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

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