Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Liberals stumble, again, on children and families

Monday was a bad day for the Liberals.
The anti-HST petition people passed the 500,000-signature mark - about one-third of the number people who voted in the last election.
The B.C. Rail corruption trial finally started.
And Ted Hughes - the Liberals' choice to review the troubled children and families' ministry in 2006 - complained the government was sabotaging the effort to restore trust in the system.
Hughes wrote Gordon Campbell with his concerns, but the wandering premier is in China.
Poor Children's Minister Mary Polak was left to respond both to the Hughes letter and a court judgment that found the government was illegally withholding information from the Representative for Children and Youth.
It did not go well.
First, a brief background summary. In 2001, the Liberals eliminated independent oversight of services for vulnerable children and families. Not needed, they said.
After a series of disastrous missteps, ill-considered budget cuts, re-organizations and scandals, the government asked Hughes, a respected retired judge, to investigate.
He made recommendations, including the creation of the independent representative's office to provide advocacy, monitoring and public accountability.
Campbell accepted the recommendations. Legislation was passed giving the representative broad access to information to allow effective monitoring. But the ministry never really seemed to accept the oversight.
When the representative's office decided to review changes to a program aimed at children in the care of a relative, the government wouldn't provide relevant documents.
Only if the representative agreed in advance to keep the information secret, the government proposed, might she be allowed to see the cabinet documents.
That made no sense. The legislations setting up the representative's office, introduced by the Liberal government and passed unanimously by MLAs, gave complete access to all documents, except those protected by lawyer-client privilege. The representative's right to the information was crystal clear.
So Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the children's representative, went to court to get the information. About 4,500 children are in the program; perhaps more should be. It's important to know how it's working.
The B.C. Supreme Court decision, handed down Friday, was a slap in the face for Campbell and Polak.
There is no justification for withholding the information, Justice Susan Griffin found. The law is clear and the government is refusing to accept it. She ordered the government to hand over the information and pay the legal costs for both sides.
So our money was wasted on lawyers' fees in a doomed effort to keep the facts from us.
The NDP set out to bash Polak around after the ruling. It's a tough spot for a minister, defending the indefensible.
Polak's talking points in question period were embarrassing and unworthy.
She continued to say the government had been prepared to provide the information; it just wanted control over how it would be used.
But the judgment shredded that argument. "I do not agree with the respondents that this case is not about document disclosure," Griffin wrote. "To the contrary, this is exactly what this case is about."
Afterward, Polak told reporters she hadn't read the entire judgment. It was delivered three days earlier. The court found she and her government had broken the law. A careful reading of it would take 30 minutes. It's baffling that she hadn't found time to read the decision.
Meanwhile, the government wouldn’t agree to withdraw new legislation to reduce the representative's access to information.
That prompted the letter from Hughes, who called on the government to abandon the changes, introduced in the legislature last month but not yet debated.
He noted his report called for a fully independent advocacy, monitoring and reporting role for the new office. The proposed curbs on access to information needed to fulfill those roles is wrong, Hughes said, and would "strike a negative blow to the heart" of efforts to rebuild public confidence in the system.
By Tuesday, the government had agreed to withdraw the bill. But the affair has, again, left the Liberals looking like bumblers on a critical issue.
Footnote: Hughes also noted the dysfunctional relationship that has evolved between Turpel-Lafond and Lesley du Toit, the deputy minister in charge of the ministry. He offered to play a mediating role; all parties should grab the badly needed help.

1 comment:

Dawn Steele said...

I don't think Hughes' reference to the troubled relationship between Turpel Lafond and du Toit was a footnote, but central to the ongoing crisis.

Think back. At the same time that Campbell *ostensibly* agreed to fully comply with the Hughes recommendations by creating the office of the RCY, he personally put du Toit in charge of the Ministry. And du Toit's record makes it very clear that her role was primarily to thwart the Rep. What else has she really done?