Bureaucrats attack food safety System, and truth-tellers who would defend public interest

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It seems that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's regime truly is providing 'ironclad' protection, not for diligent front-line employees like Pomerleau, but for senior bureaucrats committed to government secrecy.

By David Kilgour, Brian McAdam, Michèle Brill-Edwards and David Hutton
Hill Times; July 28th, 2008

When Food Inspection Agency head Carole Swan abruptly fired union steward Luc Pomerleau for sharing a confidential memo with his colleagues, she provided us with yet another example of apparent retaliation against a public servant who, by stumbling upon the truth, embarrassed his bosses – and in this case got in the way of senior bureaucrats’ secretive plans.

This incident demonstrates the arrogance and duplicity of the Food Inspection Agency – as well as Treasury Board – in hiding from the public their plan to make very controversial changes that may affect the safety of the Canadian food supply. This is not an academic policy decision but an issue with potential life-and-death consequences.  Don’t these bureaucrats recall what happened at Walkerton when regulatory oversight of Ontario’s water supply was gutted? The public remembers.

This incident also reminds us of Stephen Harper’s promise in the 2006 Throne Speech to "provide real protection for whistle-blowers who show great courage in coming forward to do what is right". His government’s constantly-repeated mantra is that they have indeed provided ‘ironclad’ protection for whistleblowers. But is this true?

The information that Pomerleau discovered has serious public health implications. Management evidently saw him as a whistleblower and reacted in the usual punitive manner. In these circumstances he surely qualifies for the protection that Harper has promised to whistleblowers who speak out in the public interest.

Ms. Swann therefore appears to have authorized a reprisal against a whistleblower – an offence under Harper’s legislation that is punishable by disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. Other bureaucrats such as Treasury Board secretary Wayne Wouters could also suffer the same fate if they encouraged or were complicit in Ms. Swan’s actions. This entire matter could be immediately investigated by the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, whose mandate is to carry out exactly this type of probe. Imagine the positive message it would send to honest public servants if for once a senior bureaucrat was sanctioned for taking reprisals against a truth-teller!

Will any of this happen? Only in our dreams: because Harper’s vaunted whistleblower protection law is merely a smokescreen. The proof of this is that, in her first year of operation the new whistleblower watchdog, the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, with a staff of 21 and a budget of $6.5 million, has found not a single instance of wrongdoing (or reprisal) in the entire federal public service.

Knowing how flawed this ‘protection’ really is, Pomerleau is unlikely even to approach the Commissioner’s office. And his union could spend years battling for his job while Justice Department lawyers engage in a no-holds-barred defence – all paid for by the taxpayer. This is standard procedure.

Witness the three Health Canada truth-tellers – Shiv Chopra, Margaret Hayden and Gerard Lambert – fired for their heroic (and successful) efforts to keep Monsanto’s Bovine Growth Hormone out of Canada’s milk supply. Four years later they are still out of work while their case still drags on. Or Joanna Gualtieri, who exposed lavish waste at Foreign Affairs and later sued her bosses for harassment. Ten years later she is still unemployed, her case is still dragging in the courts, she has been forced to answer 10,576 questions, and Justice Department lawyers’ files on her case total more than 50 feet – taller than a five-storey building.

It seems that Stephen Harper’s regime truly is providing ‘ironclad’ protection – not for diligent front line employees like Luc Pomerleau, but for senior bureaucrats committed to government secrecy.

The Conservatives’ election campaign brochures said: “The time for accountability has arrived.” Harper must now deliver on his promises to protect honest public servants – or be held accountable for the trust he has broken.

The Honourable David Kilgour, former Secretary of State
Dr. Michèle Brill-Edwards, former Health Canada whistle-blower
Brian McAdam, former Foreign Affairs whistle-blower
David Hutton, Executive Director, FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform)

Copyright Hill Times 2008