A tale of two provinces

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Back in 2007, the government of Danny Williams announced it would bring in whistleblower legislation.

The same year, the government of Manitoba actually brought in whistleblower legislation.

So what's the status here now?

"It won't be enacted until we're perfectly comfortable ... that we have the best piece of legislation moving forward that we can get," Justice Minister Felix Collins told The Telegram last week. "And we will have that only after we continue to monitor what's happening in other jurisdictions."

Perfectly comfortable? Read between those lines. It's essentially the same as saying it's never going to happen - at least, it's never going to happen with this government.

In Manitoba, the legislation had been promised for years. (And that in itself is not unusual - plenty of Canadian opposition parties promise such legislation, but lose interest when they form government. More to the point, they suffer from a conflict of interest once they form the government and can actually bring the legislation in.)

In May 2006, Manitoba announced, "This government will introduce comprehensive legislation that will protect government employees as well as those in other public sector agencies and crown corporations who report wrongdoing within their workplace."

What's interesting to note about the legislation is that it's no free-for-all. Opponents to such legislation regularly argue that it would mean public servants would have the ability to go off half-cocked in all kinds of situations, blindly accusing their superiors and fellow workers of misconduct. In fact, the legislation is pretty tightly regulated, and pretty quiet, at least as far as information leaking out to the public is concerned.

That's built right into the mechanism of the legislation, which essentially allows a public servant to blow the whistle on wrongdoing, without having to fear for his or her job.

Here's what Manitoba was looking at:

"The legislation would: in addition to implementing whistleblower protection for the civil service, require Crown corporations and other public sector agencies like the WCB that do not receive taxpayer funds to have whistleblower protections in place; define what types of disclosures will be subject to whistleblower protections; require Crown corporations and other public sector agencies to specify clearly the process a whistleblower should follow to report alleged wrongdoings; require employers to treat employees who come forward with allegations with due process; and ensure employees have access to an independent office to investigate complaints where they feel their complaints have not been dealt with satisfactorily within their organization."

That independent office was Manitoba's Ombudsman's Office, by the way. In other words, complaints would be handled by an arm's-length officer of the legislature.

Unlike the process in this province, before it was finally brought in during 2007, the Manitoba legislation went before a provincial legislative committee, so witnesses could discuss issues with the proposed legislation. Taking the legislation through committee is a much more effective system to consider potential flaws in the law than this province's effort to sit on the sidelines and just watch other provinces - but only if your particular goal is to actually introduce legislation and protect whistleblowers.

Not moving ahead

It's abundantly clear that the Newfoundland government in this province has no such intention.

The argument has always been that false claims by whistleblowers will end up wasting the government's time.

As arguments go, that's much like the argument by Tory governments here that access to information legislation gets bogged down with frivolous requests.

The solution? Look out, babies, we've got bathwater to dump.

False whistleblower claims will waste government time; access to information legislation will have frivolous requests.

But that's a part of having an open and accountable government. Either you want to do things that way, or you don't. It's a warts-and-all process. Unlike Minister Collins' pie-in-the-sky hopes, you'll never be perfectly comfortable.

Either you want to catch potentially dangerous problems in public agencies, or else you're more worried about potential political embarrassment.

Clearly, after four years with their arse firmly seated on the bench, our elected Tory government has absolutely no interest in playing the accountability game.

Want proof of that?

In a couple of months, if the provincial government ever gets around to bringing the House of Assembly back into session, a piece of legislation will be introduced that will primarily address the fact that government departments don't like having to answer access to information requests. The rules about what can be released will be tightened and there will be more exemptions to allow information to be withheld.

The argument will be that the wheels of government can't be bothered with the necessary mess of public access.

It's pretty obvious that it can't be bothered with whistleblowers, either.

Whistleblower legislation? It clearly can be done - but only if you want to do it.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

 

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Manitoba, Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • MBC
    December 01, 2011 - 07:56

    Didn't we vote in this incompetent government ???

  • David Day
    November 28, 2011 - 21:48

    It's kind of boils down to a management effectiveness issue. Does an organization want to address and solve problems up front and imediately or, do they want to wait till a problem festers and spend thousands if not millions covering it up and paying for potential damages. Industry in North America overall learned some time ago that the "blind eye" or "gag rule" approach to problem management was a formula to financial disaster if not ruin some time ago. The problem with the wait and see if it goes away approach is, it usually leaves a trail of human debrie and secondary damage the would have cost far less to repair if it were addressed openly and honestly up front. Too bad, the denial of wrong often does win in the short run with significant costs in secondary damages left in it's wake.

  • William Daniels
    November 28, 2011 - 19:53

    The answer is quite clear. Why bring in Whistleblower Legislation when you are afraid someone will blow the whistle on you. Felix Collins has stumbled and bumbled his way around long enough. Embarrassing to say the least. Time for the Premier to put him out of his misery.

  • Barbara Colbourne
    November 28, 2011 - 07:07

    The Ombudsman's/Citizen's Representative in NL is not really at arm's-length from the legislature. If our Ombudsman sees a situation that he feels should be investigated, all government has to do is make a Cabinet decision on it and the Ombudsman can't investigate. This was proven to us here at Long Island when we asked the Citizen's Rep. to go to bat for us when Government's Department of Transportation took away our ferry service of 28 years. The Cit. Rep. heard our case, understood the injustice and decided we had a case. When he started his investigation he was told the removal of Long Island's ferry service was a Cabinet decision and the Citizen's Representative in NL is not allowed to investigate a Cabinet decision.

  • Jack Nicholson
    November 27, 2011 - 09:02

    "You can't handle the truth." comes to mind. Mr. Wangursky, the Minister used to have final say on hiring in government departments until that was taken away because of political interference in the hiring process. Now, it is the Deputy Minister, the so-called "permanent head" professional bureaucrat who makes the final hiring decision. But when your government appoints the Deputy Minister, and the political Minister is breathing down his or her neck, has political bias been taken out? Of course not and the Williams-Dunderdale governments don't want you to know that.

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 26, 2011 - 11:40

    Mr. Wangersky....the way this government hides from any real debate, the way it tries to manipulate information in the media, the way it uses the Open Line shows.... all points to a very secretive and incompetent group of people who hide from any real scrutiny of their policies and plans. They are like Harper: using talking points that obscure the real issue; never answer a question forthrightly and directly; always be dismissive of any criticism as simply being negative. Do they have a monopoly on what is right? Do they have a monopoly on good? If so, they should not be afraid of real debate and real openness. They will never disclose anything that may make them look bad so we are left to guess and assume. We need this government to be accountable but it won't happen! Sad days for democracy!

  • John Smith
    November 26, 2011 - 09:24

    Well, this government brought back the AG...who then went on to discover much wrongdoing, and got rid of some rotten apples in government. It was the Liberals who kicked him out.