VICTORIA - A train wreck of a scrum with Attorney General Wally Oppal smashed any confidence that the Liberals are responding competently to the death of Sherry Charlie.
In the space of 10 minutes Oppal betrayed a lack of knowledge about his job, and the toddler's death - even though he claimed to be taking the lead in the government's latest response.
It was painful, and sad, to see that this is the best the government can do in a case that has dragged on for more than three years. Oppal stepped up Wednesday to expand the mandate for Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley's review of the government's initial investigation. On Tuesday, Children and Families' Minister Stan Hagen had announced that Morley would be stepping in. His announcement drew immediate criticism, because Morley's mandate was strictly limited. She could look at why it took almost three years to complete and release the report. And she could investigate why the ministry rewrote the terms of reference for the initial review to eliminate a question about its own role in the little girl's death.
But Morley was barred from examining the gaps in the initial investigation and identifying any shortcomings in the ministry's response.
Not needed, said Hagen. "I think the ministry has acted appropriately. We're not reviewing the review that was done."
The child and youth officer actually works for Oppal, who issues the formal instructions for reviews. He initially backed Hagen. "I'm completely satisfied that the terms of reference here are exhaustive, they're thorough, and they will provide the appropriate answers and recommendations," Oppal said Tuesday.
A day later, and things had changed. Oppal said he had listened to the debate in the legislature, and talked to others in government, and decided the review should be expanded.
There is nothing wrong with changing your mind.
But this isn't some issue that has just arisen on the edge of the government's agenda. A child died, the questions have been clear and the controversy growing. The response should have been carefully considered.
It wasn't, as Oppal revealed in a series of damaging answers.
He said Morley had already done one report on Sherry's death, apparently the one he thought he was asking her to review. She hasn't.
He acknowledged that he hasn't read the ministry report on her death that is at the centre of the controversy - the one that he is actually asking Morley to investigate. That raises the obvious question how he determined what the scope of the investigation should be. (The report is only 45 pages long.)
And Oppal revealed he doesn't understand some of the key issues tied in to this controversy, including the tole of the Child and Youth Officer.
"The idea that Ms. Morley is not independent is patent nonsense," he bristled. She's appointed by the legislature, he said.
Except she's not, as reporters had to explain to the attorney general.
The Child and Youth Advocate, eliminated by the Liberals, was an independent officer appointed by the legislature. The Child and Youth Officer isn't.
The Children's Commissioner, also eliminated by the Liberals, reviewed and reported publicly on all child deaths. The Child and Youth Officer takes instructions in such cases - as in this instance - from the attorney general.
She has not reported on a single death.
Since the opposition and most of the people involved in helping children in the province have called repeatedly for the restoration of the Children's Commission; you would expect Oppal to know and understand the distinctions.
It's reasonable to allow new politicians time to learn some of the skills.
But Oppal was taking the lead for the government on a major issue - the death of a child. Serious questions have been raised about the government's role in the case, and whether the push to reduce spending played a role, and about the
handling of the investigation.
Oppal's lack of knowledge, about the case and related issues in his own ministry, was painful.
The public has right to expect better.
And so do all the children and families who are counting on the ministry
Footnote: Oppal apologized for any misunderstanding Thursday, saying he wasn't used to answering so many questions. But he did not respond in the legislature when asked to apologize for not reading the report on Sherry's death.