New Brunswick

Dr. Eilish Cleary's firing 'not politically motivated,' Liberals say

The firing of New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health became a partisan flashpoint in the New Brunswick Legislature on Tuesday.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau grilled about chief medical officer of health during question period

Dr. Eilish Cleary, who has been chief medical officer of health since 2008, says she was fired on Monday 'without cause.' (Submitted by Eilish Cleary)

The firing of New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health became a partisan flashpoint in the New Brunswick Legislature on Tuesday.

Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch used question period to demand that Health Minister Victor Boudreau explain his department's decision to terminate Dr. Eilish Cleary.

"Can the minister fill in the blanks and explain what this means?" Fitch demanded.

It is not something we can discuss, but we can say very clearly this is not politically motivated and it does not affect the ongoing work of the office.- Victor Boudreau, health minister

"Is Dr. Cleary another victim of this government's heavy-handed administration?"

Fitch compared Cleary's firing to the government's handling of other independent watchdogs.

The Liberals publicly disagreed with Auditor General Kim MacPherson's conclusions about the provincial deficit.

And they have yet to fill the position of conflict-of-interest commissioner, which has been vacant since July.

Boudreau repeated what he said last week: he's not allowed to discuss personnel issues publicly.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau says he may be able to release information about Dr. Eilish Cleary's case if she consents. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
"It is not something we can discuss, but we can say very clearly this is not politically motivated and it does not affect the ongoing work of the office," he said.

Boudreau later told reporters outside the chamber he may be able to discuss the matter if Cleary agrees.

"If the person subject to all this wants to provide consent to government to release more information, then it's certainly something we're prepared to consider, within the confines of the legislation," he said.

"But I have to respect the acts, the laws, that are in place in the province of New Brunswick."

Cleary could not immediately be reached for comment.

She  said in an email statement to CBC News on Monday that the department had fired her "without cause."

"The Government of New Brunswick has let me know that they have come to the conclusion that my particular skill set does not meet the needs of my employer," the statement said.

Cleary said she was "saddened by this decision and concerned by how it has unfolded" and that she was never told of what the personnel issues were.

Ministers don't hire, fire

Boudreau said in question period if he did reveal anything about Cleary's firing, Fitch would be the first to accuse him of violating Cleary's privacy rights and to demand he resign.

He also said that under the Civil Service Act, deputy ministers — the top bureaucrats in their respective departments — are responsible for human resources issues. 

"Ministers don't hire and fire people," Boudreau said.

Despite the high-profile and heated reaction to Cleary's firing, Fitch and his PC MLAs dropped the subject after only a few questions, shifting their focus to what they said were unanswered questions about the 2009-10 Atcon scandal under a previous Liberal government.

The link, Fitch said at one point, was that Boudreau was a key player in approving $50 million in loan guarantees for the Atcon group, and signed away the province's financial security on the money shortly before the company went bankrupt.

Medical society weighs in

Meanwhile Tuesday, the New Brunswick Medical Society released an open letter to Boudreau, expressing its concern about Cleary's firing.

But the letter also seemed to take at face value that it was a personnel case.

"We have communicated with you previously and understood the suspension over the last month was related to a personnel matter, not a political or scientific matter," society president Dr. John Whelan wrote.

In that case, Whelan wrote he hoped Cleary got the "rigorous and fair human resources process" she was entitled to.

He added that if the society got any indication Cleary was fired because of a medical or scientific opinion, it would "strongly protest such a decision."

In 2013, after Cleary's work on shale gas put her at odds with the then-PC government, the medical society called for her independence to be guaranteed.

The Liberals promised in their 2014 election platform to do that, but so far they haven't introduced any legislation to that effect.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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