I’m often baffled that MLAs don’t seem to push for the tools to do their jobs more effectively.
The current debate over the independence and effectiveness of the B.C. Coroners Service offers a good example.
Dr. Diane Rothon just quit or was fired as chief coroner after nine months on the job. She has said only that she had a disagreement with the government about the direction of the coroner’s service.
The Times Colonist has been digging a little deeper and found two likely issues — political interference and budget cuts making it impossible for the coroners service to do its job.
The work is important. The service is charged with investigating all “unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths.” Its job is to get the facts - who died, and how and why.
That’s important for families. And the reports help a whole range of organizations prevent future deaths.
In some cases, the coroner also calls inquests - a formal hearing, in front of a five-person jury, which is charged with finding the facts and make recommendations that could save lives in the future.
The work can be controversial. Inquests can highlight government failures or underfunding that costs lives. Recommendations can challenge the status quo and call for action that agencies resist.
The service also produces reports on broader issues — the deaths of children in the government’s care, for example, or youth suicide.
That’s why independence is important. Getting at the truth and making recommendations without political influence is central to the work of the coroner.
But the Times Colonist found three former chief coroners — including Terry Smith, who had the post from 2001 until 2009 - believe the service does not have the needed autonomy to do the work properly. It’s under undue government influence.
The service, for example, is under orders to submit its reports to the government’s political communications arm, the public affairs bureau, before they are released.
At the least, that order gives the government time to plan the best way to spin the report when it is released. But it also raises the spectre of greater influence — of pressure to change the contents of the report before it is made public.
There is an obvious solution. Smith says the government should consider making the coroner an independent officer of the legislature, removing the service from direct political control. “I think in order to have an effective Coroners Service, it needs to have a much higher level of independence," said Smith, who had eight often difficult years in the job. (The proposal is supported by Children and Families Representative Mary ETurpel-Lafond.)
That seems a sensible, practical change. Independent officers - like the children’s representative, information commissioner and auditor general - don’t report to a government minister. They report to committees of MLAs with representatives from all parties. They are, to a significant extent, insulated from political pressure.
MLAs from all parties also review and set the independent officers’ budgets. That makes it harder for politicians to use funding cuts to punish or silence agencies.
The coroners service, for example, has seen its staff fall from 91 in 2007-08 to 81 today. Its budget has been cut 18 per cent in two years and more cuts are likely ahead. The Child Death Review Unit, set up as a result of the Hughes report, is threatened.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman dismisses all the concerns. The service has plenty of independence and can handle the budget cuts, he says.
But simply saying something doesn’t make it so. Three former chief coroners - the people who did the work - say the service doesn’t have the required independence.
At the least, that should be enough to force an outside review of the issues.
It’s surprising that MLAs, given the importance of the work, aren’t calling for a review that might lead to a greater role for them in an area of importance to their constituents.
Footnote: The review should also look at the appropriate qualifications for coroners, especially chief coroners. Most provinces have placed doctors in the top job. B.C., until Rothon’s appointment, has generally opted for chief coroners without medical qualifications, often with a policing background.