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December 2, 2014

Smiles Then and Now

Year-End Photos

Christy Clark was sworn in as Premier on March 14, 2011. She must have liked her 2011 year-end interview with the Vancouver Sun since a link to it was posted on her FaceBook page. There was no hint in that interview of "debt free BC" which became the 2013 campaign mantra; the 2011 year in review focused on Premier Campbell's messes that were cleaned-up, particularly the HST. In December 2011 no one, perhaps with the exception of Trevor Lautens, thought Clark would win a fourth term for the Liberals in 2013 and the first for a woman as elected Premier in BC.

John Horgan was named leader of the B.C. New Democrats on May 1, 2014, after Mike Farnworth, the only other candidate, withdrew from the leadership race. It is easy to forget that political news for the first half of 2014 was dominated by whether the NDP would have a contested leadership race. Horgan rose in question period on May 5 to pose his first question as leader of the Official Opposition. It concerned temporary foreign workers, a topic that remains hot since the Premier started saying that it is a path to citizenship, but she wasn't in the legislature to respond that day. It wasn't until May 14th that the Premier was in the legislature to answer questions put by Horgan on the issue of clawing back support payments from single parents on disability income assistance.

In the fall legislative session, there were 24 sitting days between October 6 and November 27; the Premier answered questions in just six question period over the two months. On November 19th the Premier attended question period while Horgan was attending meetings outside Victoria. That proved to be an unfortunate day for the NDP they pursued a strange line of questioning around the quick wins scandal while the Premier mocked them with lines like: "If ever there was proof that the opposition in British Columbia is struggling to find its identity and figure out what it stands for, it must be found in this line of questioning in question period today. They will have to change their name from the NDP to the Irrelevant Party one of these days soon." Of course, that is the line that got media attention. Earlier in that question period, the Premier said: "Question period is valuable time for the opposition, and it's valuable time for the public. It's a chance in our democratic process for members of the opposition to hold the government to account for the things that we're doing today, to talk about the decisions that we're making. It's a legitimate forum to do that." Unfortunately, those remarks on the potential importance of question period received little or no subsequent attention.

Hansard's index of question period by subject shows 28 topics the NDP pressured the government on during the course of the fall session. On the most controversial topics the response of the government was to wait until the release of reports. On the Mount Polley tailings pond disaster, the NDP pressed for the release of inspection reports that are public information in some provinces, yet the government said wait for the investigation.

After former Deputy Health Minister Graham Whitmarsh made allegations regarding the investigation into policies that affected the firing of pharmaceutical researchers in the Ministry of Health in, the NDP pressed for an independent investigation; they were told to wait for the report.

When the NDP revealed emails on Advanced Education Minister Admir Virk's former RCMP account concerning his role in the violation of compensation guidelines as they affected the president of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, they were told to wait for the report.

It takes a scorecard to keep track of all the outstanding reports that are being prepared for hot topics in the Clark government. Cynics believe terms of reference are set such that the public will remain in the dark. It is clear that the government is juggling lots of hot potatoes and the NDP held the government's feet to the fire throughout the legislative session; however, that one bad day for the NDP in question period is being used by its opponents as a reference point. If that weren't bad enough, the Premier has made an effort to turn the channel off of her government's scandals and pending reports with an accusation that gender had something to do with the NDP's tendency to dismiss her. Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer observed: "Having sat and watched from above the speaker's chair through the most of the occasions when Clark faced the New Democrats across the floor, I was struck by the degree to which she challenged and goaded them at every opportunity."

No one is going to accuse the Premier of being a policy wonk or a micro-manager. Her strengths are those she displayed in opposition when she was first elected in 1996 and became one of the Liberal's most effective attack dogs in question period. It is obvious to everyone watching that she enjoys those games.

It is outside the legislature where the Premier's shoot from the lip style may get her in trouble. Just as the Liberals are watching and baiting Horgan to get material for 2017, so New Democrats keep an eye on the Premier. After days of protests on Burnaby Mountain she finally broke her silence, not on the merits of the pipeline, but on parents taking children to the protest. The parents she criticized pushed back and Province columnist Mike Smyth reminded readers she has been criticized for her red light running parenting skills.

The Premier doesn't appear to have as much fun when she is on issues she can't control. There are bound to be many more like that before the next election.

November 22, 2014

Health Firings Cover-Up

Is the government involved in a cover-up on why in September 2012 it fired 7 pharmaceutical researchers, cancelled 2 contractor's contracts and halted valuable research? Were the firings a ham-fisted response to well-intentioned researchers who were trying to expedite their work by cutting corners on red tape or were they a laser guided response that exploited a complaint so as to purge a unit that proved too troublesome for the tastes of some pharmaceutical companies, a theory mentioned by drug policy researcher Alan Cassels.

Dismissed just three days before his work as a co-op PhD student was to conclude, Roderick McIsaac committed suicide December 2012. In the legislature on October 8, 2014 Premier Clark finally expressed sympathy to his family and said: "it was very appropriate that government apologize for what the Health Minister I think appropriately characterized as very heavy-handed actions." However, in the same statement the Premier claimed "there was a serious breach of the publicís privacy" when records were copied unencrypted to a USB stick, thereby qualifying her apology.

In light of the Premier's comments, former Ministry of Health Deputy Minister Graham Whitmarsh sensed he was being setup to take the fall for the firings. Through his lawyer he released 37 pages of documents to Andrew MacLeod, legislative reporter for The Tyee who wrote about Whitmarsh's concerns. Whitmarsh is accusing the government review of not being independent because of real and apparent conflicts of interest by those involved in drafting the terms of reference for the review. The response to Whitmarsh's lawyer was written by the Deputy Attorney General on behalf of government saying the review is limited and is not a fault-finding mission. That response led the NDP to say the review is "a sham designed to protect the premier."

The wholesale gutting of a department is unprecedented, especially when a normal response to their alleged errors would simply be a memo from an assistance deputy or perhaps the deputy instructing the staff where they went wrong and what to do in the future. Firing someone without escalating discipline and prior warning is bizarre. The government's October 3, 2014 news release on its apology to MacIsaac's family included a backgrounder with a timeline on events beginning in March 28, 2012 when a complaint was made to the Auditor General about alleged inappropriate practices. On October 21st Andrew MacLeod wrote: "Thanks to hundreds of emails leaked to The Tyee, we can now tell you that the concerns appear to have been driven by Alana James, a lawyer who worked as a senior health information advisor in the ministry." If it is true that James is the person who approached the Auditor General's office in March 2012, then any complete independent review of the subsequent events would have to include an interview with her. Given the terms of reference for the review it is not certain that will happen.

When the Whitmarsh papers were used in question period (video) on November 20th the Premierís response was to wait for the release of the report on December 19th. Given the terms of reference, it is certain that key questions will remain despite the best efforts of respected lawyer Marcia McNeil.

Either through out-of-court settlements or the grievance procedure, actions arising from all but two of the firings and contract cancellations have been settled. Actions by Rebecca and William Warburton remain outstanding. If they are resolved out-of-court, the public may lose its last chance to see evidence disclosed on a disgraceful incident the government would just as soon cover-up.