Blowing the Whistle

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A prediction about slow-blooming legislation

So Premier Williams is going slow on whistle-blower legislation. He says he wants to do it right.

In a media scrum, Williams said Access to Information has already placed tremendous demands and strains on government. It takes a tremendous amount of time, I know even at my senior staff level, the amount of time thats taken up in perusing ATIP Access to Information is a very, very important thing, but there are a lot of frivolous requests that are very, very time-consuming. The one thing we dont want to do here is just create another situation where were going to put a stranglehold on government.

One might well ask, What the heck are his senior staff doing perusing ATIP requests? We know the answer, of course. They are wringing their hands over the potential public relations fallout from each and every request.

And how does the premier define frivolous anyway? One suspects it has more to do with embarrassing to government and, quite possibly quarterly polling.

We all know that Williams runs an extremely tight ship. To criticize the premier or speak out of turn is enough to get one kicked out of Cabinet and, in some cases, expelled from caucus.

Further down, in the public service, employees fear getting fired.

I speak quite frequently with friends who work for the province, down in the trenches. They say the workplace is tense and demoralized. People are keeping their heads down and just trying to get through the day. No one speaks up for fear of getting slapped down. They welcome the idea of whistle-blower legislation, but, in the current political atmosphere, are highly skeptical they will ever see it.

Whistle blower legislation is intended to allow employees who are witness to criminal activity, excessive waste or gross incompetence to speak up and expose the problem. It can be extremely embarrassing to governments.

Do you really think the premier intends to allow employees to go public with politically damaging allegations, without fear of repercussion?

I expect the premier will, at some point, introduce whistle-blower legislation. He has promised it, and everybody is waiting. But when he does, the devil will be in the details.

I predict the legislation will contain two key clauses:

Government will retain the right to fire whistle blowers, if their complaint is deemed by Cabinet to be frivolous.

The determination of what is frivolous will be the exclusive right of Cabinet.

There may also be restrictions placed on how employees can blow the whistle. For example, government may require employees to report their concerns to superiors, rather than go public. This would be akin to blowing a whistle in a soundproof room.

But its also a moot point. The bulleted clauses above would, in themselves, be enough to maintain order within government. The net result would be an atmosphere in which people are still afraid to come forward, for fear of being fired.

Note: My observations of the mood within the provincial public service are based on a handful of conversations with individuals. It is qualitative, not quantitative, analysis. Do you work in the public service? If so, Id like to hear from you. Drop me a note at the above email address, describing morale in your workplace and your views of whistle-blower legislation. Anonymous comments will be allowed, for obvious reasons, but I will need to confirm your identity.

If I get enough replies, I will write a future blog post on this topic.

For another take on this topic, check out the Labradore blog.

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