Sunday, July 5, 2009

If the Dog Isn't Watching, Why Feed the Beast?

Since we've now realized that the Conservatives' accountability act was just a PR gimmick, why are we still paying to staff the offices they set up?

The appointments commission is only functional on paper, and the Conservatives have been breaking every rule with regards to patronage appointments, nepotism and lobbying.

Now we learn that their watch dog is not watching anything, so why not just shut the whole thing down?

Critics call on federal whistle-blowing watchdog to step down
By Andrew Mayeda,
Canwest News Service
July 5, 2009

OTTAWA -- Nearly two years since she was appointed by the Harper government, the head of a federal agency designed to protect whistleblowers is off to an underwhelming start, critics say.

As part of the accountability reforms put in place in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, the Conservatives beefed up legislation that gives public servants a confidential outlet for reporting wrongdoing, while protecting them from reprisals. In August 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet to enforce the new act.

However, Ouimet has yet to report a single case of public-sector wrongdoing to Parliament. Her office has not referred any cases to a new tribunal of senior judges that has the power to award as much as $10,000 in compensation to whistleblowers who have been punished for coming forward, as well as to discipline their bosses.

Of the 114 cases of alleged wrongdoing and the 42 complaints of reprisals reported to her office, Ouimet has taken on five formal investigations - none in the last fiscal year.

New Democrat MP Paul Dewar said the performance of the office has been disappointing, given the fact that the Conservatives rode to power largely on their promises to root out corruption in government.

"We had hoped when it was brought into force that the office would be . . . proactive, and it wouldn't be like the Maytag repairman and sit back and say, 'Well, everything seems to be fine,'" he said.

Some whistle-blowing advocates go even further, calling on Ouimet to step down less than two years into her seven-year term.

"It's not polite to call for an agent of Parliament to be removed, but it's very hard to see how Madame Ouimet can salvage her reputation," said David Hutton, executive director of Federal Accountability Initiative Reform, an organization that supports whistleblowers.

For the system to work, whistleblowers must trust the person to whom they report wrongdoing, and believe that action will be taken, said Hutton. "I think she has completely blown her credibility with those people."

As a former bureaucrat at the Public Works department, Allan Cutler blew the whistle on contracting irregularities in the now-infamous sponsorship program. Cutler, who ran as a Conservative candidate but was defeated in the 2006 election, now heads an organization that assists whistleblowers called Canadians for Accountability.

The small organization, which runs on volunteer staff, has heard more than 35 cases of wrongdoing in the public service, according to Cutler.

He believes that Ouimet, whose office spent $3.6 million last year and employs 20 full-time staff, should be more willing to "rock the boat" like other officers of Parliament, such as Auditor General Sheila Fraser and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.

"It's not working," said Cutler. "It can work, if you have the right person at the head. There's got to be a desire to make it work."

Ouimet defends her record, noting that she has spent considerable time and energy setting up the office while dealing with numerous complex cases.

She points to a case where a whistleblower reported that a colleague at a "busy federal mechanical facility" had engaged in potentially life-threatening actions. The commissioner spoke with a senior official at the organization, and the "situation" was addressed within 48 hours.

"If I may use a fire-station analogy, we don't wait till there's a huge fire," Ouimet said.

Nevertheless, she acknowledges that her office still needs to build confidence among the roughly 400,000 public servants covered by the act
, and she says her office plans to invest more this year in "getting the word out."

"Certainly, at this time, we have a lot of people who come with private grievances, as opposed to (cases in the) public interest. So we need to invest more time explaining what our role is. It is confusing to citizens and to public servants."

Others say the government needs to make legislative changes to better protect whistleblowers. Joanna Gualtieri, a former Foreign Affairs employee who blew the whistle on excessive spending on overseas residences, has been battling the government in court for more than 11 years.

Under the current law, the integrity commissioner can only cover up to $3,000 of a whistleblower's legal costs, she noted. "The way the office was established, it was just doomed to fail," said Gualtieri.

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