Blowing in the wind

DSC_0007If, as New Brunswick’s ombud suspects, certain government officials have been oblivious to their own whistleblower law, the question remains: How surprising is that? After all, emperors always adore their nice, new clothes; they almost never appreciate learning that they aren’t wearing any.

According to a CBC report the other week, “Charles Murray says the five-year-old legislation is rarely used, but it’s taking on new importance in the property-assessment (issue), given that Premier Brian Gallant says he learned key details after they were leaked to the media. ‘I think it’s relevant every day in terms of all kinds of discussions,’ Murray said. ‘But it’s become specifically relevant in this case because the indication from the premier is that even top members of government were unaware of certain facts until someone had stepped forward.’”

In fact, the Public Interest Disclosure Act is straightforward, and its protections are clear. “The purpose of this Act is to facilitate the disclosure and investigation of significant and serious matters in or relating to the public service, that are potentially unlawful, dangerous to the public or injurious to the public interest, and to protect persons who make those disclosures.”

On that last point, the legislation specifically states, “No person shall take a reprisal against an employee or direct that one be taken against an employee because the employee has, in good faith, sought advice about making a disclosure from his or her supervisor, designated officer or chief executive, made a disclosure, or cooperated in an investigation under this Act.”

Regardless of who said what to whom – and who knew what and when they knew it – in the property-assessment fracas, governments have always maintained complicated postures regarding matters involving potentially embarrassing disclosures. Even a cursory examination of recent dealings with some of the province’s legislative watchdogs will tell you that.

Take the aforementioned Mr. Murray and his colleague, the province’s child and youth advocate Norman Bosse. Less that two years ago, the Telegraph-Journal carried their joint commentary, which amounted to a stern rebuke of the apparently common practice of staying any and all investigations into potential conflicts of interest by elected members of the Assembly who have, for whichever reasons, ceased to sit as functioning MLAs.

They noted: “When allegations of misconduct are made against our elected representatives, all New Brunswickers have an interest in the result. If an MLA has been unfairly accused, that Member deserves to be exonerated by a completed process, rather than have their reputation permanently marked by the accusation. Where the Member has erred, they deserve the censure appropriate to their misconduct and all Members can learn from the guidance the investigation provides.”

What’s more, they stated, “Requiring investigations to end when a Member resigns or is defeated gives an incentive for trivial complaints and encourages delay and non-co-operation on the part of the investigated – a problem Conflict of Interest Commissioners past and present have noted in their reports.”

All of which prompted Premier Gallant to respond thusly: “I’m not 100 per cent sure exactly why they (Messrs. Murray and Bosse) felt it was their place to make (a) comment. This is the conflict of interest commissioner’s role and we will certainly speak to him to see how we can improve the rules. . .I’m not sure how the child and youth advocate has a role to play when it comes to conflict of interest with politicians.”

Is it any wonder then that whistleblowing within the public service is, at the best of times, rare? That it should become commonplace would be the real surprise.

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