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Integrity officer rips whistle-blower bill, 23.3.04

Edmonton Journal

Integrity officer rips whistle-blower bill

Kathryn May

Ottawa Citizen; CanWest News Service

March 23, 2004

OTTAWA - Canada's integrity officer says the government's much-vaunted whistle-blower legislation tabled Monday is too weak and could discourage bureaucrats from exposing wrong-doing and corruption.
Edward Keyserlingk said the proposed bill is a 'disappointment' that ignores the meatiest of the recommendations urged by a working group whose blueprint would have made Canada's whistle-blower laws the strongest in the Commonwealth.

Keyserlingk was recruited as Canada's first integrity officer more than two years ago to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in government. He has long argued the policy he administers is too feeble to protect public servants from reprisals, which cost his office the credibility and trust it needed to investigate.

Keyserlingk said the bill is an improvement over that toothless policy, but is a far cry from what's needed in that it could "further feed cynicism and lack of confidence" within the public service. "I think (the bill) will surprise an awful lot of people, it certainly surprises me," said Keyserlingk.

"There has never been a climate more receptive to whistle-blowing protection and given everything the government is saying about getting at wrongdoing and protecting whistle-blowers, we all expected something far more robust.

"It does not respond to public servants' cynicism and lack of confidence and I think it might end up feeding both and, to me, that's a tragedy. It's better than what we have now, but it is deficient in so many ways."

But Privy Council president Denis Coderre said the bill was "inspired" by the 34 recommendations of the working group and strikes a "balance" between between encouraging bureaucrats from coming forward with suspicions of wrongdoing while protecting against disgruntled employees with an axe to grind. He said the government wants to be able to handle as many complaints as possible internally but employees do have the option of taking their complaints to a new integrity watchdog.

He said the bill was a key part of the Martin government's vow to change the culture of government.

"We encourage federal public servants to come forward and disclose possible serious wrongdoing and whenever they do, I expect them to be treated fairly," said Coderre.

"This government came to office with a commitment to change the way things work. The actions we are taking today reflect that commitment."

The government pledged to fast-track the whistle-blower bill as part of its plan to clean up government and get to the bottom of the Quebec sponsorship scandal.

Until the bill is passed, bureaucrats have been promised blanket protection from job reprisals and retaliation if they come forward with any information that can shed light on the $250-million fiasco.

The biggest disappointment is that the bill creates a new public service integrity commissioner who reports through a minister, rather than directly to Parliament, which many argue undermines the office's independence and credibility. The commissioner's seven-year appointment must be approved by the Senate and House of Commons.

The government has received three major reports calling for tougher whistle-blower protection over the past year and all called for an independent watchdog, similar to agents of Parliament such as the auditor general, official language commissioner, information commissioner, chief electoral officer and privacy commissioner.

The bill offers protection to all federal workers except bureaucrats who work in national security, such as the RCMP, CSIS, Communications Security Establishment and the military. It requires all departments and agencies to appoint a senior officer who can take complaints internally, but bureaucrats can opt to go directly to the commissioner.

Keyserlingk said the new integrity commissioner would have no more investigative and enforcement powers than he now has. The commissioner will investigate wrongdoing and make recommendations to heads of departments and agencies. It can also submit special reports to Parliament.

But the commissioner has no power to subpoena, can't get access to cabinet documents, can't follow investigations into ministers' offices nor probe complaints from Canadians about wrongdoing in government -- all of which were recommended by the working group.

John Gordon, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the bill offers public servants no more protection than they have now.

He said the watered down bill is "political manoeuvring" to make the government look like it's committed to whistle-blowing, knowing it will never pass before an anticipated spring election. The Liberals first promised whistle-blower legislation in the 1993 election campaign.

© The Edmonton Journal 2004


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"We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves. We can resolve the clash of interests without conceding our ideals. And even the necessity for the right kind of compromise does not eliminate the need for those idealists and reformers who keep our compromises moving ahead, who prevent all political situations from meeting the description supplied by Shaw: "smirched with compromise, rotted with opportunism, mildewed by expedience, stretched out of shape with wirepulling and putrefied with permeation.
Compromise need not mean cowardice. .."

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, "Profiles in Courage"


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