Never has there been this much focus on the decisions made by the country’s chief public health officers.
Nor has there ever been as much speculation about how their advice has fared with their political masters, who have broader interests to weigh.
When it’s come to this new parlour game, few relationships have endured as much scrutiny as the one between Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. To what extent has the Premier taken her advice on public-health measures around the pandemic? And to what degree has he defied them over concerns they could do egregious harm to an economy that’s already bloodied and battered?
Well, thanks to at least one civil servant, we now have a better idea.
Someone leaked recordings of private meetings involving Dr. Hinshaw and members of the province’s Emergency Operations Centre to the CBC, the contents of which were made public this week. They reveal an at-times exasperated public-health official running into an often-stubborn Premier and Health Minister, both of whom were clearly worried about the economic effects of various strategies on the fight against COVID-19.
The revelations sparked a debate on two fronts: one over the independence of Dr. Hinshaw’s office, and the other around the decision by a civil servant to secretly record confidential meetings and then leak the tapes.
On the first front, few seem surprised that Dr. Hinshaw would be getting pushback from the Premier. Indeed, I’m confident she is not the only medical health officer in this country who has had advice ignored over concerns about the economy. Dr. Hinshaw’s mandate is pretty much singular in nature: the health of Albertans. Mr. Kenney’s is more all-encompassing: yes, he needs to be concerned about the well-being of Albertans as it relates to COVID-19, but also their health as it relates to their ability to put food on the table. So it’s little surprise that tensions might arise when the two distinct mandates come in conflict.
Now, when the Premier of a province is ignoring advice that might imperil lives and lead to the death of people, that’s another matter entirely. And that may be what inspired someone to record these meetings and ensure they were made public.
However, the tapes have not made Mr. Kenney look especially culpable for Alberta’s recent surge in the virus. The recordings were made in the summer, for starters. Some of the disagreements between the Premier and Dr. Hinshaw were around the efficacy of certain testing measures. There is evidence that she was annoyed, at times, by some of Mr. Kenney’s demands around data and evidence collection – but again, I’m sure her counterparts across the country have often felt the same way about their bosses.
The public will ultimately decide if the CBC’s exposé makes Mr. Kenney appear more responsible for the jaw-dropping spike in virus numbers that we are witnessing in the province.
As for the anonymous individual who sparked the controversy, that is another debate entirely.
As a journalist, I will never criticize someone for passing along information that he or she believes is in the public interest. This often happens because of the complete lack of transparency that surrounds government decision-making today.
At the same time, I understand the betrayal Dr. Hinshaw and the others in those meetings must feel. This leak puts many people under a cloud of suspicion. It often leads to nasty witch hunts and new burdensome protocols.
There are some who would say that the leaker – or noble whistle-blower, depending on your point of view – also betrayed the vow of confidentiality undertaken by all civil servants when they are hired. On social media, some of Mr. Kenney’s fiercest critics condemned the person who passed along the secret recordings to the CBC for breaking this trust.
As I say, the reason people become whistle-blowers is often because of the frustration they feel over the opacity of government operations. Yes, some undoubtedly have political agendas. But typically, they’re more often motivated by the desire to shine a light on particularly egregious behaviour for which individuals might not otherwise be held accountable.
Did this revelation meet that test? That will be for the public to decide. And they will have a chance to render a verdict in the next election.
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