up this legislation. The second and more important thing Bill C-461 does is change the law such that Canadians can file access to information requests to obtain the actual salary and job description of any public servant earning more than $188,000.
Incredibly, senior federal executives in Ottawa can currently earn up to $513,400 in salary (and an additional $169,422 in annual bonuses) and Canadian taxpayers are not entitled to know the amount of the salary or the size of the bonus. We are only entitled to a broad salary range, and we are not entitled even to read an executive's job description.
But powerful forces are manoeuvring behind the scenes to rip the heart -- and the teeth -- out of the bill when it comes up for review by a parliamentary committee.
In short, senior bureaucrats, through their powerful networks and government employees unions, are pushing to raise the disclosure limit to the moon: $320,000 or even higher.
In proposing this gold-plated disclosure limit to the House of Commons, Robert Goguen, Parliamentary Secretary to the federal justice minister, said it "better reflects the intention of disclosing the income of the very highest paid individuals."
Perhaps it's somewhat remarkable that this bill passed second reading at all: C-461 is the brainchild of Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, the Conservative maverick from Edmonton-St. Albert who has spent a good portion of the current Parliament kicking the shins of Conservative cabinet ministers over embarrassing stories like $600,000 of paid overtime for their limo drivers.
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C-461 lost some important backers by daring to even talk about the CBC; Rathgeber trespassed on the hallowed ground of public broadcasting, triggering the knee-jerk opposition of the NDP, and all but a single member of the Liberal caucus.
Thankfully, every Conservative, one Liberal, and even the four Bloc Québécois MPs were able to get past the CBC mention to vote on the real issue: Ottawa's burgeoning federal payroll that has grown to $44-billion, from $29-billion when Stephen Harper took office in 2006.
Government salary disclosure has been mandated by law at the provincial level for many years: Ontario just published its annual Sunshine List -- the salaries of every Ontario government employee earning over $100,000 have been made public since 1996. In Nova Scotia salaries over $100,000 are also made public. In New Brunswick, the bar is set at $60,000. In Manitoba, it's $50,000.
Frankly, by agreeing to the highest salary disclosure benchmark in Canada -- $188,000 -- Rathgeber may have corralled enough votes to keep his bill alive, but he's set the bar already too high. John Williamson, MP for New Brunswick Southwest, suggested during second reading debate that the level ought to be lowered to $158,000, but even that is significantly higher than many provincial levels.
Nobody is suggesting that every clerk, secretary or janitor working for the federal government have their salary published on the front page of the daily news, but Bill C-461 should be amended to lower the disclosure level to $100,000.
Bill C-461 is a tremendous opportunity to improve transparency and accountability on one of the largest expenditures of the federal government. But if it is gutted by those who fear accountability, it will not only be an opportunity lost, but a slap in the face of taxpaying Canadians.