Leveling the playing field

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Speaking truth to power doesn’t guarantee that the ears of the privileged among us will open. But they will almost always burn – and in a delightful reddish hue, no less.

Charles Murray’s job is, thank goodness, to afflict the comfortable. In fact, as New Brunswick’s Ombudsman, he gets paid to swing away at provincial Crown corporations like WorkSafeNB, which is precisely what he did last week in a closed-door meeting with a blue-chip panel of experts which is reviewing the legislation that covers the Worker’s Compensation Act.

Specifically, according to Mr. Murray’s official website, “The Ombudsman is an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly who investigates complaints from the public about New Brunswick government services. Ombudsman offices are present throughout the Canadian provinces and their services are free”.

Indeed, “The New Brunswick Ombudsma’s Office has one central mission: to ensure that all New Brunswick citizens are treated with administrative fairness by government and its agencies. The Office strives to guarantee that individuals are served in a consistent, fair and reasonable manner by provincial governmental organizations.”

As for WorkSafe, Mr. Murray is blunt. “In a rather fundamental way,” he said in his presentation, which is posted to his website, “it is our strong impression that WorkSafe’s present calibration, if I may use that word, is proving less equitable to injured workers than it should.”

He elaborates: “For the worker, the injury represents a deep, life-changing, and fundamental challenge to their ability to live the sort of life any of us would wish, both for them and their families. It touches them very deeply. The injury is a blow to financial and emotional security for them and their loved ones. It also may, at the very time of this challenge, diminish their mobility, their ability to perform their daily tasks and hence their available time. The injury itself, the medication needed to treat it, and the stress and trauma of the accident and the uncertain future may also compromise their mental health.”

On the other hand, the company that employs the injured worker “faces no such existential crisis. Its challenge in finding a replacement worker or in reallocating duties may be more accurately described in terms of degrees of inconvenience.”

How has equity and fairness drifted over the years? Mr. Murray invites his audience to “look at the imbalance another way. Any government agency which interacts regularly with powerful, articulate and monied interests in the private sector risks over time being persuaded to shift its perspective towards that interest.”

In fact, he warns, “If regular self-examination is not conducted, agencies may find themselves what is termed ‘captured.’ They become so used to seeing the world in a certain manner that they lose the ability to see the invisible ways in which they are favouring one side of the balance they are tasked with ensuring.”

Naturally, WorkSafe’s president, Gerard Adams, is buying none of what Mr. Murray is selling. In a statement, reported by the Telegraph-Journal, he expressed his surprise and disappointment with the Ombudsman’s statements.

Still, is it dramatically difficult to believe that institutional inertia does, over time, favour the status quo, which, in turn, favours the powerful and the privileged?

This is not necessarily a deliberate attempt by individuals to favour one party over another. In a sense, the problem would be easier to fix if it were engineered that way.

This is the way of the organizational world; the banality of evil is, sadly and all too often, bureaucracy.

That’s why guys like Charles Murray still have jobs afflicting the comfortable.

Thank goodness.

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