Carol Off interviews David Hutton on the subject of Canada's federal whistleblower protection, the Conservative government's track record on this issue, and the now-overdue five-year review of the law.
Five years ago the government introduced legislation to protect public service employees should they come forward with a complaint or a claim of wrongdoing. The law was billed as the “Mount Everest” of whistleblower protection. Now the mountain is in danger of becoming a molehill.
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Written into the law was a stipulation that it be subject to an independent review five years after it came into effect. Five years have come and gone – actually five years and one month – and that has David Hutton worried. Mr Hutton is executive director of the charity Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform or FAIR. We reach him in Ottawa.
Carol Off: Mr Hutton it is one month past that five year review deadline, so why do you think there has been this delay?
David Hutton: Well its very hard to say but it doesn’t seem that there could be any reason that’s a good reason, or a good sign. This government, like previous governments, has a pretty bad track record on whistleblower protection, so we get very nervous when we see that nothing’s happening when it should be to get the law improved.
Carol Off: And they promised this after announcing that the legislation was the ‘Mount Everest’ of whistleblower protection, $30 million dollars has been spent of our taxpayers’ money. What have we got to show for that?
David Hutton: Virtually nothing except a black eye on the international stage. In the five years there has only been one proven case of wrongdoing uncovered, and that was frankly pretty small potatoes compared with lots of what we hear from whistleblowers. Hundreds of whistleblowers have not been protected and hundreds of alleged wrongdoers have not been investigated.
Carol Off: What do other countries do?
David Hutton: If you look at some of the countries that we would normally compare ourselves with, like the US of course, the UK, Australia, they are all at least a decade ahead of us, they all have systems that work reasonably well, most of them have some excellent in-depth research to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t, and they have gained a lot of experience. We have none of that. In fact we are viewed internationally as the ‘Enron’ of whistleblower protection, mainly because of the spectacular meltdown of our system under Christiane Ouimet.
Carol Off: She was the first commissioner of this watchdog operation. She quit four years into her term after Auditor General Sheila Fraser said that she couldn’t find anything that had been done: that there had been 170 complaints but not a single case found of wrongdoing by public officials.
David Hutton: That’s correct. And she was an abusive manager, she seemed to be hostile to the people she was supposed to be protecting, and it was no surprise to us when this finally all came out, but of course it was too late for many people, and the new commissioner Mr. Dion is a much more polished bureaucrat but the results really aren’t that much different.
Carol Off: And now you are asking for them to fulfill the promise of having a five year review. What have you heard from the minister in charge, Tony Clement.
David Hutton: We have heard nothing, and that’s disturbing – and by the way it’s not a promise, it’s a legal commitment. We seem unable to get any information when we talk to Treasury Board which is responsible for oversight of the review process. They tell us that they have submitted their recommendations to the minister and they have not had a decision from him yet.
Carol Off: What’s the value to citizens, to people like you and I, of having a whistleblower protection act?
David Hutton: The value is enormous. Protecting whistleblowers is the number one most effective way of protecting the public purse against fraud. Research studies confirm time and again that it is the single most effective strategy for getting information about fraud and financial misconduct. It not only protects the public purse, but also when the government is involved in things lives are at stake. We depend upon government regulation for the safety of our food, water, pharmaceutical drugs, the safety of transportation. All of those things can be compromised – and are being compromised as we speak – because people cannot speak up when they see things being done wrongly.
Carol Off: This watchdog was an election promise of Stephen Harper’s in 2006. Do you think that these are the kinds of things you promise when you are running an election campaign, when you are in opposition – things that you really don’t want to do when you are in government?
David Hutton: That’s a good question. I think that what happens is that when a government comes to power they start talking to the bureaucrats that they are now dependent on, and the bureaucrats are terrified of type of thing. Whistleblower protection is really good politics for the politicians, because the public wants it and needs it, and the politicians need it too because it is one of the ways that they can really keep control over the bureaucracy.
Picture the situation that there is some misconduct – perhaps even criminal activity – going on within a department. The top bureaucrats may not know about it, or they may be implicated (they may have tried to cover it up). Either way, they are not rushing off to the minister to tell him that there’s a problem. So the first time that the minister learns about this is when he reads about it on the front page of the media.
If whistleblowers’ allegations were properly investigated then the minister would know what’s going on and would be able to nip problems in the bud before they get out of control and avoid the kind of massive scandals that bring down governments.
Carol Off: It is in their interests, then.
David Hutton: It is absolutely in their interest. When I see politicians reluctant to go down this path I can really only see two explanations for that. One is that they haven’t done their homework to understand how valuable this type of legislation is, not only to the public but to them – or they fear that it will uncover corruption within their own ranks.
Carol Off: We’ll leave it there Mr. Hutton. Thank you.
David Hutton: Thank you for having me.