The Selinger government should follow the lead of Alberta and Saskatchewan to empower the ombudsman's office to investigate allegations of government wrongdoing and protect civil servant whistleblowers from reprisals, Opposition Leader Brian Pallister says.
"This has been a recommendation for a long time and yet the government has failed to act," Pallister said Wednesday. "Why? It may be, 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."
Progressive Conservative Leader Pallister said by civil servants directly reporting wrongdoing to the ombudsman, their anonymity would be protected.
'We don't want civil servants to be in fear and we don't want civil servants afraid to make reports of wrongdoing'
Currently, workers covered by the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) have the option of disclosing wrongdoing to their supervisor, a designated PIDA officer 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 adversarial process involves the complainant revealing their identity.
"We don't want civil servants to be in fear and we don't want civil servants afraid to make reports of wrongdoing," Pallister said.
Pallsiter's comments came three days after the public release of a review of PIDA by former Manitoba Human Rights Commission executive director Dianna Scarth.
Scarth said besides taking steps to protect whistleblowers from reprisals, the government must do more to make civil servants and others covered under the act more 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 asked. "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.
Manitoba was the first province to bring in stand-alone 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) also has the authority to investigate allegations of reprisal.
"In those jurisdictions, commissioners have the authority to investigate them in the same manner as disclosures are investigated by the commissioner," she said in her report.
"Given that one of the fundamental objectives of PIDA is to ensure that employees who make disclosures will be protected from retaliation, it is important to ensure that the strongest possible protections are in place which can be used quickly and flexibly to address employees' concerns as soon as they arise."
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.