Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.
Earlier this month, the federal government announced a number of diplomatic appointments, including that of Rana Sarkar as the consul-general for San Francisco. Though the announcement didn't exactly dominate the news at the time, Mr. Sarkar's appointment made headlines this week due to the heft of his salary: He will earn between $221,300 and $260,000, though the official salary range for the position is between $119,600 and $140,700.
There are at least two reasons why Mr. Sarkar's salary is a story. First, there is the money itself. While this is not going to break the bank, the government is using public funds to offer him a larger compensation package than is officially required. Taxpayers are wise and entitled to ask whether this is good value for money. The rhetoric around "taxpayers' money" is both useful and powerful as a political tool for citizens, as it reminds governments that they are spending our money, not theirs, and they need to be careful with it.
There is more than one side to this coin, though (nerdy pun intended). Value for money does not mean "who can we hire for the cheapest amount, and can we get away with underpaying somebody good?" That Mr. Sarkar has been successful in the private sector has been offered as justification for his compensation. The logic is that if the government wants to recruit high performers from the private sector for diplomatic posts, we have to pay them enough to make it worth their while.
However rational this argument is, it tends to hold little sway with the public. We are skeptical about high compensation for any holder of public office, and we expect these officials, elected or not, to be inspired by a desire to serve the country rather than to make fat cash (though these are not mutually exclusive). Also, as several observers have pointed out, there are wealthy people who have chosen to take a pay cut in order to hold public office. We do not pay Finance Minister Bill Morneau more than we pay any other member of Parliament who has been appointed to cabinet, but he keeps showing up for work.
Let's not get too distracted by the money, though. There is more to the story.
The second reason why Mr. Sarkar's salary is making headlines is that he is a friend of Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister's principal secretary, and has been a candidate for the Liberal Party. His Liberal ties make him an automatic target for negative media attention regarding his salary, even though other recent diplomatic appointments have also been at higher-than-absolutely-necessary pay scales.
This is the real reason why this story has traction: The Liberal Party campaigned on a promise to take the partisanship out of appointments, and anything that might make this promise look hollow is a concern. Mr. Sarkar's credentials are clearly beyond reproach, but his Liberal affiliation is enough to make critics snark at his appointment. The enhanced salary just gives them more ammunition.
In keeping with their promise, the Liberals have revamped the appointment processes for the Senate and the Supreme Court of Canada to include independent advisory boards to make recommendations to the Prime Minister for merit-based, non-partisan appointments. However, Madeleine Meilleur, also a Liberal, ended up removing herself as the nominee for the next commissioner of official languages after admitting she had met with the Prime Minister's officials to discuss her options for appointments.
From a political perspective, the difficulty with making a promise like non-partisan appointments is that it fosters high expectations, and critics will not hesitate to leverage opportunities to cast doubt on the government's record. The Liberals' promise of a new approach to appointments primes us to zero in on anything that seems to contradict this promise. So instead of talking about Mr. Sarkar's impressive credentials, we are talking about his salary and the fact he ran for the Liberals back in 2011.
Healthy democracy depends on the diligent scrutiny of government decisions and expenditures. It is our responsibility to hold government to account for keeping its promises, but let's not get too distracted by what passes for a good story.