PCs unveil whistleblower legislation, seven years after election promise

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on May 7, 2014
Steve Kent, minister responsible for the Office of Public Engagement, outlines details of the province’s new whistleblower legislation for the province’s public service — the Public Interest Disclosure and Whistleblower Protection Act — at a news conference at the Confederation Building Tuesday afternoon. Kent was joined by Kendra Wright, (not pictured), a solicitor with the Department of Justice, and Rachelle Cochrane (right), deputy minister of the Office of Public Engagement. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The government finally feels ready to take the plunge and enact whistleblower legislation, after leaving it sitting on the sidelines for years, Public Engagement Minister Steve Kent said.
Kent unveiled the 11-page bill to the media Tuesday, nearly seven years after the Progressive Conservative party promised to enact a whistleblower protection law, and six years after it promised to do it in less than one year.

Kent said that in that time, a number of other provinces went first and so by sitting back and waiting, Newfoundland and Labrador will be able to avoid the pitfalls that tripped up other parts of the country.

"We were learning from what was happening in other jurisdictions," he said.

The law will come into force July 1 and will allow civil servants to go to the Office of the Citizens' Representative if they believe there is wrongdoing happening within the government. The ombudsman will then have a broad ability to investigate the complaint and make recommendations.

Citizens' Representative Barry Fleming will also have to report statistics about how many whistleblower complaints he gets from civil servants, and what recommendations he makes, but he said that's going to be a tightrope walk balancing public curiosity against protecting the anonymity of the people who are talking to him.

The legislation will apply to the core civil service along with Crown corporations such as Nalcor and other agencies such as the College of the North Atlantic.

"Their information provided to us will be confidential. During the course of an investigation, if we go that route, we will do everything in our power to keep their identity unknown," he said. "It's going to be a tough balance."

The legislation also puts in place protections for civil servants. If they feel there's been retaliation from their managers as a result of speaking out, they can go to the Labour Relations Board, which can look into it and order the government to make amends.

Opposition politicians were guarded as they spoke to the media after Tuesday's news conference. Both the Liberals and the NDP said they like the idea of whistleblower legislation, but wouldn't say if they'll vote for this piece of legislation when it gets to the floor of the House.

"We're really excited about that. We only received the legislation yesterday, so there's still a lot of work to do, a lot of analysis to do," NDP MHA Gerry Rogers said. "I'm looking forward to the debate."

Liberal MHA Christopher Mitchelmore wouldn't say if the caucus will vote for or against the bill, but he said he hopes they can make the law stronger during debate.

Mitchelmore said he's particularly concerned that the legislation is not retroactive, so it offers no protection for civil servants who have witnessed wrongdoing in the past and want to report it.