Ottenheimer: a brief history

Pam Frampton
Published on June 28, 2014
Former health minister John Ottenheimer, the only person vying for leadership of the Tory party in Newfoundland and Labrador, testifies during the Cameron Inquiry in 2008. — File photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

So, Frank Coleman, the man who would be king, has decided he’s no longer interested in this particular game of thrones and has retreated to the more sheltered world of private life.

We know no more about him now than we did when he leapt seemingly blindly into politics, so at least it’s not like we’ve broken up with someone we invested a lot of time and emotion in.

Easy come, easy go.

But not so for the provincial Progressive Conservatives.

Now the Tories are leaderless and the premiership is back in Tom Marshall’s hands like some kind of hot potato. He’d probably love to throw it to someone else before he burns his hands, but has no choice but to hang onto it until the outcome of what is expected to be an actual leadership contest.

God knows, the party can’t afford another coronation. They’ve lost too much credibility, with even Tory stalwarts like John Crosbie speaking out about the ineptitude.

And who are their leading leadership hopefuls so far? Their winningest would-be candidates?

As of Friday, several cabinet ministers were mulling it over, but only one candidate had made it official — John Ottenheimer.

You might remember him as a former health minister in the Danny Williams administration.

But don’t count on him remembering you. During a grilling by lawyers at the Cameron Inquiry into the breast cancer testing scandal in 2008, it became pretty apparent that he had a few lapses of memory — questions he forgot to ask, reports he forgot to read, letters that didn’t ring a bell, information he forgot to pass on.

Asked at the time why he wasn’t forthcoming in the House of Assembly about the faulty lab tests, he blamed the opposition, saying it was up to them to ask him questions and he was “amazed” that they hadn’t.

As Barb Sweet reported in The Telegram on April 1, 2008, Ottenheimer also “testified about briefing notes prepared for him in 2005 that referenced memos by a pathologist in 2003 who red-flagged serious problems in the General Hospital lab. … But Ottenheimer said he wasn’t told the details …”

Presumably he didn’t ask for them. Shouldn’t the health minister have wanted to know about serious problems?

Ottenheimer also acknowledged during the inquiry that he had wanted to go public about what he acknowledged was a “critical public health issue,” but was talked out of doing so during a briefing with Eastern Health.

As Sweet wrote in The Telegram on April 8, 2008, “He also said he never had any discussions with the premier or any other minister about the hormone receptor testing issue during his tenure in cabinet. He said he felt it was an operational issue best handled by Eastern Health.”

In her report written once the inquiry was over, Justice Margaret Cameron disagreed, writing that  “The current legislative structure clearly establishes a relationship between the regional health authorities and the minister, and it is, in my view, the minister who must exercise the oversight role.”

Ottenheimer was content to let Eastern Health handle the issue, and we all know how badly that played out.

To be fair to Ottenheimer, he was not the only person to handle the health portfolio once the botched testing came to light, but he was the first, and he is the only one of those people seeking the premiership now.

So it’s fair game to point out that he’s toting political baggage, and he can expect to be appraised based on his past actions as a cabinet minister.

As health minister, he was not willing to bring a public health matter forward and was able to be convinced to keep it under wraps for a time. That does not inspire confidence in his ability to make decisions in the public interest as premier.

Being irresolute is not what’s called for in a health crisis, nor in any kind of crisis affecting the safety and security of the people you represent, as Kathy Dunderdale found out during January’s power failure.

As Cameron wrote, “In the context of (the hormone receptor) problem, it was the failure of the department on behalf of the minister to exercise due diligence in respect of the information provided that contributed to the government’s lack of appreciation of the problem.”

Dunderdale’s tenure came to an abrupt end precisely because her government failed to appreciate the problems it had on its hands.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Ottenheimer’s time in the political wilderness has changed anything.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and  The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton