Harper’s Man Friday

Ian Bron and Allan Cutler

Last week, the government announced that Stephen Harper had appointed a new Integrity Commissioner, Joe Friday, who has been with the office since 2008 and was the last Commissioner’s Deputy. This was not a surprise to us, but it is a disappointment. It is also a slap in the face of conscientious public servants looking for a safe place to report misconduct. They, as well as the Canadian public have a right to expect an aggressive, thorough, and competent Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (OPSIC).

Friday served under both previous Commissioners, Christiane Ouimet and Mario Dion. Ouimet’s tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Just three and a half years into her tenure, she resigned in the face of a damning report from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) that concluded she had been engaging in the very kinds of acts she was supposed to be preventing – harassment and reprisals against staff believed to be speaking out about abuse and mismanagement in her office. She left with her pension intact and a $500,000 lump sum. When called before Committee in 2010, Friday denied seeing anything wrong: “Madame Ouimet was carrying that out in her role as commissioner, which would be appropriate. Within that environment, I did not witness what I thought to be abusive behaviour, for example.”

Dion was much more politically astute than Ouimet. Under his tenure, there were ten cases of wrongdoing found in 4 years. They were relatively trivial, with no senior bureaucrats or politicians implicated. His office rejected a number we felt were deserving of investigation, and may have helped to facilitate the cover-up of serious misconduct in the case of Don Garrett, a contractor in B.C. who was unwittingly exposed to asbestos and then denied payment when he complained. The OAG agreed with our bleak assessment in several investigations on other cases where it found “…that the actions and omissions of PSIC senior managers [the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner] in relation to this file amount to gross mismanagement.”

The fact that Friday was nominated despite being there while the scandals unfolded suggests that objective measures of performance are irrelevant. We feel that his solid record of protecting his bosses and not rocking the boat has served him well. Indeed, sources tell us that he was the preferred candidate from the outset. When Dion announced that he was moving on last year, a formal process was begun to give the appearance of competition to find a replacement. It was abandoned late last year, however, with word leaking out that a candidate had been selected.

It’s easy to point fingers at the current government, but the truth is that the appointment process has been subject to such machinations since at least Pierre Trudeau’s appointment of Michael Pitfield as Clerk. But we expected more when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006. Unfortunately, the promised Public Appointments Commission was scuttled, and the tendency of appointing Ottawa insiders known to be safe continues. Of course, there are anomalies – Kevin Page being one. Another exemplar, from outside Ottawa, is Ontario Ombudsman André Marin. Both worked hard to fulfill, and even expand, their mandates to best serve the public interest.

These “mavericks” seem to be received with a kind of injured shock by the senior bureaucracy. Don’t they understand that they should be grateful? That they shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds? They don’t, of course, which is exactly why they are effective. If there were a real appetite to clean up the way Ottawa works, such an individual would have been chosen.

Friday’s relationship with non-governmental organizations is also cause for concern. In 2012, Dion ejected David Hutton, then leading the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), from the OPSIC consultative committee because he was “undermining” the work of OPSIC with public criticism. This was, Dion argued, driving people away. The argument is laughable for the complete misunderstanding of the role of NGOs such as FAIR, Democracy Watch, and Canadians for Accountability. We and Democracy Watch resigned in protest.

Friday has made it clear on at least one occasion that he shares these views, suggesting that we should be supporting OPSIC in its mission rather than pointing out shortcomings, suggesting that our criticism is morally reprehensible, and that we are impossible to work with. (And, given that our organizations are run on a shoestring by volunteers, one can only assume that he expects us to do this from the goodness of our hearts.)

This perspective betrays the mindset of the top politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa: that they can do no wrong and an expectation that authority be kowtowed to. Anyone critical is to be attacked and marginalized. The irony, given the nature of OPSIC’s mandate, is palpable.

With Friday’s appointment, we can expect nothing to change for whistleblowers in Canada’s government. We have heard anecdotally that it is widely understood that OPSIC is not a safe or reliable place to report wrongdoing, and falling rates of reporting seem to confirm that. We sometimes still encourage people to go there, however, as there is a faint chance of success. But stories we have heard of people doing so and then facing reprisals at work are alarming. Increasingly, we advise people to seek outside avenues. Some appear to be heeding that advice. The Senate expenses scandal, after all, was broken when someone leaked documents from the Prime Minister’s Office.

We hope for change – but it is a faint hope. Friday begins his tenure with low expectations in an office that has itself been remonstrated for gross mismanagement. Will it continue as in the past or be a force for change? Only time will tell. Friday starts with the baggage of the past – his track record and previous history.

And that is perhaps the greatest irony of all: in seeking to repress dissent and make whistleblowing difficult and dangerous, this government, in nominating Friday, is going to lose control, not gain it. Potential whistleblowers will not trust internal avenues, so opportunities for a quiet fix will be lost.

This oped was first published in the Hill Times on April 6, 2015.