An Inquisitive Inquiry

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Williams Government's attacks don't hold water

I, for one, don't buy it for a moment.

Premier Danny Williams and his Justice Minister, Jerome Kennedy, have both attacked the Cameron inquiry into breast cancer testing.

Premier Williams says it is "inquisitorial" and "appears to be more of a prosecution than an inquiry."

This is nonsense, of course. As blogger Wallace McLean pointed out recently, the root of the term "inquisitorial" is the same as "inquiry".

Minister Kennedy then jumped into the fray, with the claim that the inquiry could ruin the province's health care system if it drags on too long.

Well, this is not the first time that things got a little heated at a public inquiry. CBC Radio played a remarkable audio clip on Monday morning, of Jerome Kennedy going ballistic on a witness at the Lamer inquiry (and then at Lamer himself) which is a real eye-opener. In contrast, Bern Coffey's performance is firm, but restrained and professional.

So Kennedy's assertions are nonsense. Thus far, most of the attention has been focused on government and Eastern Health pathologists haven't even taken the stand yet. In fact, the real scandal here is not the errors in testing, though these mistakes were significant. The failure of the system to respond quickly and effectively in advising patients is, in my view, a far more serious chain of events.

Kennedy also complained that the inquiry was taking too much time, a position reiterated by Premier Williams in Sunday's Telegram. But here's another fact: it isn't. According to the above CBC link, the Lamer inquiry took three years, from its appointment to release of its final report. My own records say that the Hughes inquiry was initiated in June 1989, with the final report submitted to government in May 1991. (And never mind that the delays to the Cameron inquiry were the result of Eastern Health's attempt to block external reviews of the pathology lab, and government's own discovery of previously undisclosed emails.)

Kennedy said the examination of witnesses was taking too long and that the "spectre of a witness being on the stand for four days is simply unheard of." That is wrong, wrong, wrong, as this paragraph from the CBC online story makes clear:

"However, the final report of the Hughes inquiry which heard evidence in 1989 and in 1990 on complaints of sexual abuse at the former Mount Cashel Orphanage and a subsequent quashed police investigation shows that no less than 10 witnesses at the inquiry testified for at least four days. Four of them, including a former director of child welfare and a high-ranking member of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, were on the stand for six days each."

Then there was Kennedy's quibble that the inquiry is costing too much money - $750,000 in legal fees thus far. (This from a government that is about to invest almost $3 million in cranberries.) Again, as the CBC story makes clear, previous inquiries have cost much more. The Lamer inquiry came it at about $7 million, and the Ocean Ranger inquiry at $14 million.

So what is the Williams Government up to?

I just heard Craig Westcott's Monday morning commentary on CBC Radio's Morning Show, and his theory is that the premier a future witness at the inquiry is attempting to damage the inquiry's credibility before it can damage his. As Westcott put it, "The best defence is a good offence."

I am worried that it could be worse than that. Perhaps Williams and Kennedy are more concerned about the smear this is leaving on the Williams Government, and are bracing us for a complete shutdown of the inquiry.

Why would they do that? I'm not sure, but it may be because, for the last two years, they've done their CRA omnibus polling in May, and heaven knows this government becomes sensitive to public opinion when the pollsters are in the field.

Blogger Mark Watton also took umbrage with the premier's recent comments. While he makes excellent points and asks some tough questions, I don't agree with his slap against the CBC for "repeating the Premier's comments and criticism of the inquiry's progress practically verbatim... as news."

First, when a premier attacks the credibility of his own inquiry not matter what the motive that is news.

Second, CBC's coverage was quite balanced (and, as noted above, they corrected several errors of fact). They offered strong, contrary opinions from Liberal leader Yvonne Jones and NDP leader Lorraine Michael. NTV News also balanced their coverage in this way. But CBC went one better. They interviewed cancer survivor Lorraine Hudson, who brought it all into perspective, reminding us that this inquiry is not about sensitive pathologists, forgetful public servants or sweating politicians.

People died.

Hudson said politicians need to let the inquiry do its work.

"They have to ask questions, and if they step on people's toes, so be it," she said. "These questions have to be answered. We have to get to the bottom of this so that something like this never, ever happens to anybody else."

Justice Cameron should ignore the "noise" and proceed as usual with the inquiry. If it does get shut down, the public backlash against the Williams Government will be enormous.

This is clear from the hundreds of comments I've read at the online message boards. I will close with this trenchant comment from Friday's VOCM Question of the Day:

"Madam Justice Cameron please, please don't let the Premier intimidate you. This is far too serious a matter. Please keep up the good work."

UPDATE: The plot thickens. Check out today's breaking news from the Cameron inquiry.

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Recent comments

  • Greg
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I was interviewing someone over the weekend and she said, if this causes problems for the government then so be it. This is a chance to improve the health care system. We need health care. We can always get another government.