B.C. might have developed an allergy, an allergic reaction, if you will, to getting to the bottom of things.
It’s the only explanation. Whenever there’s more than a whiff of a scandal in the corridors of power, the government of the day often falls back on a line that could be easily lifted and paraphrased from the 1992 film A Few Good Men: “The public can’t handle the truth!”
Since 2010, there has been exactly one public inquiry called in the province — the one currently underway into money laundering, headed up by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin F. Cullen.
In Ontario, for example, there were public inquiries into the safety and security of residents in the long-term care homes system (examining the case of Elizabeth Wettlaufer, the former nurse who pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder for killing patients), the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake and, in October, that province’s human rights commission launched a public inquiry into reading levels.
B.C. certainly doesn’t lack for material, but, more often than not, the powers that be have opted for the onion-peel approach: how few skins can the government get away with having to peel to satisfy the public with the least shedding of tears?
The practice was much in evidence with the 2012 Health Ministry firings. You’d be forgiven on not recollecting the number of reviews and investigations that were held into the firings, it’s doubtful anyone could from memory.
At one point, B.C.’s public service agency was tasked with reviewing the agency’s role in the firings. When that struck some as a bit of a conflict of interest, Victoria labour lawyer Marcia McNeil, of dearth of documents fame, was brought in to provide the appearance of impartiality.
McNeil’s mandate was restricted to issues that did not involve Health Ministry “policies and practices related to research, contracting and data-management, the circumstances of any privacy breach or inappropriate data access, and decisions made following the terminations in the context of settlement of grievances and legal claims.”
Not much left to the firings after those restrictions.
Even the last of the investigations by B.C. ombudsperson Jay Chalke left questions unanswered, the most important being: Who put the train into motion?
Old habits are hard to break, something that now seems to be very much in evidence with the scandal at the B.C. legislature.
It’s easy to recognize the onion-peel approach with the mandate given to Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
Not to be outfoxed, however, McLachlin made it clear in her report that “it is important to note what this investigation is not.” Her “investigation [was] confined to the allegations in the Speaker’s January Report to the Legislative Assembly.”
It’s why McLachlin reached a different conclusion on the conduct of former sergeant-at-arms, Gary Lenz, than the later findings of Doug LePard into the same events.
As LePard noted in his report: “My mandate was different than Justice McLachlin’s and was not limited by terms of reference or a timeline.” Peel away.
Just as Chalke’s report into the health ministry firings left unanswered questions, the same risk is still ever-present with the various reviews underway at the legislature.
One group that has yet to be heard from are the 24 individuals who were fired without cause since 2012/13, some of whom were “longtime employees who had built lives and families around their jobs at the Legislative Assembly.” Some who had won public service awards.
Those fired deserve to have their say, no hoops, no whistles. The non-disclosure agreements that those fired had to sign have been called a cancer on democracy.
We may never know exactly what took place at the legislature, and that’s a pity. The public will always harbour a distrust of government unless it is characterized by openness and accountability.
And, yes, the public can handle the truth. The real question is, can the legislature’s management committee?
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.