Friday, April 16, 2010

Deflecting the real issue: How David Alward's question about $5226 turned into an alleged attack on civil servants

One thing we have learned in the last two years is to carefully analyze what politicians say and do. In almost every case, when confronted with an uncomfortable issue, they and their communications people try one of the following tactics, not necessarily in the following order:

1. Deny
2. Defend
3. Delay
4. Deflect

Today the Telegraph Journal printed the exchange between Conservative Party Leader David Alward and Acting Minister of Justice / Attorney General Kelly Lamrock about the $5226 cost for transcripts from the Coroners Inquest into the death of our sons.

You'll note how quickly a simple question from the Opposition Leader to Minister Lamrock about whether parents will be provided with copies of the transcripts turns into the alleged villification of civil servants.

Nowhere in Mr. Alward's question, either to the Minister of Public Safety John Foran or Minister Lamrock, is there a hint of accusation, yet Minister Lamrock falls back on the time tested tactic of deflecting a legitimate question about his Department's handling of the issue to an attack on the Conservative Party for allegedly villifying civil servants.

The end result is we now have copies of the transcript, but it's too bad that a politician just can't answer a question without getting defensive all the time. Mr. Lamrock may be exhausted and at the end of the worst legislative session of his career, but that's no excuse for deflecting from the real issue at hand in an attempt to make the Opposition look bad for daring to raise the issue.

And as for the "civil servants" to whom Lamrock refers, you can be sure it wasn't the lowly staff at the Bathurst Court House who are to blame for the decision to charge parents $5226. Oh no, that decision went much higher up the food chain, and if there is any blame to go around it belongs squarely in the lap of the Assistant Deputy Minister and Deputy Minister of Justice / Attorney General who would have made that decision a long time before Kelly Lamrock ever heard about it.

Let this be a lesson to senior bureaucrats in the provincial government to think twice about anything to do with sensitive issues like the Bathurst tragedy - and perhaps use some common sense - before putting their minister into another embarrassing situation in the House.

On the record
Published Friday April 16th, 2010

Click to read the original article in the Telegraph Journal

FREDERICTON - Opposition leader David Alward asked during question period in the legislature on Thursday whether the parents of the victims of the Bathurst van crash were being charged a fee for transcripts of the coroners' inquest into the tragedy. Here is the exchange between Alward, Public Safety Minister John Foran and Attorney General Kelly Lamrock:

Alward: Over a year ago, in January 2008, all of New Brunswick was touched by a horrifying accident that happened just outside Bathurst. A number of young people and a teacher lost their lives in a horrifying accident. That process has been a very difficult issue for all New Brunswickers to face. There was a coroner's inquest into that process. A number of the parents of the young people who were killed in the accident have asked for access to the transcripts of the coroner's inquest. Will the minister confirm whether that information has been provided to those parents?

Foran: The coroner's department operates at arm's length from the Department of Public Safety. That is already completed, the report is done, and people have to deal with the coroner on that issue.

Alward: It is actually under Court Services. Will the minister or somebody on the opposite side confirm that the parents are being refused access to that information unless they pay $5,226 to have that information copied?

Lamrock: I can, in fact, confirm that that is not the case. I know that we are close to the last question period. I think there are some things that should be above politics and the theatre of question period. There is nobody who was not deeply impacted by the accident in Bathurst, but for parents who lost children, I think that has to be an unknowable pain that is almost unimaginable.

It is true that there is an act that regulates whom the coroner can deal with, or to whom the coroner can release transcripts and the conditions under which that can be done. As attorney general, I can confirm that the Coroner's Office has contacted the Office of the Attorney General to let them know they need ministerial discretion. That arrived on my desk just as I was on my way over here. That is why I was late. I can assure the honourable member that I will take it very seriously. If there is anything that can help families have information and can help us learn and bring closure, we will certainly do that.

Alward: The parents have been denied that information up to this point unless they pay over $5,000. Just so I understand, this is my question for the minister: Is he prepared to commit today to ensuring that the parents will have access to the information they have requested?

Lamrock: I want to explain this again to the member opposite, just so that nobody, including the coroner, winds up being made to look like a villain here. I think we have to be very careful about vilifying people. I cannot imagine that there is anybody who does not feel for the parents. The way many laws work is to provide civil servants with a very limited amount of discretion. They follow the rules that are set down in statutes. It is the same statute that was there when the previous government was here with respect to rules about when something can be released. Obviously, and blessedly, this is an exceptional situation. Certainly, because it is exceptional, the public servants do not necessarily have the discretion. They have to follow the act, and I do not think they should be beaten up for doing that.

Literally minutes before I came over here, I received a request to review it. If I have any discretion under the act to provide it, I will either seek it or seek to change the discretion. Certainly, we are committed to making sure that parents have that information and can move toward closure, and we will do that. I just do not want public servants to be blamed for following an act that all 55 of us, as legislators, passed.

Speaker: Time, Mr. Minister.