Property tax scandal underscores importance of whistleblower law, ombud says

Minister doesn't want anyone else stranded at night by jail staff

New Brunswick's ombud says he's surprised that some of the province's political leaders have apparently forgotten there's a whistleblower law to protect civil servants who report bad behaviour.

Charles Murray says the five-year-old legislation is rarely used, but it's taking on new importance in the property-assessment scandal, given that Premier Brian Gallant says he learned key details after they were leaked to the media.

"I think it's relevant every day in terms of all kinds of discussions," Murray said.

"But it's become specifically relevant in this case because the indication from the premier is that even top members of government were unaware of certain facts until someone had stepped forward."

On March 31, Gallant acknowledged that Service New Brunswick's invention of fictitious renovations came to light thanks to an unknown tipster he referred to as a "whistleblower."

"Thank goodness that we had somebody that stepped up and sent that information," Gallant said.

The law, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, establishes legal protections for civil servants who come forward with information about "gross mismanagement," actions that violate provincial law, or actions that are dangerous to the public.

It lets a civil servant discuss the situation confidentially with a designated person in their department or with the ombud, who can then investigate, launch an inquiry or go to the police if there's a potential criminal act.

And it prevents the civil servant from being punished with a firing, demotion or lack of promotion.

"It basically seeks to value and encourage people to do the right thing and protect them from repercussions on the job if they do," Murray said.

On last week's CBC political panel, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin repeatedly pressed Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs on what Austin believed was the lack of such a law.

"There should be whistleblower legislation," Austin said.

"I'm not questioning that at all," Higgs said. "I don't disagree."

In fact, the law was adopted by the PC government that Higgs was part of, something Higgs never pointed out during the panel.

Higgs did at one point say, "I have some of the clauses that are currently there," but didn't comment further on the law and never corrected Austin.

Only 'a handful' each year

The act doesn't encourage civil servants to leak information to the media. The fact that's what happened in the Service New Brunswick case suggests civil servants still aren't confident the law will protect them, Murray said.

He wouldn't say whether his office has been contacted by any Service New Brunswick employees about the assessment controversy because he never confirms or denies he's investigating a particular issue.

"But in general we don't receive a lot of whistleblowers each year," he said. "It's a handful."

Murray said he has no budget to promote the law and civil servants may think it's "a paper tiger" because it hasn't been used much and hasn't demonstrated its value.

Favours stronger law

He also said in a small province like New Brunswick, and a small city like Fredericton, where most civil servants are based, people may fear being identified.

"The culture in New Brunswick benefits from the close ties we have with each other, but in whistleblower legislation, that acts as a deterrent for whistleblowers to step forward," he said.

Murray wants the law toughened with a "blind contact" provision to allow someone to contact his office through an intermediary so that even he doesn't know who it is.

"A whistleblower in this province has to be fairly courageous and has to take things on faith."