Canadians should pay close attention to the saga of the public sector integrity commissioner, because it tells a lot about how Ottawa works. And it isn’t pretty.
In particular, it teaches us that in Ottawa expediency trumps ethics, and that there is no penalty for bad behaviour—only rewards.
When Christiane Ouimet was appointed as the first integrity commissioner in 2007 there was no reason to think anything but the best: her long service in the bureaucracy seemed free of blemishes, and she had experience in investigations and training in law. There were some scratched heads, though, as she seemed to have been plucked from nowhere.
From the moment she stepped into office, though, red flags appeared. Staff turnover skyrocketed. She was reluctant to meet whistleblower groups (and had to be shamed into doing so). First one, then two, and then three annual reports indicated that her office had found no wrongdoing in the 400,000-plus public service.
By the end of the first year, Canadians for Accountability was already alarmed. We—and others—tried to warn Parliamentarians, but nobody was paying attention. Perhaps they believed her when she kept saying that she needed more time to build the office. After two years, they shouldn’t have. Perhaps it’s the low standards in Ottawa.
We now know, thanks to the auditor general, just how wrong things had gone.
“…The commissioner’s behaviour and actions do not pass the test of public scrutiny and are inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant—most notably for the agent of Parliament specifically charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal,” read the AG’s damning report, released last October.
But Ouimet was already gone, resigning with a $534,000 severance package in hand.
Canadians were outraged.
Repeated attempts to call her in front of Parliamentary committee were ignored. Finally, on March 10, she came forward to defend herself. And what a spectacle it was.
Ouimet steadfastly refused to accept any blame at all for her non-performance, insisting that she had done her job extremely well. She was shocked, she said, by the AG’s report, which she called erroneous. The investigation itself she called harassment. As to her retirement, she said that she was given a non-negotiable offer by the Privy Council Office (which heads the bureaucracy). That, in effect, she was pushed out.
She pleaded for sympathy. There were disgruntled employees out to get her (and the AG, to boot). She was under incredible stress while she was being investigated. She had given up years of service and taken a pension cut as a result. Her reputation was in tatters, and she was wounded to the core.
But still, she said, she was happy to be in front of the committee. She had even interrupted her (four or five month) vacation to come back.
It was clear throughout that Ouimet saw herself as the victim of a conspiracy, and utterly faultless. She felt no remorse at all, and no sympathy for the whistleblowers she had turned away.
All the whistleblowers who attended that meeting were furious. One, Hugh Danford, was thrown out after confronting her in the hallway.
There was good reason to be angry, though. Her arguments were self-serving and her attack on the AG unprecedented. Sheila Fraser has a spotless record and a sterling reputation.
Furthermore, there was obviously wrongdoing in the case that veteran Sean Bruyea brought forward. Canadians for Accountability also knows of other individuals with similarly strong cases. Hugh Danford, a whistleblower whose concerns about the regulation of civil aviation were borne out after a number of crashes, was arrested on a flimsy pretext when management decided they had had enough of him. He reported to us that Ouimet’s office actually tried to intimidate him into dropping his complaint.
Ouimet even seems to have exceeded her statutory authority in delegating case dismissals to subordinate staff.
So why was this woman rewarded with a buyout by an office that doesn’t even have the authority to fire her? She was an agent of Parliament, meaning that PCO was in no position to back up a “non-negotiable” offer with any consequences. Her claims that she had no choice have no basis.
The Prime Minister claims that he accepted legal advice in offering her the package. While it may indeed have been the quickest way to get rid of her, we doubt it was the cheapest. Rather, it is far more likely that she would have retired early without any settlement once it became clear that Parliament was going to fire her.
In any event, it is not the Prime Minister’s job to do what is easy and cheap, but to do what is right. In this instance, he failed miserably—on three levels.
First of all, he took the easy way out by listening first to legal advice, and in heading off an unprecedented Parliamentary motion to remove one of its agents.
Second, the timing and conditions of the deal don’t pass the smell test. True or not, they strongly suggest that the offer was made to buy her silence.
Third, he sent a clear message to the public service: wrongdoing will be rewarded, if you’re senior enough and the issue sensitive enough. Junior public servants are disgusted and disheartened. What hope can they have for a decent and ethical work environment when bad behaviour is rewarded?
When you have a system that rewards bad behaviour (and punishes good behaviour), it is inevitable that everyone’s behaviour will get worse. It’s what game theorists call an evolutionarily stable strategy. This also explains why wrongdoers are so convinced they’re in the right—they’re just playing the game as they understand it.
This hurts all Canadians. Productivity in government is never high, due to political caution, time-consuming accountability processes, departmental rivalries and the like. But the toxic work environment caused by systemic harassment is also a huge factor, as is the petty corruption associated with rank careerism.
So Canadians shouldn’t consider these to be ivory tower debates, far removed from their daily lives. This scandal and its outcome are already having effects on their pocketbooks and the effectiveness of their government. And who knows what scandal is brewing, as yet undiscovered, because of the harm done in the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office?
Ian Bron and Allan Cutler are with Canadians for Accountability.
The Hill Times