BC VIEWS: The silence of the email servers

Health ministry contractor firings case illustrates lack of paper trails in Premier Christy Clark's government

VICTORIA – Premier Christy Clark’s government has been steadily backed into a corner on its apparent deletion of emails involving sensitive government topics.

A week-long barrage of accusations by the NDP opposition peaked with their most damning evidence of a cover-up, in the long-running case of eight health researchers suspended or fired from drug approval studies.

Most have been paid settlements or reinstated after the biggest personnel management blunder in memory. One committed suicide.

We are now into a second independent review of this tragic case, after an independent lawyer was unable to determine what went wrong, because she couldn’t compel testimony or demand records. It is now in the hands of B.C.’s new Ombudsperson, Jay Chalke, who has that authority.

Everyone agrees that the deputy health minister of the day, Graham Whitmarsh, was legally responsible for the decisions and records. Yet somehow the only record released to the NDP for the two-year period of the firings and subsequent investigation was a heavily blanked-out update from his successor, Stephen Brown, to the premier’s deputy, John Dyble.

It refers to an “update on litigation resolution from investigation,” the substance of which is blanked out, and offers to discuss the situation by phone.

Here’s an exchange between NDP MLA Adrian Dix and Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk:

Dix: “Can the minister explain why the Office of the Premier, the Deputy Minister to the Premier, has no records and why the successive Deputy Minister of Health had one record over two years?”

Virk: “The suggestion from the member opposite that there are no documents is false…. There are more documents now that the Ombudsperson has conduct of the matter and is undertaking a comprehensive review. I fully expect that he will do a comprehensive review and will consent to the release of more documents.”

There will be more sound and fury over this, but only Chalke’s report can provide new information. And even then, the damage is done, settlements and non-disclosure deals have been signed, and Clark and Health Minister Terry Lake have formally apologized.

The larger issue is how freedom of information legislation should work. Should the opposition be able to second-guess decisions of bureaucrats by going through their emails?

The traditional answer is no. Elected officials are responsible, even if they had no actual role, as should always be the case in hiring and firing ministry staff and awarding government work contracts. The buck stops with Lake and Clark, not their deputies.

There are sound reasons for this. Consider another sensitive decision, to shoot wolves from the air in a last-ditch effort to preserve dwindling mountain caribou herds.

Protesters, pop stars and politicians can sound off as they like, but these hard decisions are made and carried out by wildlife experts working for or consulted by the province. The minister, in this case Forests Minister Steve Thomson, authorizes the use of helicopters and rifles and takes the political consequences.

One can imagine the agonizing discussion that goes on behind the scenes, as provincial and First Nations wildlife experts watch caribou herds dwindle despite widespread habitat protection efforts. They not only make the technical call, they have to pull the trigger.

Would wildlife biologists be able to provide frank advice for or against this decision if they knew their names and opinions could later be used in a political battle in the legislature and in the streets?

No. And can you run a public service if everyone is subjected to the scrutiny that only politicians choose to endure? No.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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