Whistleblowers get more protection, fewer civil servants' salaries to be disclosed under new legislation

Whistleblowers get more protection, fewer civil servants' salaries to be disclosed under new legislation

A pair of legislative amendments will make for a more transparent civil service and give greater protections to whistleblowers in Manitoba, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen says.

"It broadcasts that government cares about ethical behaviour of all of its employees and all of its partners," Friesen said Wednesday at the legislature. "People need to understand there's cover for them."

Two bills tabled by Brian Pallister's government Wednesday passed first reading, including thePublic Compensation Disclosure Amendment Act. It raises the required threshold for compensation disclosures by civil servants from $50,000 to $75,000, meaning salaries of public employees making less than $75,000 will no longer be automatically disclosed. 

Friesen said the change will mean 28 per cent of all public employees' salaries would be revealed going forward, whereas right now, in excess of 50 per cent of salaries are disclosed.

"This is about having that information being disclosed be meaningful," he said.

The amendment would also see the $75,000-ceiling adjusted every five years with inflation and would require severance payments be disclosed within 60 days.

Publicly funded bodies would also have the ability to make disclosures upon request, rather than having to include that information in their audited financial statements.

The province would also be forced to post all government compensation disclosures online, among other changes.

Meanwhile the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Amendment Act aims to create a safer environment for civil servants who wish to report impropriety in the workplace without fear of reprisal or job loss. 

'This wasn't a safe space'

That bill would see whistleblower protections extended to employees of school divisions and districts. It would also give municipalities and their workers the chance to opt into the act.

The amendments would see the identities of complainants and those accused of impropriety concealed from the public should the issue go to civil court.

The changes follow recommendations made by the auditor general and a 2014 report from Dianna Scarth, then-Manitoba Human Rights Commission executive director, that recommended the ombudsman be given more authority to investigate complaints "as expeditiously as possible" and that complainants be allowed to follow-up with the labour board if they aren't satisfied with the ombudsman's process.

The bill seeks to do both those things.

"They felt that there could be reprisals, they thought this wasn't a safe space," Friesen said of the recommendations.

"These provisions are designed to create the conditions in which people who are acting ethically to ensure a high standard of conduct feel that they have that context to be able to come forward."

The whistleblower bill includes amendments that prescribe investigative powers to specific authorities, including the ombudsman, in cases where those responsibilities were previously unclear, Friesen said. It also includes steps for when complaints are made against a senior officer in the event someone in the chain of command becomes the subject of an investigation.

'Post-Edward Snowden era'

At first blush the whistleblower changes seem to align with previous recommendations made by the auditor general, said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

"We're in this post-Edward Snowden era and I think that we should have strong protection for whistleblowers, and there should be an easy-to-understand process for people who are willing to come out and stand up for the public interest."

The one change that stood out to the Fort Rouge NDP MLA was in the decision to elevate the mandatory disclosure threshold up from $50,000 to $75,000.

"There is a possibility that that higher threshold could be gamed," said Kinew. "There's a potential that you could hire somebody on a six-month contract for $74,900, for instance. And so I am a little surprised they made that move."

He said in 2017 most civil servants already expect their salaries will be disclosed publicly and the move to raise the bar was unnecessary.

Friesen said Manitoba's compensation disclosure legislation hasn't been updated for some time and the changes put Manitoba in line with other provinces.

"It reflects our government's view that taxpayers have the right to be in possession of good and useful information around compensation, and payments made by the province to individuals on payrolls," he said.