Politics, proprieties, and protection

Being a cabinet minister requires adroit balancing skills. On one hand, a minister sometimes performs duties that border on the judicial, and must do so impartially. On the other, a minister has political responsibilities to the governing party and its allies.

DenisePetersonRafuse-200To judge from her public comments about an impending investigation into allegations of abuse at group homes operated by the Colchester Residential Services Society, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse has an imperfect grasp of both roles.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union complained that managers of the Colchester homes had failed to react, or failed to react quickly enough, to violent attacks by residents against other residents and against unionized staff.

Department officials looked into the complaint and reported to Peterson-Rafuse, who ordered a formal investigation under the Protection of Persons in Care Act. The act gives the minister broad powers to protect residents and patients at special care homes, including the power to compel production of records and issue binding directives on the homes.

Shannon McLellan, director of the non-profit society, said the organization would “co-operate fully with all audits and investigations.”

“We consider these to be useful processes,” she added in a written statement. “We look forward to any recommendations that will help us do our job better.”

So far so good. The responsible department receives a complaint of violent attacks against vulnerable citizens; an expedited inquiry finds the complaints worthy of detailed investigation; the responsible minister orders such an investigation; the operator of the homes in question pledges full co-operation.

Then the minister saw fit to speak to the Canadian Press:

Peterson-Rafuse said in an interview she was informed of injuries and abuse earlier this week after her assistants met with representatives of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

“Upon completion of that meeting, I was informed of what was going on and requested a full investigation be put in place by the department,” she said.

Here Peterson-Rafuse oversteps her role, referring to “what was going on” when all she has are allegations the department deemed worthy of further investigation. Finding out “what was going on” is a key part of the investigation, a task the minister should not taint by appearing to prejudge its outcome.

CP reporter Mike Tutton confronted Peterson-Rafuse with Worker’s Compensation records purporting to show 38 violence-related workplace injuries at the society’s five homes over the last five years — a rate of about 1.5 incidents per home per year.

Peterson-Rafuse said the injury rates at the provincially funded, non-profit agency are too high, and she expects the investigation will find out what is happening.

“To me, that sounds like an awful lot of people getting injured. Your life circles around being able to do your job and being able to support your family and one injury can take that away from you,” she said.

There are two problems with this.

First, by proclaiming that injury rates at the homes are too high, and speculating about the personal consequences of those injuries, the minister is again pre-judging the results of a quasi-judicial process she ordered and for which she bears ultimate responsibility.

Second, Workers Compensation stats relate to injuries incurred on the job — injuries to employees, in other words, not to residents or patients in care. In my reading of the Protection of Persons in Care Act and regulations, investigations like the one the minister ordered can only look into abuse directed at residents, not staff. Unless the investigator strays beyond the mandate set forth in the act, the investigation will not “find out what it happening” to union workers.

The Colchester Residential Services Society is entitled to fair treatment, and this entitlement is no mere technicality. The departmental official designated to carry out this investigation will know that the minister has, in effect, already declared that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That official may be reluctant to buck this presumption, regardless of what her investigation turns up.

Viewed through a political lens, Peterson-Rafuse’s performance doesn’t look any better. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union has long allied itself with the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party. Now that the NDP is in government, the union enjoys unaccustomed sympathetic access to ministers and their staff.

Nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with the minister ordering an investigation based on a union complaint, assuming the appropriate inquiry by the appropriate department staff found grounds for further investigation. But Peterson-Rafuse apparently thought it clever to reinforce her decision with public comments sympathetic to the union’s position.

That was dumb. The union already had what it wanted: an investigation. Playing footsie in public offered little additional political gain. On the contrary, it risked political damage. Rightly or wrongly, voters wary of union influence over the NDP will feel reinforced in their suspicions. If the investigation comes down hard on the Colchester society, the minister’s imprudent comments may raise doubts about its evenhandedness. This is the kind of thing Darrell Dexter scrupulously avoided as Opposition Leader, and that’s part of the reason he’s premier.

On both the proprieties and the politics of this case, the minister is 0 for 2.