Graham Steele: Pay disclosure could go even further

Last week, a treasure trove of data quietly appeared on the website of the Finance Department: the name and income of every person in the public sector paid more than $100,000.

Last week, a treasure trove of data quietly appeared on the website of the Finance Department: the name and income of every person in the public sector paid more than $100,000.

But there was no fanfare. News of the salary data took up one line — the very last line — of the release detailing the province's financial results for last year.

If someone is paid by the provincial government — in other words, paid by you and me, to do stuff that's supposed to be in our best interests — then we have every right to know how much they're paid, right?

We can only wish it were that simple.

Disclosure of public sector salaries is not a given. It has come a long way, but it still has a way to go.

It's true that all civil service salaries over $25,000, plus expenses, have been reported for a very long time. In this respect, Nova Scotia was way ahead of the rest of Canada. But this disclosure requirement applied only to traditional departments like Health or Justice or Community Services.

It did not apply to public entities like school boards or health authorities, even though these entities spend the lion's share of the provincial budget, and together employ far more people than the civil service.

It also did not apply to entities like universities, which are technically private but which receive substantial amounts of public money.

In 2002, the Hamm government imposed a disclosure requirement on school boards for salaries of $25,000 and up. Since then, you can see exactly how many administrators each school board has and what they earn, along with the salary of your favourite teacher, or the teachers' union president.

In 2010, the Dexter government introduced the Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act (PSCDA), further expanding the net of mandatory disclosure.

I was the sponsoring minister and as I said in the legislative debate, "A sensible conversation about public sector compensation levels requires, as a first step, that the compensation levels be disclosed." We hoped disclosure would help us rein in salaries, especially in entities that were too independent for their own good.

Under the PSCDA, every public entity has to publish a list of employees who receive $100,000 or more in total compensation.

Doctor disclosure

The law covers health authorities and universities; in fact, every public entity of any description.

Let the debate begin.

Without the PSCDA, we probably would not know how much university presidents are paid. We might not know, for example, that Tom Traves's compensation as Dalhousie University president was $442,141, nor would we know that his contract pays him an additional full year's salary for every five years of service.

Does the public, which provides a handsome sum to Dalhousie University every year, find that amount acceptable? Do other Dalhousie stakeholders? That's a worthwhile debate — a debate we couldn't have without knowing what the numbers are.

Despite the expanding circle of disclosure, there is one group who this year will be paid a staggering $799 million from the public purse and yet who are not subject to disclosure: doctors.

Payments to physicians are by far the largest part of the provincial budget, but we don't know exactly who earns what.

Doctors fiercely resist disclosure that links payments to individual names. In 2005, the NDP caucus applied for disclosure under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Doctors Nova Scotia fought it to Nova Scotia's highest court and won.

For our part, we believed disclosure could assist the province in its negotiations with doctors.

The disclosure law adopted unanimously by the legislature in 2010 did not immediately apply to fee-for-service payments to doctors but allowed us to cover them later by regulation. We never did pass that regulation.

Interestingly, the Liberal health critic at the time said that he opposed disclosure of payments to physicians.

That health critic was Leo Glavine, who is now the health minister.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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