Winning Together

Dog fights and political muzzles

WHEN NEW BRUNSWICK’S chief medical officer, Eilish Cleary, suddenly found herself without a job last year, she did what any duly appointed, provincial watchdog might do: She yapped to the press.

As she stated in an email, reported by the CBC, “I can confirm that my employment has been terminated without cause, effective immediately. The Government of New Brunswick has let me know that my particular skill set does not meet the needs of my employer. I am saddened by this decision and concerned by how it has unfolded.”

So were others, including about 20 past federal, provincial and territorial health officers who collectively stated their confidence in, and support for, Dr. Cleary in a public letter.

According to recent news reports, the good doctor and her former masters at the province’s department of health have since come to a settlement agreement. What that actually entails, no one outside the negotiating circle knows. Nor, is it likely, we will ever know. As for the precise reasons for her departure, these, too, remain bolted behind the door of the doghouse she once occupied.

What’s the point of hiring public watchdogs to hunt and hound if the moment our elected officials decide that they have stepped out of line – embarrassed them, inconvenienced them – on go the leashes?

All of which raise unsettling questions about, among other things, the condition of full disclosure in the affairs of feuding public servants, whose salaries the rest of us pay, and, just as importantly, the functional role of those who are explicitly hired to monitor, investigate and, if necessary, bark at the decisions and actions of those we entrust with elected office.

Dr. Cleary’s unhappy experience may serve as a dramatic example of how public watchdogs can and do get kicked to the curb. But hers is not the only one. Lately, this disturbing pastime among Canadian parliamentarians and assemblymen and women, regardless of their political stripes, has become almost de rigueur.

Faced with years of almost constant criticism and obstruction from and by the late federal government of archconservative Stephen Harper, the retired parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, recently wrote that the public service is “virtually impotent” and needs an “overhaul.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, the government of Brian Gallant, Liberal premier of New Brunswick, has repeatedly butted heads with its own appointee, Auditor-General Kim MacPherson, over, most often, her determination to get to the roots of the finance department’s fiscal claims and projections. She says these are overly optimistic; elected Grit representatives say she’s absurdly pessimistic.

Given the current condition of the province’s public accounts (a stubbornly persistent $500-million annual deficit on a long-term debt approaching $13 billion), the burden of proof appears to be within her kennel. Still, in government circles, she’s just a snarling terrier who, lamentably, can’t be trained.

This, of course, is exactly the problem. Now, the Gallant regime has vowed to freeze the budgets of its province’s various watchdogs next fiscal year. It claims that this is part of a government-wide austerity program. Sure, it is; and if you believe that, I have a bridge somewhere in Brooklyn you might like to buy.

The absence of transparency in the Eilish Cleary affair is troubling. More troubling, however, is the eminent trend to muzzle those who, in their own important ways, defend and protect our democracy.

When man bites his own dog, no one wins.

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