Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Liberals face questions over health letter secrecy

VICTORIA - You can tell a lot about what's wrong in government by the clumsy attempts to censor Fraser Health Authority chairman Keith Purchase's resignation letter.
It's not that there was anything unusual about the attempts to keep the facts hidden. In fact, the point is that secrecy has become the norm, the default position in government.
Which is particularly ironic, in a nasty way, because the Liberals promised to run the most open and transparent government in Canada. If they are, Lord help people who live in the other provinces.
It's also telling that the government's attempt to keep Purchase's letter secret come as it launches a conversation on health. It's like sitting down to talk about how school is going with your son, without him mentioning that he's got a report card with four 'Fs' in his back pocket.
Purchase resigned Jan. 25, out of frustration with inadequate funding for the health authority and Health Minister George Abbott's rough firing of Vancouver Coastal chairman Trevor Johnstone.
To be fair, Abbott acknowledged those were the reasons at the time. But he didn't release the letter of resignation, saying it would have to be reviewed under under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
That took a remarkable 11 days, just to vet a brief letter. No wonder the government routinely breaks the law by failing to respond to information requests within legal deadlines.
When the government did release Purchase's letter of resignation, the government had whited out several sections. No one was supposed to know what Purchase wrote to the minister in those sentences.
But Vaughn Palmer, the superb Vancouver Sun columnist, got the original, uncensored version of the letter. The cuts, Palmer noted, were a "pathetic" attempt to conceal damaging information.
It's a good description, when you consider the sections the government tried to hide.
Purchase noted in his letter to Abbott that the health authority board had already written two letters of concern about inadequate funding for the coming year. He was specific about whjay lay ahead. "Based on that funding information, bed closures and service cuts would be inevitable," he wrote.
The government censored that information in the version of the letter it released.
Purchase warned in the letter that the problems were already hitting the region. "Put simply, we have a crisis situation in the Fraser Health region," he wrote.
The government censored that sentence.
And Purchase explained in the letter why he couldn't sign letters accepting the budget and saying it was adequate to allow care to the standards the government expected.
"I cannot sign this budget or the government's letter of expectation, when I know that Fraser Health will be unable to meet any of your goals with the resources allocated to us," he told Abbott.
The government censored that sentence too.
It's a cover-up. What's the government's justification? It cites sections of freedom of in formation legislation that allow it to invoke secrecy for "policy advice or recommendations developed by a public body or for a minister" and information that could be "harmful to the financial or economic interests of a public body."
First, a resignation letter is not policy advice developed by a public body.
But there's a bigger problem with the government's position.
The law doesn't say the government must keep the information secret. It simply says the government may choose to do so.
An open and transparent government would look at the law and the letter and release it. There's no privacy or public policy reason for secrecy. No reason at all, except to protect the minister and the government from embarrassment.
The case is no one-off example of unwarranted secrecy. The government routinely turned freedom of information law inside out. If the law says information may be kept secret, government acts as if it must be kept secret.
Open and transparent? Not even close.
Footnote: Expect the health authority resignations and firings to be high on the NDP's list of question-period topics now that the legislature has resumed sitting after the long break forced by the Liberals. They're likely also to focus on funding problems in the Vancouver Island, Northern and Interior health regions, where board members have so far made no waves.

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