Commentary: Ministerial accountability slip slidin’ away

by Dermod Travis,


Batten down the hatches, because this fall it’s not just the threat of extreme weather British Columbians need to worry about, MLAs are returning to Victoria for a rare fall sitting of the legislature as well. And if the spring sitting was any indication, don’t hold your breath hoping for much in the way of ministerial accountability.

This summer, the Times Colonist reported that B.C.’s Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux had been less than forthright in responding to a question from NDP MLA Carole James over the government’s plans to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.

Speaking in the legislature in March, Cadieux told James “at this point, we have no plan in place to make any significant changes because we’re still looking at what our options are to maintain the best service for the youth that we do have in custody.”

Only problem was that Cadieux knew a plan was in place when she stood in the legislature. It only awaited cabinet approval. One commentator summed up the public’s reaction to that one pretty well: “the government lied to us? Tell me it isn’t so.”

Among her cabinet colleagues though, Cadieux wasn’t alone in bending the truth.

There was the curious case of Advanced Education minister Amrik Virk who – in responding to a question posed by NDP MLA David Eby over issues surrounding salary disclosures at Kwantlen Polytechnic University – stated: “there’s no shortage of outlandish comments that I can attribute to the member for Vancouver-Point Grey, and this certainly is another one of those.”

One wee problem: Eby was right. And again – like Cadieux – Virk knew it when he stood showboating in the legislature. A review ordered by Finance minister Mike de Jong found that Kwantlen had broken government reporting rules. It also concluded that Virk, vice-chair of Kwantlen’s board of governors at the time, knew of the deception.

Then there was the little matter of Attorney General Suzanne Anton’s reasoning behind former MLA John Les’s second – albeit short-lived – patronage gig as co-chair of the government’s Earthquake Review Board.

Defending the appointment and the government’s decision to forgo government procurement policies that require all contracts over $75,000 to be posted online and open to public bidding, Anton played the “unforeseeable emergency” exemption card telling the legislature that “we need to be safe in British Columbia. We need to have public safety in place. We need to have citizens ready, communities ready and the province ready in case of a disaster.”

Turned out that unforeseeable emergency was political in nature, calling more for spin doctors than first responders. According to documents obtained by the NDP, the government’s emergency was a pending report from B.C.’s auditor general on the province’s earthquake readiness.

A few weeks before Anton’s emergency, Education minister Peter Fassbender haughtily dismissed opposition claims that the B.C. government had tried to provoke a teachers strike in 2012 with this gem: “I’m going to try to speak a little slower so the members opposite hear – actually hear – the facts of what happened.”

The problem with his too clever by half retort was that when he started listing those facts – ever so slowly of course – he conveniently overlooked Paul Straszak’s sworn testimony. Straszak, then Public Sector Employers’ Council CEO, had testified that the government’s objective had been to force a strike.

And there was Technology minister Andrew Wilkinson who informed the legislature in May that the Integrated Case Management system was “actually running very well…We’re not aware of any significant problems. The member opposite is so busy trolling for suckers that he seems to have dropped his fishing rod.”

Yes, Wilkinson was referring to that Integrated Case Management system, the $182 million one that doesn’t work real well to this day.

If there’s a silver lining in any of this Virk, Anton, Fassbender and Wilkinson are all rookie MLAs, so here’s hoping that their answers were rookie mistakes.

But as NDP leader John Horgan noted this past June when he called for Virk’s resignation: “I don’t know where accountability disappeared in our parliamentary process.” Well, as Paul Simon might say, it’s been slip slidin’ away.


Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

30 September 2014