Alberta wants to toughen law to protect whistleblowers

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New amendments to the law protecting whistleblowers will allow political staff to report wrongdoing of Alberta cabinet ministers, MLAs and the premier without facing consequences.

Under existing legislation passed in 2013 by the previous Progressive Conservative government,  political staff in the offices of ministers and the premier did not have any protection. MLAs weren't covered at all.

The amendments — tabled Tuesday by Christina Gray, the minister responsible for democratic renewal — allow employees to report wrongdoing directly to the public interest commissioner if they choose, instead of having to go their supervisor or to the designated officer in their department.

The changes are based on recommendations made by an all-party committee on ethics and accountability that wrapped up its one-year mandate last fall.

"The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that serious wrongdoings in the public sector are both reported and addressed," Gray said. 

"Employees should be able to report serious problems without fearing for their job security."

The amendments cover some gaps in the existing whistleblower law to offer better protection to complainants and make the process more transparent.

Whistleblower protection would start as soon as the employee made a complaint to their supervisor, not when they formally file a complaint.

Gray said the all-party committee heard of one case of someone losing their job because they reported wrongdoing to their supervisor first before filing a formal complaint. Under the current law, that person wasn't protected. 

There is no remedy under the existing act for complainants who face reprisals for reporting wrongdoing.

Under the amendments, an employee could have their case referred to the labour relations board by the public interest commissioner. The board could help the employee get their job back or regain lost wages. 

The amendments also increase the detail required in the commissioner's annual report to the legislative assembly. Currently, the report simply lists the number of inquiries, disclosures and investigations.

Staff at contracted facilities would be covered

The act would also apply to people who work for service providers contracted by the government to operate facilities such as group homes and long-term care facilities.

Before, whistleblowers were able to report gross mismanagement of public funds or a public asset. The amendments extend the definition of gross mismanagement to include misuse of the public service or human resources and "egregious and/or systemic" cases of bullying and harassment.

If the amendments are passed, the report would have to include findings of wrongdoing or reprisal proven by the commissioner, the penalties that were levied, recommendations given to the government and the response.

The changes also give the commissioner the same power the auditor general has to enter a worksite and view records. 

The amendments are based on 21 recommendations made by an all-party committee on ethics and accountability that wrapped up its one-year mandate last fall.

Nineteen of those recommendations have been incorporated into the amendments, one has been deferred and another will be enacted through a regulation.