Politics·Analysis

Ontario ombudsman says government watchdogs need more independence in wake of Walbourne departure

Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé says one way to protect the independence of government watchdogs such as Gary Walbourne, the former Canadian Forces ombudsman who said this week he was forced to retire after a falling out with his minister, is to have them report legislatures instead.

Former Canadian Forces watchdog says he was hounded into retirement

Former Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa in May, 2016. Walbourne claims he was driven into early retirement by a vindictive Defence Department. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It was — to all intents and purposes — Michael Ferguson's "I'm-as-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-gonna take-this-any-more" moment.

The late auditor general laid bare his frustration and weariness in the spring of 2018 after nearly seven years of battling the entrenched, sometimes nonsensical, government culture that allows boondoggles and fiscal calamities to persist.

"The real question for the government to think about is, why do we keep finding and reporting serious problems and why do incomprehensible failures still happen?"

Various government watchdogs all over Ottawa were said, by some political staff, to have nodded in silent agreement and some apparently even looked upon the auditor's remarks with a sense of envy.

That's because the auditor general is beholden only to Parliament.

Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé​​​​​​​ says an ombudsman's job is easier if he or she reports to a legislature or Parliament, instead of to a minister. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Conceivably an auditor general can flip the bird to the government of the day and continue to serve out a 10-year term because an officer of Parliament can only be removed for "cause" by the Governor in Council, and with the approval of both the House of Commons and Senate.

It is the kind of protection former Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne says is necessary for his former office, in the wake of his claims he was driven into early retirement by a vindictive Defence Department and political establishment.

It's a tricky situation

Walbourne left his office last November after he and three other staff members were the subject of a review by the defence department's assistant deputy minister of review services.

It was initiated in response to an eight-page written complaint by an investigator on the ombudsman's team after another long-time staffer killed himself in April 2017.

The former ombudsman was accused under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act of misuse of public funds, inappropriate hiring practices and promotion without competition, failure to accommodate a mental health disability in relation to the death of his staff member, and failure to create a safe and healthy workplace.

Four of the five complaints against Walbourne were deemed "founded."

But Walbourne alleges the process was flawed and politically-motivated and that the tipping point for him was a major, private falling-out with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over an issue the former watchdog says he cannot discuss because of a confidentiality oath.

"Being an ombudsman is a tricky situation in most times," he told CBC News in an interview. "As you know, I was quite blunt and forthcoming in my approach. I called a spade a spade. I was a burr under the saddle. I wouldn't let up."

He's not the only one calling for greater protection for government watchdogs, including turning them into full-fledged officers of Parliament.

Being responsible to a legislative body, as opposed to reporting to an individual minister, is important to independence and effectiveness, according to Paul Dubé, who is Ontario's ombudsman.

"Bureaucrats don't like scrutiny and they don't like to be told that they're not doing things well and properly. And it's unfortunate," said Dubé, who is appointed by the Ontario legislature to a five-year term.

Michael Ferguson, the late auditor general, posed the question 'why do we keep finding and reporting serious problems and why do incomprehensible failures still happen.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Dubé, who served a term as the federal tax ombudsman, said officers of Parliament, such as the auditor general, can face retaliation in terms of restricted budgets and stonewalling by bureaucrats, but ombudsmen have even less protection.

Offices come under threat

"Despite their obvious benefits to society, ombudsmen offices do come under threat," he said. "They come under threat from people who would prefer they not be effective."

Under Walbourne, the military ombudsman's office was stripped of most of its financial and human resources, according to Federal Court records.

The restrictions were imposed in response to a 2015 report by then auditor general Ferguson that questioned the spending decisions of Walbourne's predecessor, retired major-general Pierre Daigle. 

They were put in place only after Walbourne had issued several scathing reports and pushed the Liberal government hard before parliamentary committees on issues such as the lack of support for military members transitioning to civilian life.

Others asking for officer role

Walbourne, while still in office, asked to be made an officer of Parliament and that was rejected by Sajjan.

More recently, newly appointed Veterans Ombudsman Craig Dalton asked the Liberal government for an independent review of his mandate — one that would include the possibility of him reporting independently and directly to Parliament, instead of to the minister.

Following cross-Canada meetings with veterans groups, advocates and individual former soldiers, Dalton said he's become concerned there's a lack of trust in his office and that it is perceived as too close to the minister.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said he was open to the idea of reviewing the mandate.

Walbourned says he had a falling out with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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