By Gregory Thomas/ Canadian Taxpayers Federation
When we're spending nearly as much on spin as we are on Parliament, we're on a very slippery slope indeed.
This week, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released the head count and salary costs of the federal government's legion of information services staff.
The numbers, released in response an access-to-information request: reveal that 3,325 spin doctors toil for the Stephen Harper government, at an estimated cost this year of $263 million.
Despite the Harper government's avowed objective to reduce the federal public service by 19,000 positions, the ranks of communications staff have grown by 163 since the Conservatives took office, while costs have risen by $48 million.
The combined payroll of federal spin doctors rivals the $329 million payroll of the House of Commons, the beating heart of our democracy - the institution we rely upon to keep hundreds of thousands of federal officials accountable.
And the payroll hit for communications staff - $263 million, does not include the RCMP, the military, the Canada Revenue Agency, independent tribunals such as the Canadian Human Rights Commission, or crown corporations.
This is just the core public service we're talking about. Who knows what it costs Canada Post for media spinners to explain that community mailboxes are better for us than door-to-door delivery? This $263 million might be a reasonable price to pay - it might even be a bargain, if the federal government actually provided Canadians with "public" information in a timely manner.
But anybody who has actually tried to phone or email someone in the federal government, in order to get an answer to a question, knows that this is not the case.
The days when federal government officials would return the telephone calls of Canadians, or even better, answer their phones, are rapidly fading memories.
Canadians are seeing their money - a quarter billion dollars' worth - used against them: not to provide them with information, but rather to delay, conceal and spin the information, so as to enhance the image of the party in power.
Examples of the federal government's penchant for secrecy have since crossed the border into farce. Consider the prime minister's briefing notes for the 2011 visit to Ottawa of British Prime Minister David Cameron, released finally under the Access-to-Information Act:
"(REDACTED) will greet (REDACTED) at the airport and you will greet him at Confederation Square to witness a 19-gun salute and to review the honour guard . . . (REDACTED) will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."
In June, the federal Department of Public Safety responded to an Access to Information request from Toronto Star reporter Alex Boutillier with a heavily censored version of a media backgrounder that is actually posted, in all its uncensored glory, on the prime minister's website. One federal communications department takes its mandate not to communicate so seriously, it has produced and distributed posters with a telephone hot-line number reminding public servants who they must call if a member of the media should ever phone and ask a question.
Maybe it's time for federal employees to declare independence - answer the phone, answer the questions, and save us all a few hundred million in unnecessary spin doctor salaries.
Gregory Thomas is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation: 613-234-6554 (office), 800-265-0442 (toll-free) or 613-295-8409 (mobile). The CTF is a citizens' advocacy group fighting for lower taxes, less waste and accountable government. Founded in 1990, the CTF more than 84,000 supporters and seven offices across Canada. The CTF is funded by freewill, non tax-receiptable contributions. This commentary first appeared in The Toronto Star.