Editorial: Clear the air on Health Ministry firings

A public inquiry is not the answer to everything that goes amiss — such inquiries tend to be drawn-out, expensive affairs that result in little change — but what else will it take to make the B.C. Liberal government come clean on the botched firings of eight Health Ministry drug researchers in 2012?

It’s one of the worst blunders in the history of Canadian public service, and yet no one has been called to account; no one has explained what really happened and why. If it takes a public inquiry to extract the truth from those in the know, so be it, but we would rather the government simply answer the questions, within legal and ethical restraints, and replace rumours, speculation and political doublespeak with the facts.

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To the original questions — who ordered the firings and why? — have been added more questions: Why the coverup? How far up the chain of command does this go? What else is being hidden from public view?

“This was the first thing I was briefed on, and my reaction was disbelief,” then-health minister Margaret MacDiarmid said on Sept. 6, 2012, as she announced the suspensions of the drug researchers, who were later fired. “I was shocked.”

Like a melodramatic TV show, the scene faded to black, to be continued.

But the suspense was never resolved; the monster was never revealed. Nearly three years later, British Columbians are still wondering what caused MacDiarmid to recoil in horror.

The true horror has been the damage to the lives and careers of those who were fired. All but two have been exonerated, one after he committed suicide. Lawsuits were settled; apologies were issued. Fervent statements were issued as to the good character and dedication of people whose names were previously linked to an RCMP investigation, which turned out to be a fabrication.

And still little has been made public. The government’s amends have been grudging and incomplete. A distinct whiff of protecting bureaucratic and political posteriors hangs about this case. Promises of thorough investigation have resulted in anything but thoroughness.

While the chief commissioner of a public inquiry usually has the power to subpoena witnesses and order people to hand over information, the government still sets the parameters of the inquiry. Such an inquiry could drag on for months or years at great public expense.

The government could still order portions of the commission’s report redacted, which would necessitate freedom-of-information requests by those seeking the whole truth.

It’s bad enough that the researchers were put through a humiliating, painful and costly ordeal, but valuable drug research was hindered; scientific work was dealt a serious setback, to the potential detriment of public health.

Perhaps it would be better for the two remaining lawsuits to run their course, which would compel witnesses to testify, bringing more information to public light. But that’s the personal choice of the plaintiffs.

We are encouraged that Health Minister Terry Lake has not ruled out the possibility of a public inquiry, but given the government’s record so far, we don’t hold much hope of that occurring.

British Columbians can be forgiven for believing there’s something rotten going on in government, that self-serving strategy has been given priority over public good, that deliberate attempts have been made to keep the truth from public view.

If that is not the case, the government can dispel such notions by ordering an honest, independent and complete review, with the power to compel testimony from everyone involved, with the aim of clearing the air, rather than creating more obfuscation.

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