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Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

POLITICS

Tory MP ‘dumbfounded’ Ottawa is fighting disclosure of top bureaucrats’ salaries Add to ...

Amid the ongoing Senate expense scandal, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has largely shot down a move by one of its own backbenchers to publicly reveal the salaries and expenses of many top federal bureaucrats.

The government’s changes to Bill C-461 – a private member’s bill originally tabled by backbench MP Brent Rathgeber – would essentially raise the bar for salary disclosure. Instead of affecting anyone earning more than roughly $188,600 a year, the new transparency rules would only apply to those whose “total monetary income” exceeds that of a senior deputy minister, or roughly $320,000 a year.

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As such, far fewer people would be affected. The specific salaries and job descriptions of scores of senior government staff – those working closely with Conservative cabinet ministers – will continue to be kept private.

The changes would remove “both the heart and the teeth of this legislation,” Mr. Rathgeber, who tabled the bill, told the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee on Monday. The changes also come amid calls for greater transparency amid ongoing questions about the expenses of senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.

“I am dumbfounded that the government would do this, but it is what it is,” Mr. Rathgeber said, later adding: “… My speculation would be that they don’t want to be in a position to have to defend what they pay their top people.”

The government signalled the changes in March, saying a higher salary disclosure threshold is easier to administer, and the changes were set to be submitted ahead of the Tuesday morning deadline.

A spokesperson for Canada’s Justice Minister suggested the changes are meant to target the highest earners, particularly at Crown corporations. “Canadians should be able to know the exact salaries of the highest paid officers or employees of these organizations,” spokesperson Julie Di Mambro said in an e-mail.

Mr. Rathgeber, though, wants the changes to be broader. The salary information would be released on request, he stressed, and not automatically published as is the case with the Ontario government’s so-called sunshine list for high earners. Mr. Rathgeber’s proposal would apply to departmental civil servants, but not MPs, Senators, the Prime Minister’s Office or their staff. Doing so would require broad expansion of Access to Information laws, he said.

Mr. Rathgeber’s bill would also allow people to request expense records of all bureaucrats; the government in March said only it would support revealing the “more noted expenses.”

In an interview, Mr. Rathgeber held out hope his bill is passed as it stands. “I will be very, very disappointed if the government guts it,” he said. Disclosure has a deflationary effect on salaries, he added.

Canada has become a “laggard” in government transparency and an overhaul of access-to-information legislation is long overdue, he said. But “that requires a much broader discussion than we could do in a private member’s bill,” Mr. Rathgeber told the committee.

The bill was inspired last year when the lofty expenses of an Alberta health official, Allaudin Merali, were revealed, Mr. Rathgeber said. Taxpayers deserve to know what top civil servants do and how much they’re paid, he said, citing for example a Department of Fisheries and Oceans office in Edmonton.

Constituents often question the purpose of such and office and its staff “in a city where there are neither oceans nor fish,” and deserve to be able to get details in such cases, he said Monday.

Though fellow Conservatives are altering his bill, Mr. Rathgeber has won some support. Liberal Scott Andrews, who sits on the committee, has backed the private bill. “Anyone making more than a parliamentarian, or a parliamentarian or above, your salary should be disclosed. It’s as simple as that,” Mr. Andrews, an MP from Newfoundland and Labrador, said in an interview.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus says the Conservative government is raising the salary disclosure level “to the point that it’s almost pointless.” His party agrees with Mr. Rathgeber on the need for more transparency, Mr. Angus said, but the backbencher is “certainly realizing that the government is circling the wagons on limiting basic requests on access to information,” he said.

The committee heard a range of objections to the bill last week, particularly around a clause that expands the Information Commissioner’s power to investigate the CBC. That proposal led the NDP to vote against the bill, Mr. Angus said.

CBC General Counsel Maryse Bertrand told the committee last week the changes would “inevitably bring up a new level of uncertainty” about what disclosure the agency has to provide. Bob Carty, representing the Canadian Media Guild, said last week the changes would prevent journalists from protecting confidential sources.

Mr. Rathgeber said Monday he believes those concerns are “completely unfounded,” but conceded he was open to changing the wording. The government has said it will change the bill to beef up protections for journalists.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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