The government has recently taken steps to ensure that the only wrongdoer ever exposed by its five-year old whistleblower law will never be punished. By doing so it has in effect gutted its own anti-corruption legislation, the whistleblower protection that was the centrepiece of its vaunted Federal Accountability Act.
The wrongdoer in question is disgraced former federal integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet whose misconduct was exposed in a scathing report by then auditor general Sheila Fraser, following an intensive two-year investigation.
We already knew that Ouimet had been a disaster as commissioner, that she had conducted only a handful of investigations, and never found anything seriously amiss. She maintained a perfect score—finding zero cases of wrongdoing and zero cases of reprisals—throughout her three-and-a-half year tenure.
Yet the AG’s report on Ouimet’s conduct was shocking. We learned that she was an abusive boss—18 of her 22 staff fled in one 12-month period. She devoted significant resources to taking reprisals against a former employee that she suspected (incorrectly) of complaining about her. Staff reported that she was ‘reluctant’ to find wrongdoing. Worst of all, Ouimet closed hundreds of files, many without proper examination, thus shielding the alleged wrongdoers and leaving hundreds of whistleblowers in limbo, unprotected from reprisals by bosses they had accused.
Ouimet’s extraordinary behaviour—and the government’s equally extraordinary actions in protecting and rewarding her—have made our country a laughing stock. To those who work in this field Canada is seen internationally as the ‘Enron’ of whistleblower protection: no other country has had such a spectacular meltdown of its system for protecting honest employees.
Astonishingly, the government has now gone even further, brazenly using its new-found majority control to force the Public Accounts Committee into closed sessions, where embarrassing issues are assigned to the wastebasket. So the committee will not call the AG and Christiane Ouimet to testify together as promised, and it will take no further action on the AG’s report.
The committee will simply ignore shameful misconduct by an officer of Parliament—in our opinion amounting to a massive obstruction of justice. There will be no official determination of who was telling the truth, Sheila Fraser or Christiane Ouimet; no consideration of charges of perjury; no discussion of possible sanctions for her misconduct; no attempt to claw back her $500,000 handout. Ouimet has been given a gold-plated ‘get out of jail free’ card.
By attempting to bury the scandal in this way, the government has blundered badly.
It has shown a troubling lack of respect for our democratic system: a majority in the House provides a mandate to govern, not a licence to block Parliament from doing its work. It has further damaged its already-tarnished reputation on transparency and accountability: its 2006 election campaign promises to ‘clean up’ government now seem empty, even hypocritical. And it has set a terrible precedent, sending a clear message that wrongdoers have nothing to fear from its anti-corruption law: the government will protect them.
This is a tragedy. Research studies consistently confirm that tip-offs from honest employees are the single most effective tool for exposing fraud, and real whistleblower protection could have made a significant difference to the integrity of our institutions. But clearly this is not going to happen.
These are serious matters that should concern all Canadians. Canada is suffering from a progressive erosion of trust in our political leaders: surely one of the causes of steadily falling election turnout. Two preceding governments—those of Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien—both fell in large part due to public disgust at perceived corruption, swept away by new leaders who promised to "clean up". Unfortunately this cleanup didn’t happen under the Liberals and it certainly isn’t happening now under the Conservatives. The faces have changed, but the rules of the game have not.
It’s time for this government to rediscover its former appetite for transparency and accountability—the foundations of a healthy democracy. If it does not, it may retain its majority for a few more years but it will surely have squandered its legitimacy.
David Hutton is the executive director of Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR).
Original article on Hill Times website (subscription required)