The Progressive Conservative government's failure to move quickly on whistleblower legislation is a missed opportunity to improve accountability in a government plagued with accusations of heavy handedness, critics say.
Premier Alison Redford promised during last year's leadership campaign to institute whistleblower legislation, "to encourage government workers to speak out about waste, fraud or abuse in government."
With an election call expected in a matter of days, Redford said last week the government has been dealing with her other campaign promises and would not have time to pass legislation before the vote.
"I'm looking forward to continuing to be able to move on all of my commitments, because that's what I do," she said.
But for opposition parties, the issue is particularly acute in Alberta given the Health Quality Council report last month that found a culture of "fear and alienation" where some doctors and health care professionals faced intimidation and silencing over patient advocacy.
There have also been allegations of political interference within the health system.
Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth, who pressed Redford on whistleblower legislation in question period last week, said such a law should be passed and should apply to Alberta Health Services.
She said there is no excuse for the Redford government not to have moved on her campaign promise.
"This government is notorious for ramming legislation through the legislature when they want legislation through," Forsyth said.
The Opposition Liberals have introduced whistleblower legislation in the past that was not accepted by the Tory government. Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said it is a necessary check and balance on the government. "In this province when you consider that doctors feel intimidated, some school board officials feel intimidated, if we're to restore confidence in the system, the entire system, whistleblower legislation would be a good step."
MacDonald acknowledged the whistleblower legislation could have perhaps tempered the heavy criticism aimed at Redford for not including doctor intimidation within the scope of a public inquiry into health care queue-jumping.
The federal government and some provinces have variations of whistleblower legislation that set up a third-party independent officer, such as the federal integrity commissioner or Saskatchewan's public interest disclosure commissioner, to whom employees can raise concerns.
Sharon Lopatka, spokeswoman for the government's corporate human resources branch, said existing regulations are being reviewed.
Lopatka said government employees are free to bring concerns forward without fear of reprisal but acknowledged that is not written in existing legislation, regulations or policy.
Civil servants are supposed to raise concerns about internal malfeasance to senior management, she said. Only after several steps could a complaint be sent to a third party, however.
AHS has introduced a bylaw laying out the process for advocacy as well as a hotline for physicians and health workers concerned about patient advocacy.
But Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of the national organization Democracy Watch, said the mechanisms in place in Alberta aren't enough to ensure public employees will come forward.
"They won't have confidence they will be protected - they believe that their job and possibly their health could be at risk from blowing the whistle," he said.
"It's necessary to have not only mechanisms within their department but an external body - so people can go somewhere else if feel like they can't go to their department."
Forsyth maintained Redford has no interest in whistleblower legislation or a wide-ranging public inquiry.
"She knows it will literally kill this government if health-care professionals and other employees have the opportunity to speak out in regards to the bullying and intimidation they are under," she charged.
Calgary Herald, Mon Mar 19 2012
Byline: James Wood