New whistleblower watchdog draws mixed reviews

Critics of Canada's whistleblower protection office reacted with disappointment to the appointment of Mario Dion as integrity commissioner, but opposition MPs were willing to wait and see.

Critics of Canada's whistleblower protection efforts reacted with disappointment Thursday to the appointment of Mario Dion as public service integrity commissioner, but opposition MPs said they were willing to take a wait-and-see approach.

Dion has been the interim commissioner since December 2010, after Christiane Ouimet abruptly retired amidst allegations she was failing to do her job and was abusive to her staff. She was given a nearly half-million dollar severance package.

A scathing Auditor General report confirmed the allegations, finding Ouimet dismissed complaints of wrongdoing and reprisals within government without proper investigation.

The government quietly announced yesterday Dion's nomination to officially succeed Ouimet as the federal whistleblower watchdog for a term of seven years.

In a statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Dion is well qualified to assume the role. "He will bring a strong legal background and a broad understanding of the public sector to the position."

But critics are not sure.

"We are not surprised, but we are deeply disappointed and we vigorously oppose this nomination," said David Hutton, executive director of the Federal Accountability for Reform (FAIR), a group that advocates for better whistleblower protection.

'I hope (Dion) is the right person to make sure this very important department can be trusted again'—Alexandre Boulerice, NDP Treasury Board critic

"How can the government claim to be revitalizing Christiane Ouimet's discredited agency when it appoints another career insider?" asked Hutton, speaking on behalf of FAIR and the groups Canadians for Accountability and Democracy Watch.

Hutton said while Dion seems much more capable and personable than Ouimet, he is also a long time senior bureaucrat who will now be asked to investigate former colleagues and friends.

He also points out that as interim commissioner, Dion has not improved much on Ouimet's record.

Hutton said out of almost 400 complaints, Dion has not found one case of wrongdoing and has referred only two cases of reprisals to the tribunal tasked with investigating complaints.

Opposition wants committee hearing

The opposition, however, is willing to give Dion the benefit of the doubt.

"I hope he's the right person to make sure this very important department can be trusted again," said Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP's Treasury Board critic.

Both the NDP and the Liberals said the government did not consult with them before making the nomination, but they are likely to support the nomination when it comes to a vote.

"But we will observe over time, under this new leadership, if this office is getting its act together," said John McCallum, the Liberal's Treasury Board critic.

The opposition is hoping for an opportunity to hear from Dion at committee, before approving his nomination. But that would entail getting him before the Government Operations Committee before the House of Commons rises for the Christmas break sometime next week.

"I want to hear from the man himself about his goals, his committement, the resources he's willing to apply and his vision," said Boulerice. "Does he have some guts or will he not answer the tough questions?"