Mr. Speaker, it is with some satisfaction that I rise on behalf of the NDP to speak to Bill C-11 at third reading. It has been eight long years that I have been seized of this issue and trying to develop some satisfying amendments regarding the protection of whistleblowers. It looks like there is light at the end of the tunnel. By the end of this business day in fact we may pass a significant, satisfactory whistleblowing bill. It is very gratifying for me to address this one last time, I hope, in my career.
I emphasize the words “a bill for the protection of whistleblowers”. I should point out at the outset that that in itself is progress. The original bill that we dealt with in the previous Parliament, Bill C-25, a bill which my colleague from Mississauga South touched on in his remarks, was all about putting in place a system by which people could blow the whistle on wrongdoing. It made very little mention of and had very little emphasis on the protection of the person who blew the whistle on wrongdoing. It struck me that the emphasis was all about protecting ministers from whistleblowers, not about protecting whistleblowers. We were critical of that from the outset. We raised it a number of times. It would seem that our presentations on that issue resonated because we now see that Bill C-11 is titled “an act to establish a procedure for the disclosure of wrongdoings in the public sector, including the protection of persons who disclose the wrongdoings”.
In a perfect world I would even reverse those points and say that this is an act to protect whistleblowers. Without going into the technical details of the bill, the biggest challenge we have now is to convince the public sector that it is going to be okay. Somehow we have to mitigate a century of distrust on the part of the public servants. The empirical evidence to them has been that if they open their mouths and blow the whistle, they are putting their jobs at risk and nobody can really protect them. That has been the prevailing wisdom, well deservedly I am afraid.
As a former trade union leader, if I were a union leader in the public sector and one of the people I represented came to me for advice saying, “I have evidence of a wrongdoing here; I am tempted to go forward and blow the whistle”, my advice would have had to be, “Keep your mouth shut because I cannot protect you. Your employer may persecute you, discipline you or make your life difficult as a result of your coming forward and blowing the whistle”. My advice would have had to be not to do it.
Even though I am well aware of the legal obligation to report breaking the law, there are other things that can be categorized as wrongdoing. Employees may be made aware of maladministration of funds that fall short of criminal behaviour, just fundamentally silly activities.
We hope to learn a great deal after this bill is in place, but as I said, our first challenge and the issue I am seized with now that I am confident this bill will pass, and where I am directing my attention is on how we can get the message out there to assure the broad spectrum of public servants that they are safe now, that they can come forward with the confidence that they will not suffer reprisals just for doing the right thing. That is what it boils down to, doing the right thing.
With any kind of luck, this new officer of Parliament that we are putting in place by virtue of this bill will be like the Maytag repairman and maybe will not get a lot of business. That would be everyone's first hope.
Let us put this in perspective. This whistleblowing legislation should be only one element in a series of bills in a suite of legislation that will augment and enhance the accountability, transparency and openness, and the freedom of information that are the characteristics and earmarks of a western democracy that we can be proud of.
If we had true open government, if we had better access to information and freedom of information laws, there would not be the corruption that whistleblowers would have to report because the government would be operating in the light of day. It is the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish. That much we have learned, and we have learned it the hard way in my years in the House of Commons.
In the context of the current culture of secrecy for which the government is famous, we need whistleblowing legislation. There are activities going on in the shadows without the scrutiny and oversight of Parliament, much less the general public. We would not have unearthed any of the recent corruption scandals were it not for the courage of whistleblowers who came forward at great personal risk and without any personal benefit. I do not know of a single whistleblower case, and I have studied many, where the whistleblower was motivated by self-interest. That is just not the motivation. The motivation is values, morals, ethics and knowing the difference between right and wrong.
I want as an employee the type of person who cannot sleep at night if he or she knows of a wrongdoing in his or her working environment. That tells me we have a decent person. Someone who is decent enough to feel bad about wrongdoing is the kind of employee that we want, that we want to reward, and ultimately that we want to protect.
Here we are in this chamber all of us speaking in lofty language about values, integrity and ethics, but we have been derelict in our duties to not protect those very values within the public service and not to reward those values. If anything we have cut those people adrift and have not given them the support they have needed in recent history. Until the advent of this bill they were on their own.
I have cited this example before. My colleague from Mississauga South, the vice-chair of the government operations committee that developed the bill, will remember it well. During the Radwanski scandal, we would never have known about the wretched excess and the abuse of privilege that was George Radwanski without whistleblowers. The most significant thing and the thing that still bothers me to this day is that those whistleblowers who had clear abundant evidence of wrongdoing within Radwanski's office did not feel comfortable in coming forward to a standing committee of the House of Commons without their lawyers present.
It was at midnight in the East Block behind closed doors at an in camera meeting and they still did not feel comfortable about talking to us. They insisted on bringing their legal counsel with them to defend them. As soon as they left that room they were vulnerable people. That is atrocious. Honest people who were doing the right thing felt they needed legal counsel to be able to report gross misuse of funds.
That illustrated to me more than ever the urgent need for whistleblower protection but as I say, as an interim measure. I am optimistic that within a short period of time the pent up demand may abate. There may be a number of wrongdoings of which people have knowledge. The floodgates may open briefly for the first year or two years, but in the fullness of time as we develop other complementary legislation about access to information, freedom of information and transparency, there should not be a great deal of need for the whistleblower officer. I hope his or her phone does not ring off the hook because we will have a self-correcting regime. Sunlight is a great disinfectant and when we shine the light of day on an issue, it is the natural enemy of the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish. That is the next logical step for those of us who are interested in this issue.
It is not hard to see where the justifiable apprehension about coming forward came from within the public service. I came across a research paper in October 2004 which talked about the United States. Prior to it passing similar legislation, a survey was done of 161 workers who were disclosed wrongdoings. Of those 161 workers, 62% lost their jobs, 18% said they were harassed or transferred against their will, including being subject to isolation tactics and character assassination, 13% had their salaries and the terms and conditions of their employment reduced and many experienced a mental breakdown or family break up. Those people sacrificed an enormous amount to report wrongdoings. Granted, this is an American study, but it is a recent study. I think it is a snapshot of the experience in Canada.
We heard heart-rending testimony from a number of prominent whistleblowers who came before our committee. They could not even hide from the spotlight on this issue.
Ironically, the very week that the latest incarnation of the whistleblower bill was introduced, the three most prominent whistleblowers in Canada were fired, three officials at Health Canada who blew the whistle on the bovine growth hormone. They were under pressure by industry and by Health Canada to approve the agricultural nutritional supplement for milk in cows. However, because they were not satisfied it was safe, they blew the whistle on it.
These individuals went through five years of misery. They went through all the things outlined here today. They were transferred to different offices farther from their homes. They were transferred to places where there were no computers. Imagine a scientist being asked to work without a computer. The department could never seem to get them hooked up. They were denied meaningful work and given only insignificant work. All of a sudden holidays were not available when for years they took their holidays at a certain period of time. This was punishment by subtle harassment. It does not have to be as overt as firing somebody.
Before I run out of time, I caution the government about another thing. In the earlier incarnations of Bill C-11 we were very critical of the government's language which spent more time and attention contemplating punishing those who would make a false report or a complaint that was not in good faith, a malicious or vexatious report. There was very clear, specific, harsh, swift discipline for those who would do that, but there was no corresponding language to punish a manager who might impose punishment upon a whistleblower. It seemed completely out of balance. The government clearly stated that it would not tolerate false or malicious complaints.
Some people say that whistleblowing could be used as a form of industrial sabotage. For example, if people hated their bosses, they could blow the whistle on them in false ways. That was dealt with in Bill C-11, but there was no corresponding discipline contemplated if management was just mad that somebody blew the whistle on it and disciplined the employee. The only recourse for employees would be to file a grievance with their union, wait in line at the Canada Industrial Relations Board to have their grievance heard, and two years later they may or may not achieve satisfaction. That is not good enough.
We now have it clearly stated that punishing a whistleblower is in and of itself a wrongdoing and an individual may be disciplined or fired for doing that if it can be demonstrated. We are comforted in some way that balance has been reintroduced into the bill. However, I caution the government in the application of this bill once it becomes law. Far greater attention and resources should be dedicated to ensuring that managers do not discipline employees wrongly rather than employees wrongly reporting mischievous grievances.
Those are some of the cautionary notes I point out to the government.
We should use these final moments of this debate at third reading to reflect on two things.
It takes enormous courage for a worker to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing. Inversely, it takes a lot of courage for a government to introduce meaningful whistleblowing legislation. I think that is why governments, and not just this one, around the country and the world are reluctant to allow true whistleblowing legislation to come into force. In fact, when we pass this bill, we will be the eighth developed nation, of which I know, that will have meaningful whistleblowing legislation. That is not very many. It is an act of courage on both parts. It is an act of courage on the part of the whistleblower and on the part of the government.
The fact that we are debating this much improved Bill C-11 today is evidence of a minority government situation working as it should. This is a graphic illustration of the advantage to ordinary Canadians of minority parliaments. We saw the type of whistleblowing legislation introduced by the majority Liberal government. Every witness who came before our committee rejected it out of hand. I believe there were 14 leading authorities, from university professors, to union leaders, to people who studied this issue from one end to the other. They rejected it unanimously. That is the kind of bill we get from a majority government. As soon as it was a minority situation, things started to open. Log jams were broken. All of a sudden things that we were told were impossible were in fact possible, and we have a better bill as a result.
I believe it is a case study for the advantage of minority governments, especially as it pertains to issues that affect the general population. Minority governments are good for ordinary Canadians. That is my point and I stick to that.
It was worth the time it took to get the bill right the first time. As opposition party members, we could have said that we were getting half a loaf with Bill C-25, that at least it was a bill about whistleblowing and that was better than nothing. We could have voted for it and had it introduced by now. However, we did not. We stuck to our guns and said that it was not good enough, and I am glad we did.
Nobody could have used a crystal ball to foresee this, but that party lost its majority status as a government. All of a sudden we had some influence. All of a sudden there was consultation and cooperation. All of a sudden my phone would ring and a minister would ask me what it would take for me to support this kind of thing. That did not happen in the majority situation. Believe me, nobody cared what we thought about then, no matter how relevant and valid our contributions could have been.
It is interesting to go back and think about the money we could have saved and the quality of administration we could have enjoyed had we had whistleblowing legislation quite some time ago. Maybe we would not have had to endure the terrible sponsorship scandal that is ripping the country apart.
My Saskatchewan colleague from the Conservative Party said that the sponsorship scandal was the biggest scandal in Canadian history. I disagree with him somewhat. When the dust settles, it may earn that position in the history books. However, to this point in time, the biggest scandal on record, dealing with the malfeasance of politicians, is the Conservative Party government of Grant Devine. Most of its cabinet ministers were not only charged but convicted and sent to prison in massive numbers.
Until such time as the last Liberal is led away in handcuffs, the Devine government in Saskatchewan is holding the record for malfeasance, and I presume that scandal was revealed by a courageous whistleblower.
We are proud to support Bill C-11. We are proud of the role we played in it. I take great satisfaction and some pride in the fact that we will have a bill under which public servants will be protected and feel comfortable in telling us what they know. We will ensure that no one harasses them or persecutes them for doing the honourable thing.