AbeBooks.com. Thousands of booksellers - millions of books.
Feed on
Mining Minister Bennett: Quitting would send a message about government integrity.

Mining Minister Bennett: Quitting would send a message about government integrity.

Tradition decrees he take ‘ministerial responsibility’ for Mount Polley mess on his watch.

By well-established precedent, Bill Bennett right about now should be typing his letter of resignation to Premier Clark.

Extreme? Not at all. Here’s a bit of history that, trust me, speaks directly to the mining minister’s duty after the catastrophic breach of the tailings pond at Mount Polley mine.

Just after the the Second World War, the British agricultural minister resigned. During the war, the Royal Air Force had expropriated a lot of farmland for airfields. After the war, this land was resold by the ministry to bidders. A lot of hanky-panky and plain unfairness came with the sales and it became a scandal.

When the scandal broke, the minister, Thomas Dugdale, who knew little of the scheme and had nothing personally to do with it, promptly resigned. When asked why, he explained simply that since he took credit for when things went well in the ministry, he had to bear responsibility when they didn’t. He perhaps was too hard on himself. Many thought so, including Winston Churchill, his prime minister. He, however, felt that his ministry had failed in its duty, which required that he take the fall.

During the Falklands War, Lord Carrington, the defence minister, felt that his ministry had not properly advised the prime minister on the ramifications. The prime minister didn’t think so but Carrington did. Again, in his view, the ministry had failed to do its duty, he was the minister, and so he must go.

This is called “ministerial responsibility” and has become considerably less fashionable these days, to the point that I doubt that Premier Clark has any understanding of the tradition. To be fair, most people don’t, but then most people are not the premier of the province.

I will deal with the notion of “ministerial responsibility” in a moment but first let’s take a look at the role that Bill Bennett assumed when he accepted the portfolio of B.C. minister of mines.

Who holds the line?

Some regulations in some ministries are casual. They are there to sort of guide things along.

With environmental matters they are not casual at all. One does not expect to have an environmental disaster the day after regulation is passed, which means — and I hate to sound pedantic but this government is not too bright — regulations must be constantly kept up to date and enforced. This requires regular inspections by experts even though, on the face of it, it seems such a waste of time and effort because things all seem to be safe and sound.

With a dam this is particularly true. Once built, the dam looks so nice and secure that nobody thinks for a moment there will be a problem. And there won’t be a problem, likely, until all of a sudden there is one. Obviously, this means there must be constant inspection reports and updating of the dam itself even though it all looks so permanently intact.

There is, in law, a Latin maxim which says “res ipsa loquitur” — which means that the ” thing speaks for itself.” Translated into this context, “dams do not normally burst except in the absence of very great negligence.”*

Unless there has been an obvious act of God, this maxim surely applies to the Mount Polley debacle. The onus to prove they have no responsibility for the catastrophe falls squarely upon those responsible for maintaining the dam, Imperial Metals, as well upon as those making and enforcing dam safety regulations, the ministries.

The story of the Mount Polley is a sad series of cautionary tales.

Not long after the BC Liberal government came to power in 2001 they went on a binge of making things more comfortable for the corporations that put them there. This meant serious cutbacks which in turn meant lack of inspections and lack of pressure on companies to upgrade their facilities. Government safety regulations were “red tape” and the buzz word was “deregulation.” The pressures from the government’s paymasters, the large corporations, to “cut the crap” were enormous and constant.

Those who have been reading the pages of The Tyee — and may I also mention those of the Common Sense Canadian which I helped found — will know that inspections of mines dipped to appallingly low levels in the decade after the BC Liberals took over. Far from being hindsight, the whole sordid mess is well documented. It’s not just the number of inspections that apparently increased risk of disaster, it’s what did or didn’t happen when problems were discovered on site.

It would seem that at least five recent inspection results resulted in five warnings to Imperial Metals, all of which were ignored.

Babbling Bennett

This has all been played down by mines minister Bennett as he’s been babbling forth since the disaster. Indeed he tells us that mine inspections have been restored to 2009 levels which is disingenuous in the extreme since the current levels are only half what they were when Bennett’s party took power in 2001, and they had dipped so much lower than even that at points in the decade that surely a large backlog of needed inspections now exists. Besides, in 2009 inspectors became more educators and public relations officers than actual on-site inspectors of the dam.

In short, when I read the evidence I was of the opinion that not only was the dam quite possibly not properly inspected, but even when it was inspected, the company didn’t follow up on the inspectors’ recommendations. News accounts carry quotes from engineers and people who worked at the dam telling appalling stories of neglect both on the part of the mining ministry and Imperial Metals. It’s a disgrace.

Let’s get back to Thomas Dugdale. The basic principle of how our government runs is “ministerial responsibility.” These words mean exactly what they say. The minister is responsible for what happens in his or her ministry.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that if an employee gets drunk and disorderly the minister is responsible. Nor does it mean that the minister is responsible for the day-to-day errors made in the normal course of events within that ministry.

In the sense that I’m talking about ministerial responsibility here, I am not talking about the minister’s personal behaviour or policy. These too can lead to the need for the minister to resign but are in a separate category from this discussion.

Ministerial responsibility is not a question of a criminal or even civil responsibility. The minister is not being personally punished. No question arises as to presumption of innocence, a full investigation, a fair trial and all those sorts of things. They have no application. It is strictly a matter of “duty,” a word evidently not much understood in the Clark government.

(This is where people get confused and no wonder since when incidents of this sort occur, politicians fall all over themselves to confuse the public with such terms as presumption of innocence, fair play and all that sort of thing. Those are red herrings.)

Resignations can strengthen government

Without the strict accountability of the minister for his ministry, the glue that holds the government together breaks apart. For if he is not responsible, who is? Does it mean simply that the ministry should sail along as if nothing had happened and no overt action need be taken? How does a public have confidence in such an absence of discipline?

Strangely, business understands this rule better than government. When a large company takes a huge hit, even if the president couldn’t see it coming or had anything personal to do with it, he or she offers their resignation and is replaced by somebody else. He or she was in charge when it happened, he or she therefore must take the responsibility.

The premier clearly doesn’t understand these things. Her first reaction was to go into hiding. When she did emerge, her natural inclination was to get into an airplane, cameras galore, fly over the lake, pronounce it to be a terrible disaster and promise to do everything she can to get it back to the way it used to be, nice and pretty.

Clark’s principal obligation, to her anyway, as we’ve apparently learned these past 10 days or so, is to satisfy those who give her party great gobs of money. As it turns out, one of the principal donors is Imperial Metals. One cannot let things like parliamentary traditions and silly notions like ministerial responsibility to get in the way of obligations to clients, now can one?

It is fair to ask: why do you suppose Imperial Metals gave Clark’s party all that money in the first place if it wasn’t to get her government to be nice to them? Are we really to believe that premier Clark’s decisions are not guided by matters of donations? Especially enormous ones? If she and her ministers are not, what’s the point?

Solemn parliamentary obligations like “ministerial responsibility” take their lead from the premier and we haven’t had a premier since Bill Bennett (the “real” Bill Bennett) who understood the principles I’ve been talking about. I can tell you from personal experience that when I served in his cabinet all of my colleagues knew that if we didn’t do our jobs properly as a minister we would be replaced. We also knew that if our ministries failed to do their statutory duty we would be replaced. We also knew the difference.

Leadership and lack thereof

If we were just talking about competence, I would’ve devoted this column to reasons why Christy Clark should resign as quickly as possible along with the rest of her government. That, however, is for another day and for an election.

The urgent issue today for the BC Liberal government is to restore its integrity in the wake of a terrible mess occurring on its watch. That requires ministerial responsibility, which requires leadership. That leadership requires that Minister Bill Bennett resign promptly. Probably Mary Polak too.

Don’t hold your breath.

One Response to “Why Bill Bennett Needs to Resign”

Leave a Reply