February 18, 2004
A political scandal doesn’t just burst into flower fully formed. It has modest beginnings – somebody plants a seed of wrongdoing, someone turns a blind eye to the problem, someone else covers it up – but it’s certain to grow and rampage out of control unless someone nips it in the bud.
That’s why the crisis over the $250 million sponsorship scandal gripping Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government illustrates how urgently legislation is needed to protect federal public servants who blow the whistle on improper or illegal conduct by government officials or agencies from being fired, demoted or transferred unwillingly.
Astonishingly, Canada has no such “whistle-blower” law to shield people from reprisals, unlike the United States, Great Britain and Australia. The government is planning to introduce a draft bill by late March.
But yesterday, Treasury Board president Reg Alcock took the boldest step ever by a federal cabinet minister to protect bureaucrats by telling the parliamentary committee investigating the sponsorship scandal that, effective immediately, all public servants presenting any damning evidence about the misspent funds will be protected by Ottawa’s proposed legislation, although the bill has yet to be introduced. At the same time, he said those who committed criminal acts would have no immunity.
“This is to all public servants,” Alcock said. “What this government is going to do is act as though whistle-blowing legislation has been enacted.”
Alcock’s announcement should help speed the inquiry by making it safe for witnesses to come forward as soon as possible.
This is a welcome measure. It takes the heat off the government to rush legislation into effect. Still, the Liberals cannot let the bill linger. Potential whistle-blowers need to see the text of it soon so they can be reassured. Such a bill is assured speedy passage. All parties agree it is a top priority.
Just last month, a federal working group submitted a report making 34 recommendations for the legislation, including the creation of an office of public service integrity with investigative powers similar to those of the information and privacy commissioners. Workers could take their concerns to the integrity officer, who would be a non-partisan agent of Parliament. New laws would cover the entire federal public sector workforce, including crown corporations.
If a public works department employee had only raised the alarm five or six years ago about questionable spending under the sponsorship program, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser would have had to find something else to write about in her report last week. As an independent officer of Parliament, Fraser is one of our most powerful watchdogs.
Most civil servants are conscientious people who care about the jobs they do and the services they provide with citizens’ hard-earned tax dollars. They must be able to speak up in good faith without fear of retaliation. And they must do it before more problems blossom into scandals.