By Christopher Foulds
Kamloops This Week
Twice while battling a hearty sandwich at Reuben’s Diner, Terry Lake has to navigate between chewing a mouthful while finding room to laugh — once at his NDP critic’s view of his political prowess and again at rumours Lake the taskmaster minister has chased away staff members in Victoria.
Lake has taken an hour to talk about his two years as health minister, which coincide with the mid-term mark of his B.C. Liberal government.
A week earlier, NDP Leader John Horgan and NDP health critic Judy Darcy rolled through town for a rally.
There, Darcy opined to KTW that Lake was good — at parroting government policy.
Hence Lake’s chuckle while masticating a few blocks from his MLA office.
“Judy and I get along very well and I’ve got great respect for her,” Lake says.
“But, we both have to play our roles in our respective parties.”
Being an MLA, Lake says, and especially a cabinet minister, is to be part of a team.
“Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be a sheep,” Lake says.
“Where I have a strong voice and where I am very much independent and influential, I think, is around the cabinet table, where I can influence policy and decisions.”
But, Lake notes in reference to Darcy’s quip, the public does not see any of that.
Running the health ministry is Lake’s second stint in cabinet since initially being elected in 2009. He spent two years as minister of environment, between the spring of 2011 and 2013.
Health, Lake says, is much larger in terms of workload volume, issues, budget — everything.
Consider: B.C.’s health-care budget consumes 42 per cent of the province’ annual budget of $45 billion.
“We spend $2 million an hour,” Lake notes.
“There’s literally hundreds of thousands of transactions that occur on a weekly basis and when something goes wrong — and, in any large organization, things are going to go wrong — then, politically, you take the heat for all of those incidents.”
“I don’t agree with everything we do,” Lake says. But, I think we get most things right.”
Without a doubt, the Ministry of Health firings is as hot as it has been for Lake, even if he simply inherited the mess that was made well before he became minister.
In June, British Columbia’s pre-eminent political columnist, Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, took Lake to task after a less-than-revealing press conference on the health ministry firings.
“This is not a minister who has dug deep for a definitive understanding into how things went off the rails,” Palmer wrote.
“Note the choice of words. He’s not aware. It is not his understanding. One is left to conclude the minister only knows what he’s been told, after not asking too many follow-up questions.”
The controversy is still being played out and the firings occurred when Michael de Jong was health minister.
In fact, when government first publicly announced the dismissals and an investigation into alleged data breaches, the health minister speaking to reporters, Margaret MacDiarmid, had been on the job for one day.
“In hindsight, and moving forward, when you’re doing something like holding a news conference, you have to be pretty sure and confident of what you’re dealing with,” Lake says, wondering aloud whether MacDiarmid would have made different decisions about the way the matter was conveyed to the public.
“I don’t know,” Lake says, answering his own question. “But, I think we’ve all learned from this. You have to be very, very thoughtful.”
What’s the one thing the general public might not know about the health-care system?
“I think people have an idea of what the public health-care system is, which is quite different from what it really is,” Lake says, noting the system is still evolving from a 1960s-era model, with built-in inertia making for slow change.
“Every time you make a change, someone is affected,” he says. “It could be the nurses. It could be the doctors. It could be the laundry workers.
“There is great resistance to change because, while there may be a benefit to patients, there are people that feel their ox is being gored — and they resist.”
But, Lake is adamant his ministry has made significant changes in the past two years, specifically focusing on primary community care.
That is something with which critics like the NDP’s Darcy take issue.
“He’s good at making policy statements,” Darcy told KTW, noting Lake and other ministers appear to be on a tight leash that leads to Premier Christy Clark’s office.
Darcy said when discussing issues of the day, Lake tends to stick to talking points and rehashes the “rhetoric” of the government position on the subject at hand.
She pointed to surgical waiting times and the number of British Columbians without a doctor as an indictment of the B.C. Liberal health ministry under Lake and ministers MacDiarmid and de Jong before him.
Darcy cited the B.C. Liberals’ vaunted election campaign promise of 2013, “a GP for me,” which promised every British Columbian access to a family doctor by 2015.
That promise failed.
“He didn’t make the promise,” Darcy noted.
“But, he repeated it.”
While Lake is just two years into his role as health minister, Gayle Duteil has been president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union for only 11 months.
In that time, the issue of security following attacks on nurses at psychiatric facilities like Hillside Centre in Kamloops has been at the forefront.
Recently, Lake was alongside Duteil in Vancouver as they unveiled a $2-million prevention program.
Duteil said she is “proud” the nurses’ union and the ministry are working jointly to address the issue.
And, while Duteil thanked Lake and the ministry for the commitment to address the epidemic of violence, she added there are 700 potential sites for this type of work.
The initiative is an example of what Lake calls a “convergence with the doctors, the nurses, the ministry and health authorities we haven’t seen before.”
The life of a cabinet minister is well-compensated. It is also one with very little downtime.
Lake notes he usually arrives in Victoria by 6:30 p.m. on Sunday and returns to Kamloops by about midnight on Thursday.
On the Island or in the Tournament Capital, there are functions to attend and a lot of work material to read.
When he can, Lake spends time with wife, Lisa, and friends and plays in the Kamloops Recreational Soccer League, where he has kicked around the ball with the same group for the past 16 years.
“Everyone knows I’m just one of the guys,” Lake says. “No one gives me a hard time about politics. They tackle me as hard as they tackle anybody else.”
About those rumours of Lake being a taskmaster as minister, a source in Victoria told KTW Lake is known as a “screamer” and that staff has been shed.
While Lake counters the latter — he says staff turnover in his office has been “very low” — he does concede he is demanding.
“Anyone who works with me would not be surprised to know that I am a taskmaster, that I demand a lot of myself and from those whom I work with,” he says.
As for the final two years of the B.C. Liberals’ mandate, Lake looks around and likes the new blood, likes the energy.