Any report that recommends phasing out the independent office of one of the B.C. government's biggest critics is bound to attract attention for all the wrong reasons.
And so it was that former top bureaucrat Bob Plecas was left trying to explain at a news conference Monday why he thought the province would be better off eventually folding the functions of the office of Representative for Children and Youth into the ministry it has spent nearly 10 years scrutinizing.
The recommendation was one of several in Mr. Plecas's report on the perennially troubled Ministry of Children and Family Development, which he played a central role in creating in the late 1990s as a senior bureaucrat in the NDP government. Liberal Premier Christy Clark asked him to take a fresh look at things, in particular the ministry's handling of a controversial case in which staff returned four children to the care of their sexually abusive father. He has deferred that aspect of his report until the spring.
While Mr. Plecas made several suggestions, most of the focus was on his call to phase out the office of Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, which undoubtedly made B.C. Liberals everywhere euphoric.
Primarily, his rationale seems to come down to this: The constant stream of criticism that emanates from the representative's office has damaged the morale of those working in the ministry.
Beyond that, the ministry simply cannot keep up with the ceaseless cascade of recommendations Ms. Turpel-Lafond has made in her near-decade on the job.
And then there is the fact, he pointed out, that no other ministry in government is subject to such a relentless level of oversight.
On the surface, these would seem to be fairly weak reasons for incorporating such an important oversight body into the great maw of government. Having said that, I don't think there's any question that Ms. Turpel-Lafond's withering censures of government policy have shaken the confidence of many of those who work in what is arguably the toughest and most thankless ministry in government. In almost every case, the representative's work has provided often explosive Question Period fodder for the NDP Opposition.
Sadly, there is no bigger political football than a dead child in government care.
Consequently, the provincial government has often made rash, knee-jerk responses to the individual cases that Ms. Turpel-Lafond has highlighted rather than resolutely pursuing a policy path agreed upon earlier. This has created chaos and uncertainty at the ministry. Until recently, there has been a revolving door of cabinet ministers (13 since the ministry's inception in 1996). MFCD is often described as the ministry where political careers go to die. That same churn has occurred at the bureaucratic level as well, again, most often in response to the near daily condemnation the ministry receives because of high-profile child-care cases.
Mr. Plecas confirms what most already know: The relationship between Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office and the provincial government is effectively broken. It became adversarial years ago, and has helped create what Mr. Plecas calls a "culture of blame" around the ministry.
A report from former Supreme Court justice Ted Hughes recommended establishing the representative's office originally. Mr. Plecas said Mr. Hughes never believed it would be healthy or helpful for it to be a permanent position.
But I am also not convinced moving the operations of the representative's office into government and under the direction of the office of the provincial director of child welfare is the answer. Where is the accountability? Where is the transparency? Maybe Ms. Turpel-Lafond has a very unsparing style, but she does not leave a stone unturned. She has made public information the government was hiding in some cases and was reluctant to turn over in others.
Are we to believe this same type of job could be performed by someone inside the government? Sorry, I'm not buying it without some sort of ironclad safeguards built in. And I don't see what they are immediately.
The best thing to come out of the Plecas report is the recommendation to pour tens of millions of dollars more into MCFD to address the chronic lack of funding Ms. Turpel-Lafond and others (including ministers privately) have been harping about for years. It sounds like the government is prepared to make that type of investment.
Mr. Plecas hopes it will bring some stability to the most unstable ministry in government. There certainly is not a ministry that needs it more.