Westray Confronts Some Artful Dodgers

John Buchanan was more adept than Donald Cameron
at getting the message across

Westray Confronts Some Artful Dodgers

A Remarkable Grasp of Trivial Detail

By Jim Meek

This article appeared in
The Chronicle-Herald and The Mail-Star
Halifax, Friday, 31 May 1996

John Buchanan has made avuncular blandness into an art form, and by and large he got away with it Thursday [30 May 1996] at the Westray inquiry.

Here's one gem the senator offered up in his first 90 minutes of testimony: "This is a British Parliamentary system."

That thunderbolt was cast by way of explaining how Curragh Inc. dealt first, last and only with the department of industry where Donald Cameron presided as minister between 1988 and 1990.

John forgot an unfortunate detail here. Westray-Curragh did have a shelf life in this province before Cameron was named to cabinet.

But Buchanan's message was clear: Any Westray proposals put before cabinet were the responsibility not of Buchanan, but of premier-to-be Cameron.

Here's another sentence which won't make the highlight clip from Buchanan's testimony.

"Before 1990, I was the premier of Nova Scotia." This was the senator's quaint way of saying he didn't know much about what happened at Westray after he went to that seventh heaven called the Canadian Senate.

Buchanan's rambling testimony had one thing in common with Cameron's two days in the witness box.

Both men, in common with the score of government witnesses who went before them, refused to take any blame for the tragedy that killed 26 men on May 9, 1992.

Old Buchanan himself was more adept than Cameron at getting this message across. Instead of enraging everyone, like Donald, John put 'em all to sleep. (Indeed, he was so boring that CBC Newsworld axed its live coverage at noon.)

He showed a remarkable grasp of trivial detail, remembering to the month and city and restaurant the first time he met Curragh boss Cliff Frame back in 1987.

But don't ask him any details about negotiations over Curragh's $12-million loan from the province.

Buchanan could recall landing in a helicopter outside the Heather Motel in Stellarton at one point, and he seemed to know the sulphur content of every seam of coal mined in the history of Nova Scotia.

But don't ask him to fuss or bother about any studies done by Nova Scotia Power – then a Crown agency and a political tool of one John Buchanan – about the costs of alternative sources of generating fuel.

In short, Buchanan was – to paraphrase a colleague – totally co-operative with, and totally unhelpful to, the inquiry.

His testimony differed from Cameron's in tone, and in its insistence that Donnie himself was largely responsible for the Westray file.

Meanwhile, Cameron's attack on the inquiry's alleged bias against him had a familiar ring.

Former Auditor-General Ken Dye was also said to be biased, in the late '80s, when he dared to question the Buchanan government's decision to spend a $200-million federal offshore fund on traffic lights, sewers and the like.

Cameron didn't like the legislature when he was premier because it cost too much money to operate.

He didn't like Speeches from the Throne so he didn't have one.

He didn't like The Fifth Estate piece on Westray back in 1990, so much so that he almost quit the Tory leadership race after it was broadcast.

His comments before the Westray inquiry, blaming miners for the tragedy and federal bureaucrats for its prelude, were more outrageous in tone than they were in content.

A man easier on his supposed critics – and easier on himself, for heaven's sake – would have at least started out by expressing regret that the Westray explosion took place on his watch.

Finally, his view that ministers and premiers are not responsible for the actions of the public service dismisses any notion of accountable government. Apparently, this is yet another vestige of democracy Cameron can't abide.

Anyway, if Cameron made himself an easy target, Buchanan is no less worthy as one.

Ditto for Elmer MacKay.

He's the former federal cabinet minister who somehow managed to escape the inquiry without adequately explaining how a more or less indifferent prime minister by the name of Mulroney allowed his cabinet to approve an $80-million loan guarantee for Curragh.

In short, it's been a week of dodging at the Westray inquiry – some of it artful, some of it a Donnybrook.

Senator John Buchanan's testimony, the complete transcript

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