House of Commons Hansard #126 of the 35th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was harmonization.

Topics

Public Service
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Liberal

Colleen Beaumier Brampton, ON

moved:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should introduce legislation to protect public servants who report wasteful spending, illegal activities or any other incidents which threaten the integrity of the government of Canada.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Motion No. 263. Given the importance of this issue and the need to hear from as many members as possible, I ask for unanimous consent of the House to share my 20 minutes with the member for Ottawa West.

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Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

The Speaker

Is that agreed?

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11 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

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Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Liberal

Colleen Beaumier Brampton, ON

Mr. Speaker, we are fortunate to have in Canada a public service which is the envy of the world. It is not overstating the fact to say that our public service is of the highest calibre.

Despite the severe cutbacks and historic change that the public service is currently enduring, Canadians continue to enjoy service from among the best and the brightest. However, the public service cannot maintain its tradition of excellence if the professionals who make up this body are not empowered toward excellence.

This means not only providing the best training and support, it means providing protection against those who do not aspire to the high standards met daily by the majority of public servants. It is the first step in the creation of a regime which empowers those committed to excellence to have a method of dealing with those who are not.

This motion is designed to address the absence of any legislated protection for public servants who report any fraudulent activities, suspected or otherwise. As members well know, public servants in Canada do not enjoy any special protection from reprisals should they report any fraudulent activity on the part of their superiors. We lack the mechanisms necessary to ensure safe reporting of an investigation of such activities.

All too often, the only course that public servants feel they have open to them is to report their concerns to the media. Yet the media is often unable to act until after an abuse of power has occurred because it really is not news until it happens.

This is a problem that we need to address in a twofold manner. First, we need to construct an investigative regime which will protect the identity of the reporter. Second, we need to create a climate where individuals who contemplate such activities know they simply cannot get away with this kind of behaviour. The way to achieve this second objective is to be very effective in our treatment of the first.

I have worded this motion in very broad terms because parliamentarians from all parties, academics, interested organizations and, of course, public servants should have a say in the creation of this legislation. It is particularly important to hear from public servants to determine the shape this whistle blower legislation should take. It is the public servants who must feel that any such regime affords them the kind of protection to be effective.

The auditor general, in his 1995 annual report, stated that about one-third of public servants believe that their job security would be threatened if they were to report a conflict of interest involving a superior or senior manager.

I have been approached on several occasions by constituents who are public servants with reports of suspected abuse in their departments. My action in these instances was to report the suspected abuse while preserving the identity of my constituents. I have done this and their concerns were investigated. However, I was not happy with the process or lack of process to adequately deal with these complaints. It appears that the fox minds the hen house.

I am quite confident that my experience is not unique among members of Parliament. The experiences of my constituents are certainly not unique. We need whistle blower legislation.

There is a lack of balance in the current accountability regime. Under the terms of the Financial Administration Act, public servants are required to report any suspected fraud or face a fine of up to $5,000 or five years in prison. However, there is no protection for those who act in compliance with the Financial Administration Act. We need to balance the requirement to report abuse with

protection for whistle blowers who act in accordance with the law and in the best interests of Canadian taxpayers.

The legislation which this motion proposes the government introduce would serve two functions. First, it would provide protection for public servants who feel reprisal if they report abuse and it would function as an incentive for public servants to follow the letter of the Financial Administration Act and report any suspected fraud. It would also have an additional, very important effect: to create a chilly climate for fraudulent behaviour.

Although it would be up to the government to create the legislation, I would hope that process would include extensive public hearings to ensure that we are able to create effective whistle blower legislation.

The testimony that would come from these hearings would greatly assist the government in creating an effective whistle blower regime.

There has been some excellent work done in Canada on this issue. Two initiatives in particular deserve mention. In 1986, the Ontario Law Reform Commission released a position paper calling for the creation of an office of special counsel whose purpose would be to receive allegations of wrongdoing from public servants. The OSC would launch an investigation, if warranted, while ensuring the confidentiality of the complainant.

In 1994, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada released a series of recommendations as part of its document entitled "Lifting the Silence". The institute recommended the establishment of the office of the ombudsman assigned to a function similar to that of the proposed OSC. The office of the ombudsman would also have the authority to ensure that corrective action is taken. We should draw on this work and other initiatives in this area in creating the whistle blower regime.

My colleague, the member for Portneuf, has introduced Bill C-318 on this issue. I appreciate his concern with this issue and I know that he is sincere in his efforts to address the very serious lack of whistle blower legislation. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that his bill would create an adequate whistle blower regime. The problem lies in the fact that he has prescribed a pivotal role to the office of the auditor general.

Under his proposed legislation the auditor general would investigate all complaints and the public servant in question would be protected from reprisal by the auditor general. I raise this bill because some would argue that this is a very natural role for the auditor general. I think that we have to be very cautious in this regard. If we were to review the literature on the auditor general among academics and practitioners we would find a real concern with the direction that office is currently taking.

We often forget that the office of the auditor general was initially created for a very specific purpose, to conduct probity audits: that is to ensure that government money is being spent the way the government has said it is spending money. This has evolved into what is known as a comprehensive audit where the auditor general is making many value judgments on the manner in which the government funding is spent. The function of the office has become far more politicized and has gone far beyond its intended scope.

To assign a role to this office which includes investigating allegations of fraudulent activity of all kinds and protecting whistle blowers would represent a fundamental new responsibility. I am not ruling out such a possibility in the future but I think that we should consult with and examine the office of the auditor general before assigning such a role.

Finally, as a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, I am introducing this motion to ensure that the government fulfils a 1993 election commitment to introduce whistle blower legislation. At an Ottawa press conference held on September 9, 1993, a one page document was released which contained a commitment to create an effective whistle blower regime. That document reads in part: "Public servants who blow the whistle on illegal or unethical behaviour should be protected. A Liberal government will introduce whistle blowing legislation". It is important that this commitment be kept. The legislation is long overdue.

Public Service
Private Members' Business

11:10 a.m.

Bloc

Madeleine Dalphond-Guiral Laval Centre, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. If you were to seek it, I believe you would find unanimous consent to have the recorded divisions scheduled for this evening on the amendment of the hon. member for Saanich-Gulf Islands, and on the motion of the official opposition tabled by the hon. member for Shefford to be deferred until tomorrow, after Government Orders.

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11:10 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Does the official opposition whip have the unanimous consent of the House?

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11:10 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

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11:10 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Could the hon. member succinctly explain to the member for Brampton what this is about, or does the member for Brampton now understand? It was explained to her? Very well.

Is there unanimous consent to move the motion?

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Private Members' Business

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Ovid Jackson Bruce—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, I did not hear what happened.

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11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have just been made aware of this motion. I would like an opportunity to confirm that consultations have taken place. Would the member mind withdrawing it for the moment and perhaps we could come back to it after the debate proceeds, since I am the next speaker?

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Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

There are actually two parts to it. One, there has to be unanimous consent to hear the motion and, second, to pass it. We have basically gone through the first step but not the second. We will get back to this question in 10 minutes.

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Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on the motion tabled in the House by the hon. member for Brampton.

The motion proposes that legislation be introduced to protect public servants who report wasteful spending, illegal activities or any other incidents which threaten the integrity of the government of Canada.

This means that such legislation could include appropriate sanctions against public service managers taking disciplinary measures as a form of reprisal against employees who disclose serious wrongdoing by their employer.

This proposal, like most legislation that comes before us, particularly in the area of wrongdoing, is not intended for the 99 per cent of people affected by it who act properly, who look always to do that which is right, fair and just and a responsible use of taxpayer money. However, like all laws that come before us, they are designed for those few who would choose to abuse a privilege, to act with disrespect or harmfully or viciously toward other members of society or toward their responsibilities.

A few years ago the previous auditor general suggested that we should set up a snitch line so that public service employees could call up and report abuses in their departments by other employees or managers. I was not terribly in favour of that because it sounded too much like repressive regimes around the world that have turned their citizenry into a nation of spies against their friends, relatives and co-workers.

However, I do think we want to encourage and, as my colleague from Brampton has said, the Financial Administration Act requires, members of the public to report any incident of abuse of public resources and to suffer consequences if they do not. On the other hand, employees are reluctant to do that because of fear of suffering the consequences through loss of a job, through the lack of opportunities for promotion and training. In other words, they fear suffering real and significant consequences in their own careers and advancement.

What the member for Brampton is trying to do is ask that we look at legislation that would ensure that kind of punitive activity cannot take place because a public service employee has exercised his or her legal responsibility and duty to the country by reporting wrongdoing.

It recognizes that whistleblowing can be in the public interest and particularly if wasteful spending or illegal activities or even the integrity of the government itself is at issue. We are all interested in any proposal that would lead to improvements in the way government programs are delivered. It would lead to greater efficiencies and effectiveness and to the elimination of waste, mismanagement or misconduct. That is why I had some regrets that the motion before us is not votable. We want to try to foster that attitude in the public service where employees feel free to suggest better ways and feel free to come forward with knowledge about how public money is being wasted or used illegally.

Right now there is no mechanism to protect them. There are a number of measures in place that certainly provide opportunities. The grievance process in the public service, as part of legislation, is certainly one such mechanism whereby people who feel that they have been wrongly denied opportunities, perhaps for doing something that was their public duty to do, can certainly complain. But that is a long, onerous and often damaging process. It is a very confrontational process.

The harassment policy prevents an employer or manager from treating employees in an abusive way. This would certainly be the case if retaliation for the exposure of wrongdoing were involved.

The hon. member for Brampton is not alone in having dealt with constituents who know of wrongdoing or who suspect wrongdoing in the public service who are afraid to come forward to make a complaint to correct the waste and abuse of public resources.

I do not believe that legislation such as this would be a blanket answer. Legislation cannot protect against the bad will and malicious nature of some people. I say that emphasizing that laws such as this are written for a very small percentage of people who do not behave in a proper manner, either in their personal lives or in their work as public service employees. Legislation such as this would be irrelevant to 99 per cent of public servants, perhaps more.

We have to look at how legislation such as this might affect other obligations of employees. For instance, confidentiality is an obligation of all federal public servants by virtue of the Official Secrets Act and the oath or affirmation of secrecy taken by public servants upon entering the service.

It is not a simple matter. I do not pretend that legislation could necessarily guarantee protection. However, it is an issue which Parliament should look into. Can we ensure that our employees feel perfectly comfortable when they identify serious faults and perhaps illegalities in coming forward in the public interest and making that information known? Unless the information is known, nothing can be done to correct the situation.

A number of other jurisdictions have taken such measures. We have a number of models which we could consider. This is something which employees of the public service have been asking of government for some time. I compliment the hon. member for Brampton for bringing forward this motion today.

Public Service
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The opposition whip, I understand, wishes to defer the two supply votes from today after Government Orders to tomorrow after Government Orders.

Did I hear a no?

If I understand her correctly, the hon. member simply wishes to defer the vote on the two supply motions scheduled for today to tomorrow after Government Orders.

I realize that the hon. deputy whip has not had time to speak with her colleagues. Does she wish a further deferral of the putting of this question to the House?

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Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West, ON

We are prepared to deal with it now, if you wish, Mr. Speaker.

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Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Is there unanimous consent in the House for the hon. opposition whip's proposal?