Commentary: One player’s possible role in health firings overlooked

by Dermod Travis,

 

It’s the scandal that the B.C. government just can’t shake off.

Three years out and the public outrage over the 2012 health ministry firings shows no signs of abating and may be intensifying over recent disclosures that the government misled the public on the RCMP investigation that never was.

It can be a bit of a mystery sometimes how governments make such decisions and prepare for the accompanying fallout that can arise. Who calls the shots? What’s the chain of command?

The political stickhandling of Mike Duffy’s expense claims provides a glimpse at who some of the players could be. Nigel Wright, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, took the lead. A political appointee, the chief of staff to a prime minister or premier is considered by many to be the second most powerful position in government.

Assisting Wright was his executive assistant, the director of issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office, and a former lawyer to the office.

One would expect some of the same players in the B.C. government to be in on major decisions as well, like the heath ministry firings.

When it comes to the firings five names spring to mind, but former health minister Margaret MacDiarmid isn’t one of them.

She pulled the trigger and takes the rap for it, but sworn in as health minister only the day before, it’s doubtful she was involved in the process. At that point her knowledge would be limited to briefing notes and what might have been said around the cabinet table.

Finance minister Mike de Jong was health minister from March 2011 until September 4, 2012. The suspensions happened under his watch.

Graham Whitmarsh, deputy minister of health until June 2013, played a key role.

John Dyble, deputy minister of health (June 2009 to March 2011) and today deputy minister to the premier and head of the public service was clearly involved.

The premier’s communications director at the time, Sara MacIntyre, was no wallflower. It’s a pretty safe bet she had something to say about something related to the firings.

And then there was the premier’s chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool.

Given his position Boessenkool can’t have been a mere bystander through the whole affair, particularly with an election a year away. He was either part of the decision-making process or was focused with MacIntyre on preparing for any fallout.

Like Nigel Wright, Boessenkool was a political appointment. And one thing that most people can agree on: there’s always been a political odour to the firings.

The announcement? Total spin. Subsequent revelations prove it, but the government’s own choice of words do as well.

From the minister: deeply troubled, profoundly disappointed, a very concerning set of circumstances. From the news release: immediate response, whatever steps are necessary, ensure confidence is maintained in the integrity of the public service, and that RCMP investigation that never was.

To drive home the point, the ministry also claimed to have contacted the Public Service Agency, the Comptroller General, the Auditor General, and the Information and Privacy Commissioner. An audible sigh of relief was heard from B.C.’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner.

A few months before MacDiarmid announced the firings, the premier’s key staff had also begun to take on a blueish hue.

Boessenkool was brought in from Alberta to be Premier Christy Clark’s new chief of staff.

According to his biography, Boessenkool was a “senior policy advisor and strategist to Conservative Party of Canada Leader Stephen Harper” and “played senior strategic roles in the 2004 and 2006 Conservative campaigns.”

He was also a registered lobbyist for three pharmaceutical firms in Ottawa between 2004 and 2010, including Pfizer Canada.

And he wasn’t the only Harper transplant in Clark’s office. A few weeks after Boessenkool was hired, Sara MacIntyre was brought in as the premier’s communications director.

Before heading west, MacIntyre was a former press secretary to Prime Minister Harper and as B.C.’s media can attest to, MacIntyre didn’t leave Harper’s rules of media engagement behind in Ottawa.

Call it Karma if you want, but within weeks of the firings, Boessenkool was gone, a result of an “inappropriate incident” and a month later, MacIntyre was reassigned to the Government Communications and Public Engagement office. She wasn’t heard to say “goodie” on the way out of the premier’s office.

 

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

June 9, 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.