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Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

Sunshine’s bright glare hits Alberta Add to ...

Once upon a time, Canadian politicians could travel on the taxpayer’s dime with no questions asked. Those days are gone.

Governments are required to be more transparent about their spending today. Amid the billions they run through, there are inevitably examples of trips and salaries that are way out of whack. And when they’re exposed, the media and opposition parties have a field day.

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Alberta Premier Alison Redford is getting a taste of what that feels like. When it recently came to light that her trip to Nelson Mandela’s funeral cost taxpayers $45,000, it ignited a frenzy of dissent – and rightly so. Her Nova Scotia counterpart, Stephen McNeil, attended the same event and submitted a bill for less than a grand.

Ms. Redford has offered plenty of excuses: She took an assistant with her; she wanted to avoid taking a red-eye flight; she didn’t realize how expensive it was. But her explanations have failed to resonate in the court of public opinion. It didn’t help that before this came up, travel expense documents for 2012-13 revealed the Premier’s taste for upscale accommodations. One hotel in Washington cost $876 a night. Presumably, that was the same one that billed her $22 for a pot of coffee and $31 for a hamburger.

One Alberta columnist has taken to calling her Princess Alison and Her Royal Highness. In politics, that is never a good thing.

The Premier’s problems have been compounded by the fact that for the first time, the government has published a list of employees making $100,000 or more a year. Other provinces have been releasing this information for some time. The first couple of years, it creates scandalous headlines and loud denunciations by political opponents but eventually the noise dies and the names of those cashing in on lucrative government jobs are mostly ignored.

In Alberta, it was revealed that the Premier’s chief of staff, Farouk Adatia, was paid $357,706 in wages and benefits for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Some enterprising soul looking for comparisons dug up the fact that the salary far exceeded that of U.S. President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, who makes $172,000 a year. Meantime, Ms. Redford’s director of communications, Stefan Baranski, is paid about $200,000 in base salary, which is tens of thousands more than most others doing similar work elsewhere in the country receive.

Public-sector salaries have never made much sense to me. For instance, it’s accepted that Canadian premiers – people with ultimate responsibility for running a province and making decisions that affect millions of people’s lives each day – get paid far less than their deputies.

In B.C., there are executives for Crown corporations that get paid half a million dollars. The Premier gets paid about $200,000. Deputies in ministries such as health and education, arguably the most important in government with tens of thousands of employees, get paid closer to $300,000, but still less, in some cases, than a person working at another government entity who has far less responsibility.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and others worry that publishing public-sector wages will only serve to escalate costs as employees and unions use the information as leverage. I’m not sure how real a threat that is. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says provinces that post salaries have a better record of containing those costs than those provinces that don’t – exceptions being Quebec and Ontario.

It’s not actually these so-called sunshine lists that fuel rising payroll. It’s undisciplined governments that are either reckless managers or beholden to public-sector unions for their support.

The truth is that while $100,000 is still a heck of a lot of money, it doesn’t pack the same bedazzling punch it once did. It’s like being called a “millionaire” – in Vancouver, anyone who owns a home technically qualifies. Likewise, there are more people crossing the $100,000 a year threshold every day.

The best part about public inventories of the well-paid is that it allows you to find out what Donna the bureaucrat down the street makes. And when your child has to hit the sidewalks to raise money for a class trip, you know exactly where to send her.

In Alberta, there may be no better door to knock on than the Premier’s.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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