New Alberta law won’t protect whistleblowers, report says, Parkland Institute says process is secretive, doesn’t address reprisals

New Alberta law won’t protect whistleblowers, report says,  Parkland Institute says process is secretive, doesn’t address reprisals by Karen Kleiss, May 21, 2013, Edmonton Journal
A University of Alberta think-tank warned public servants Tuesday they are not protected by Alberta’s new whistleblower legislation, and urged them to exercise caution if they choose to disclose wrongdoing after the law comes into effect June 1. A 25-page report from the left-leaning Parkland Institute calls the province’s new Public Interest Disclosure Act a “shameful” and “outdated” piece of legislation that “sets a new low, even within Canada.

“Alberta still has no whistleblower protection worthy of the name,” says the report, written by executive director David Hutton of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, known as FAIR. “The law contains no remedies whatsoever for whistleblowers who suffer reprisals, there is no mechanism to challenge the commissioner’s decisions, and virtually everything that the commissioner does can remain secret forever.”

Hutton says the “most indefensible” part of the law is a section that allows the commissioner to exempt anyone or anything from the law.

“This section alone renders the law merely symbolic,”
Hutton writes.

The governing Conservatives passed the legislation on Nov. 29. 2012, to keep a promise made by Premier Alison Redford.

In 2011, she promised to empower public servants by passing a law that would “ensure that people feel that when they come forward, their jobs are protected.” She pledged to protect whistleblowers regardless of how they choose to come forward. As a government, we should not be afraid of criticism,” Redford said at the time. “You either have open government, or you don’t.” In part, the law establishes the office of the Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner and requires each government department to establish a process for employees to report concerns. It also sets out fines of up to $100,000 for those who take action against a whistleblower or obstruct an investigation.

Transparency and Accountability Minister Don Scott said the allegation that the law won’t protect whistleblowers is “nonsense.” “The act provides a strong deterrent and it provides very strong protection for those who come forward,” Scott said. “Public sector employees can come forward without concern that their jobs will be in jeopardy.” Scott said the law enhances protections that already exist under Alberta’s employment legislation and under common law, so there was no need to give employees recourse to the courts.

Opposition parties unanimously rejected the bill when it was tabled. They said nothing in it compels the commissioner to protect the whistleblower’s job, and noted the law applies only to government organizations and not private-sector groups who deliver public services. Further, they opposition said, the whole whistle-blowing process is internal, bureaucratic and secretive, forcing prospective whistleblowers to disclose their concerns to high-ranking department bosses. Together they tabled 27 amendments, all of which were rejected.

In an interview Tuesday, report author Hutton said public-sector workers who are thinking of coming forward should “stop and think very carefully” and “have a Plan B.” “In my view, they are not protected at all,” he said, adding $100,000 fines do little to help a whistleblower. How does that help me if I’ve lost my job and my name has been muddied? I’ll never be able to work in my profession again — it doesn’t help at all,” Hutton said.

“Those reprisals are taken routinely and they are just vicious, and they not only end the person’s career, but they very often damage them psychologically.” “Albertans should care about this every time they tuck into a hamburger, drink water … or take a pharmaceutical, or go to a health-care institution, or send their kids to school,” Hutton said. “Misconduct hurts people in those settings, again and again. We have ample evidence there is misconduct in all of those areas, nevermind the effect of pipelines, and oil and gas facilities blowing up or destroying the environment.” Further, Hutton said the government could effectively “rewrite the law” if cabinet decides to change the regulations, which can be done behind closed doors. [Emphasis added]

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