In praise of whistleblowers

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Those words must ring particularly true for Allan Cutler, a career public servant who tried unsuccessfully to blow the whistle on early abuses in the sponsorship program over ten years ago.

Mr. Cutler was a public servant for over two decades. As a procurement manager for Public Works department in 1994, he objected to many irregularities he witnessed and eventually refused to sign his name to flurry of questionable contracts coming across his desk.

His then boss Chuck Guite was not amused. Soon after Mr. Cutler refused to cooperate, he found himself declared “surplus”. That’s bureau jargon for “you’re fired”. Thankfully for Cutler, he managed to be re-hired in another government job. The public however lost a fateful chance to shed some early disinfecting sunlight on the growing political rot.

Ten years later the full extent of abuses is being revealed to the general disgust of all Canadians, and may well lead to the downfall of the now moribund Liberal Party. It is no small irony that this scandal has rekindled interest in Quebec separatism.

Testifying this week at a Commons public accounts committee, Mr. Cutler must feel a certain amount of schadenfreude at the unraveling fortunes of his former bosses. However the larger question remains: how could he have been so easily silenced on an issue so explosive it now threatens to bring down the government?

Easy. Without meaningful legal protection as a whistleblower, he was a sitting duck for retribution from those who did not appreciate his desire to reveal the truth.

Despite all the gallons of media ink spilled on this issue, it is certainly not news that governments regularly abuse power and become corrupt. Cast your mind back to the sickening days of trough-wallowing under the Mulroney Conservatives when fully ten cabinet ministers were forced to resign in disgrace

All institutions run the risk of becoming decadent unless there are meaningful checks and balances to ensure ethical behavior. On that front, whistleblower protection for public servants is absolutely essential.

Scandals like sponsorship do not just happen. They are known by dozens of public employees who, like other Canadians, do not appreciate public institutions being abused. The sad lesson learned by Mr. Cutler and by many others is that unless you are willing to be fired, there is little recourse but to keep your mouth shut.

Incredibly in spite of all that has unfolded, very little has changed. After all the public crowing from Mr. Martin about accountability, and the $80 million likely to be spent on the Gomery Inquiry, Canada remains one of the few western democracies without meaningful legal protection for whistleblowers.

Ironically, the battered Liberals seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Rather than embracing transparency as governing principle, they are trying to quietly pass a shamefully weak whistleblower bill that would have done nothing to prevent what is unfolding today.

For starters, the proposed bill would force whistleblowers to first exhaust internal department processes before being able to complain to a whistleblower agency - a delay that could literally take years.

This bill also fails to provide whistleblower protection for all government employees. Political staff such as ministerial assistants are on their own, quite likely because they are uniquely placed to expose political wrongdoing.

In 2003 the government also quietly passed the “Public Service Modernization Act” that among other things precludes whistleblowers from accessing the courts, as Health Canada whistleblowers successfully did in 1999 when their employer punished them for telling the truth.

This change was not accidental – nothing in law is. The government knows that if potential whistleblowers realize how limited their legal options are, they will likely choose to remain silent rather than speak out.

Canada needs whistleblower protection laws that we can be proud of. This requires nothing less than an independent public interest commissioner who reports directly to parliament. The courageous people that speak out in the public interest deserve at least that much.

If such protections been on the books years ago when Mr. Cutler was trying to do the right thing, recent events might have turned out very differently.

The country could have been spared the tawdry scandal being unearthed daily by Mr. Justice Gomery. The Liberal party might have avoided their looming exile into the political wilderness. And many political insiders might not be looking at a well-deserved trip to jail.

I suspect that even the most corrupt self-dealers behind the current scandal would have preferred that to the fate now unfolding before them.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. Published in the National Post, Arpil 2005


The real price of oil

Incensed about high price of gas? For a quick reality check, take a trip to the corner store and have a look at what liquids you can you buy for a dollar a litre. Milk? Nope. Bottled water? Not likely. Roofing tar? No way. For all the shrill indignation about rising fuel prices, the simple fact is that gas remains by far the most outrageously under-priced commodity in the world.

Consider the long journey that a litre of gas makes from far-away oil fields to your local filling station. Add to that the expensive and destructive military adventures needed to secure foreign oil supplies, and the human and political strife that inevitably follows. Let’s not forget climate change and the mounting externalized costs from increasingly weird and violent weather around the world. Why then should gas cost about half as much as bottled water?

One reason is “perverse” government subsidies that promote things we are actually trying to discourage, such as fossil fuel consumption. Ottawa shovels $5.9 billion of your tax dollars annually to the fossil fuel industry. This is much more than current government support for sustainable energy technologies that will no doubt become the cornerstone of our future economy.

In the absence of either political will or personal restraint, we should be grateful that expensive gas might save us from ourselves. For instance, cheap gas and the continuing oil orgy would only encourage governments to throw more money at the oil sector. This would imperil the future of the Canadian economy by hitching our wagon to the dying horse.

Likewise, there is little doubt that drivers would continue to endanger the future health of our planet by choosing vehicles that that actually get far worse mileage than the Model T did, for the simple reason that gasoline happens to be cheaper than water.

Artificially low gas prices have long stifled conservation efforts and alternative technologies, while fueling a boom in vehicles so grotesquely inefficient that I suspect our children will someday marvel at them in a museum.

SUVs are a fine example of the irrational behavior in the waning days of cheap oil. The only reason such gas-guzzlers are even legal is that technically they are considered “farm implements” under a well-exploited industry loophole. Rather than investing in innovative technologies that would produce more efficient cars, automakers have shrewdly invested in highly successful lobbying efforts in order to ensure that they don’t have to.

The recent accord between the federal government and car makers is a good case in point. After literally years of gentle coddling from the federal government, the automakers agreed to voluntary efficiency requirements that will actually allow emissions to rise by 18% between 1990 and 2010.

The last time Ottawa signed such a non-binding agreement in 1982, it failed completely to improve the average fuel efficiency of Canadian vehicles because there was no legal requirement to do so. It is noteworthy that governments possess a unique power called “regulation” that makes such protracted and fruitless negotiations unnecessary.

Not to fear, the market of Adam Smith will succeed where all else has failed. Higher fuel costs will foster much needed interest, innovation and investment in conservation and alternative technologies.

In fact they already have. After years of flat sales, hybrid vehicles are now taking off. There is now a waiting list several months long to buy a Toyota Prius anywhere in Canada. In Germany and the UK that have much more expensive gas, that wait is more like ten to twelve months. Ballooning gas prices have even caused some used hybrid cars to increase in value from the original selling price.

Oil companies may turn their massive resources to developing these clean energy alternatives rather than choosing to go down with their ship. A study by Shell International found that renewable sources could supply 50% of the worlds energy needs by 2050.

Rather than posing for photo-ops with the car industry, the federal government should seize the opportunity to make some long overdue policy changes. These include shifting gasoline tax revenue to fund public transit, increasing green infrastructure investment in cities, and expanding investment in renewable energy – the fastest growing energy sector in the world.

A side benefit from this vast global shift away from oil is the small matter of the fate of the planet. Aside from a few well-known pseudo-scientists shilling on behalf of big oil, virtually the entire scientific community is united in the knowledge that climate is real, it is happening right now and that it is very, very dangerous.

Still enraged about expense gas? Rather than griping about how much it costs to top up your SUV, consider instead the simple fact that you might well have been an idiot to buy such a vehicle in the first place.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver. (Published in the Toronto Star in April 2005)