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Manitoba should follow Alberta, Sask., on protecting whistleblowers: Pallister

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Opposition Leader Brian Pallister called on the government today to immediately add some teeth to its whistleblower-protection legislation.

Pallister said at a news conference a recent review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) shows how weak it was in protecting civil servants who report allegations of misdoings.

He said the government should move immediately to follow the lead of Alberta and Saskatchewan to empower the province’s Ombudsman's office to investigate not only allegations of employer wrongdoing, but to protect government workers from reprisal.

"This has been a recommendation for a long time and yet the government has failed to act," Pallister said. "Why? It maybe, it seems evident, that their interest is in perpetuating a two-tiered system where they talk about ethics but do not walk the talk of creating an ethical environment."

Pallister also said by civil servants directly reporting wrongdoing to the Ombudsman, their anonymity would be protected.

Currently, workers covered by PIDA have the option of disclosing wrongdoings to their supervisor, a designated PIDA officer (usually a senior manager) or to the Ombudsman. Since the law was proclaimed, the vast majority of disclosures have been made to the Ombudsman. The only recourse for whistleblowers who face reprisals from their bosses is through the Manitoba Labour Board. That process involves the complainant revealing their identity.

A report publicly released this week by former Manitoba Human Rights Commission executive director Dianna Scarth also said more must be done to make civil servants and others covered under the act aware of their rights and obligations. The report was submitted to government in late April.

"Why is this report coming out now in the middle of August?" Pallister said. "I think in and of itself that’s evidence of a willingness by the NDP government in Manitoba to sweep problems under the carpet whenever possible."

The Selinger government has promised to strengthen its whistleblower-protection legislation in the wake of Scarth’s report.

A government spokeswoman said Tuesday amendments to PIDA are expected to be introduced in the coming year following consultations.

Pallister said his Progressive Conservatives supported Scarth’s recommendations.

"We don’t want civil servants to be in fear and we don’t want civil servants afraid to make reports of wrongdoing," he said.

Manitoba was the first province to bring in standalone legislation to protect whistleblowers. PIDA was proclaimed in April 2007.

Since then, several other provinces have introduced legislation containing provisions Manitoba might do well to copy, Scarth said in her report.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, she said, a public-disclosure commissioner (a role performed in Manitoba by the Ombudsman's office) has authority to investigate allegations of reprisal.

In 2013, there were 42 disclosures under PIDA made to the ombudsman (with a number dealing with the same matter) and three made within government. But in most years since the legislation was proclaimed, total disclosures have numbered in the single digits.

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