Commentary: Disclosure by drip on health firings doesn’t cut it

by Dermod Travis,

 

Colonel Mustard did it in the library with a knife. Or was it Professor Plum?

That pretty well sums up where the public is at with the findings of eight different investigations that the B.C. government has established to look into its decision to fire eight health ministry employees in 2012.

With each review, new terms of reference that always seem to be set with just one goal: provide enough information so that if the government is lucky the review will finally put the matter to rest, but never enough information to answer one simple question: why were they fired?

If it wasn’t so serious – and tragic – there might be something almost comical, in the ‘Yes, Minister’ sense of that word, to the B.C. government’s hesitant, laborious and infrequent responses to demands that it come clean on whatever led to the firings.

But as Global TV’s Keith Baldrey wrote in October, “Reputations were besmirched, careers were ruined and, in a particularly tragic part of this tale, one employee committed suicide after his life-long work was destroyed.”

It’s anything but a parlour game. The individuals involved deserve better than disclosure by drip, which seems to be the government’s preferred option at the moment.

Another piece in the puzzle came down shortly before Christmas when Victoria-lawyer Marcia McNeil delivered her review of part of the human resources aspect to the scandal.

When she was appointed in October, McNeil had been expected to deliver her report to the B.C. Public Service Agency, the same agency that signed-off on the firings. But concerns over that conflict caused the government to shift gears and have the report delivered to the deputy attorney general, only to change its mind at the last moment and have it delivered to both the agency and the deputy.

In reading the report one gets the sense that the government has just finished paying someone thousands of dollars to tell them that white bread is made from flour. No slight on Ms. McNeil.

The fact that B.C.’s largest employer didn’t seem to know how to fire one employee, let alone eight, pushes the bounds of incredulity. It’s not plausible, unless there was another agenda at play.

Commenting on McNeil’s report, Finance Minister Mike de Jong said, “While I am still reviewing (it) in detail, it is deeply troubling to learn that Ms. McNeil found there was lack of due process and lack of understanding of existing procedures that compromised the investigation.”

Troubled is Mr. de Jong’s favoured word to avoid saying, “boy, did we ever screw up.”

Last year, he was “troubled” over an audit on the circumstances behind the resignation of BC Lottery Corporation CEO Michael Graydon and nearly everything to do with fellow cabinet minister Amrik Virk, before being “troubled” by McNeil’s report.

In an email to Andrew MacLeod of the Tyee, health policy researcher Alan Cassels was more on point: “I find the report doesn’t follow best practices in the area of finding out what the hell happened, why those employees were grudge-fired, and why one of them is now irredeemably dead.” But then it had never been intended to.

Yet, despite the government’s best efforts, with each drip of disclosure a new fact or date emerges.

It’s clear there was more than one whistleblower, likely for the government one too many. And they may have been blowing the whistle on more than one issue in the ministry. The perfect political storm.

One might speculate that political factors came into play: “if this (whatever that is) gets out, we’ll need to show that we acted decisively the moment we learned of it.” Political spinmeisters like decisive.

We know from an email written by former deputy health minister Graham Whitmarsh to the ‎head of the B.C. Public Service Agency, Lynda Tarras, last October that “many of the actions that were the subject of the investigation happened” when John Dyble was deputy minister.

Dyble was deputy minister at the ministry from June 2009 to March 2011. Today, he’s deputy minister to the premier and head of the public service.

So what exactly was Dyble – a civil engineer by training – juggling at the health ministry from mid-2009 to early 2011? What were the “many actions” that could have been “the subject of the investigation” during that time?

Turns out a lot.

And sometimes coming clean is far less damaging politically than spinmeisters might think. Because there’s another parlour game and its called Twenty Questions. And the files to ask about in this game aren’t pretty.

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

January 26, 2015

UPDATE: At the time of writing, this commentary relied on the information that was known and how it was disseminated.

In April 2017, B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke released his report into the firings. You can consult it here.

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