02 June 2009

Lessons not learned

“They should be shot over there.”

So said Premier Danny Williams when the public reacted angrily to a news release from Eastern Health late on a Friday afternoon that buried the kernel of hard news in the middle of the release.

Turns out senior government officials knew about the whole thing in advance, had a hand in drafting the release and that cabinet ordered the disclosure immediately, despite the objections of officials at Eastern Health.

The documents, released under the province’s open records laws, are available on the cbc.ca/nl website. Interestingly, they appear to have been processed electronically.  This is contrary to standard government practice in some departments which seem to favour using only hard copies as a way of maximising the cost to the applicant.

When asked in the legislature on April 5 (the first sitting day after the Friday news release) when he and officials of his department first learned, health minister Ross Wiseman initially ducked the question, talking instead about research done previously to identify all patients involved in breast cancer testing.

On the second and third questions, Wiseman finally relented, but claimed he had only learned of the matter on April 2, presumably at cabinet:

Yes, I was aware that they were going to be doing that release. The conversation that my office had with Eastern Health was midday on Thursday (April 2, the day cabinet met) , and the understanding and direction was pretty clear: that this information needed to get out immediately. The fact that they were late on Friday afternoon releasing it, I had no control over, Mr. Speaker. That was their call, their decision to release it. I received the notice of the release just moments before it was out. I was out of the Province on government business, meeting with my colleagues in Halifax and with other health regions.

Mr. Speaker, that was their call, but I would agree with the member opposite that getting a release out late Friday afternoon and not having anyone available from the organization to comment on it is not something that I would agree with either.

Wiseman is only referring here to the cabinet directive to release the information, not when his officials first learned of the issue.  The documents obtained by CBC place that time earlier that week. An e-mail from health deputy minister Don Keats shows the minister looking for a briefing on the subject on March 31.

Wiseman’s answers in the House on April 5 also leave the impression that government had no involvement in the matter:

I want to tell the member opposite and the members of the House, Eastern Health write their own press releases. They release their own communiqués. I was aware of the information that they had.  I was aware on Thursday that they were going to be releasing it. My understand was they were going to be releasing it quickly. I then went out of the Province on business, only to find that I got a copy of the release at the same time it was being released to the public.

That also wasn’t strictly accurate since, according to the released documents, cabinet had directed the release immediately without waiting until patients had been contacted directly.

By the following day of questions in the House of Assembly, April 6, Wiseman was acknowledging he had learned of the issue on April 1.

Speaking with reporters on April 5, the Premier condemned Eastern Health for releasing the information in the way they did including not disclosing the information to patients first. That’s the same scrum in which he uttered the infamous comment that “they” should be shot over there.

Justice Margaret Cameron, in a report released last month, found that Eastern Health had erred by not telling the whole truth of what it knew, Williams said. The premier slammed the authority for sending out information late on a Friday and then not making anyone available to talk about it immediately. He said patients deserve full and transparent disclosure.

"This is about people's lives … They have a right to be told," Williams said. "They have a right to be told in a proper manner. There has to be proper disclosure; there has to be someone there to answer questions. It's not something you do at the tail end of a Friday afternoon."

The documents on the cbc.ca/nl website do not appear to represent all the documents related to incident.  Missing are documents or any notes referring to having the issue placed on the cabinet agenda and what, if any communications there would have been between the department and Executive Council, the government’s central co-ordinating agency.

Some of the documents were written days after the event and around the same time Eastern Health’s vice president of communications engaged in a rather bizarre bit of public spinning about the location of information in the news release.  She wasn’t the only one spinning the story.

Coincidentally the week before the Premier said that people should be shot over the incident, courts in Ontario upheld the ruling that such language constituted uttering a threat.