Back in the salad days of 2006, transparency and accountability were the watchwords from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s nascent government. Its first order of business was the Federal Accountability Act, which, inter alia, brought new public scrutiny via the Access to Information Act to Crown corporations.
Now, in 2014, not as much.
Consider the government’s response to an order table question posed by Liberal MPScott Andrews, who asked how many staff in the Prime Minister’s Office earned salaries over $150,000 annually, over $200,000 and over $250,000. He also inquired about bonuses paid to these staff.
The entirely unsatisfying response, tabled on Wednesday Thursday by the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra:
Mr. Speaker, in processing parliamentary returns, the government applies the Privacy Act and the principles set out in the Access to Information Act, and the information requested has been withheld on the grounds that the information constitutes personal information.
The Prime Minister’s Office isn’t actually governed by the Access to Information Act, although its affiliated department, the Privy Council Office, is covered.
And even if it were — or if, as Calandra claims, its principles are applied to order table questions — it would not prescribe a complete shut down of Andrews’ question.
Andrews did not request the names and salaries of specific employees, which would be covered by the Privacy Act, but only the number of employees who fell within each range.
It could be argued that certain employees’ salaries could be deduced from the number in each range. The prime minister and his chief of staff, we presume, would have the two top salaries. In the ATIP world, this is called the “Mosaic Effect,” the notion that exempted information can be inferred by comparing released information to other public sources — in this case, a PMO org chart.
But ATIP law does not allow for blanket exemption based on Mosaic or, as some call it, the”small cell size” test.
Although it varies from one department to another, generally, the number of five people in a group is threshold for exempting aggregated data. Other departments that are less permissive use 40 as the smallest number of people about which it will release aggregate data.
By my count, there are 97 staff currently working in the Prime Minister’s Office,according to the government’s online phone book, far above even the most restrictive application of the small-cell size test.
Unfortunately, Andrews does not have recourse to complain to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, because she has no oversight of questions tabled in parliament.
More likely, Andrews has an arguable parliamentary privilege case here as, on its face, it looks like the government has denied him information to which he entitled as a Member of Parliament by applying ATIP to an office that it shouldn’t and, secondly, misinterpreting the law in so doing.
UPDATE: A keen-eyed reader points out that the same government answered a similar question two years ago, without invoking either the Privacy Act or Access to Information Act. Let’s set the Tardis for 2012…
Hon. Denis Coderre :
With regard to the Prime Minister’s Office, as of February 1, 2012, how many people did it employ and of those (i) how many make a salary of $100,000 a year or more, (ii) how many make a salary of $50,000 a year or less?
Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, the Privy Council Office’s response is as follows. The total number of full-time equivalent employees in the Prime Minister’s Office as of February 1, 2012 was 94. The total number of individuals with an annual income of $100,000 or more was 21. The total number of individuals with an annual income of $50,000 or less was 23.