A few years ago someone in the British Columbia Ministry of Health fired eight public servants without, as it was later revealed, “just cause.” Some have since received re-instatement, some cash settlements, one committed suicide – and the government has apologized for what it concedes was a brutal response to whatever it originally, and wrongly, conceived as wrong-doing.
Government has confessed the firings were in error, but has remained implacably silent on the perceived cause and on who ordered the trigger pulled.
On July 3 Health Minister Terry Lake proudly announced newly appointed Ombudsperson Jay Chalke, would be asked to investigate the debacle and let the world know who did what, why and when. Data mismanagement and contract irregularities swirled and rumour was rife throughout the pharmaceutical division of the ministry. But no specific charges were made.
New Democratic Party leader John Horgan said he was pleased with the government’s decision to at last let some light shine on a murky situation, but added he wasn’t sure the Ombudsperson was the right person to do the job. He suggested Ombudsperson Chalke, formerly an assistant deputy minister in the Attorney General’s ministry might find himself in a difficult position as an investigation progressed.
It took Ombudsperson Chalke himself, in a letter to the joint Liberal-NDP legislative committee which will ultimately be responsible for recommending an investigation, to agree his office might not be the best way to find the truth of the matter. He listed strong reasons, not the least of which would be his difficulty in getting essential answers from sources now protected by oaths of confidentiality.
I recommend – especially to Minister Lake and NDP leader Horgan – a careful read of Chalke’s letter (just Google Ombudsperson BC) plus the Ombudsperson Act (another easy Google). And you may wonder, as do I, why Lake and Horgan were not familiar with problems raised by Chalke.
In essence: A cabinet member swears when taking office “I will keep confidential all matters dealt with in the Executive Council (cabinet) and I will not disclose any of the same to any person” other than other cabinet members. Sections 18 and 19 of the Ombudsperson Act deal with confidentiality but 19 isn’t clear in definition. Chalke says before he could respond adequately to an investigation request Section 19 would need to be repealed and replaced with “and updated and effective provision consistent with that of other officers of the legislature.”
He requests from the committee “no referral (to launch an investigation) be made by the Committee unless it has a commitment from Government to introduce the changes in legislation at the earliest opportunity.” In addition he wants to see a clause “to release parties from any confidentiality undertakings entered into as a condition of settling prior or outstanding litigation; and to disclose cabinet records and legal advice in accordance with established protocols….”
He seems to be saying – “I don’t think I should be asked to do this job, but if you insist on asking me, then you must give me the tools to do it properly. All sources of information must be available for questioning.”
He emphasizes that Investigations by the Ombudsperson are traditionally and properly, conducted in private with only the results made public. But the health ministry mess demands more closed door questioning and the fact that government would prefer a “private” investigation obviously concerns Ombudsperson Chalke.
In his letter he reminds committee members the health ministry employees mud-splattered in this affair would also prefer a public inquiry to a private search for truth. They have stated, he wrote, “that investigation by the Ombudsperson is not the approach they favour…..I would suggest that the committee give those views the utmost consideration…..”
His recommendation:”That the committee consider the views of the former employees as to whether the matter ought to be referred (to the Ombudsperson) or an alternative approach pursued.”
Will the government listen? It should, but among his “conclusions” Ombudsman Chalke, possibility inadvertently, provides the perfect blanket for further political delay. He says revised legislation must be in place before he can get serious; he wants the referral, if one comes, to be unanimous –without partisan politics; he wants “no deadlines placed on any investigation” until he has had time “to provide the committee with a considered opinion following receipt of any terms of reference, including the timing of any actions required to be taken by the government; and, almost unnoticed in the text: “Once the terms of the referral are finalized (to) develop a budget and return to the committee for funding.” Total cost unknown, but certainly rising.
I’m forecasting a tabling of a final report, if one is ever produced, the day after Greece repays its loans.