It didn’t take long for B.C.’s NDP government to display the level of arrogance and contemptuousness it once accused the Liberals of when they ran things in the province.
All the NDP needed was a majority (which it obtained a year ago) to feel impervious to criticism, ignore political convention and gleefully trample over the democratic process.
We speak, of course, of the government’s proposed amendments to the province’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, changes that have been denounced in multiple quarters for the deleterious effect they will have on anyone seeking information that belongs in the public realm.
Information that can often be damaging to a sitting government, that is.
Alterations to the act include charging for FOI requests. (Citizen Services Minister Lisa Beare has said she is recommending something in the neighbourhood of $25 per query. Currently, searches are free.) Also, certain electronic records won’t be searchable or even have to be kept. The amendments also limit FOI commissioner Michael McEvoy’s power to make the government release records that are now subject to scrutiny.
The bill would allow public bodies to ignore FOI requests they consider “excessively broad” in scope. There has also been concern expressed by Mr. McEvoy that the Premier’s office might henceforth be exempt from FOI searches under the legislation.
Yes, it’s all as bad as it sounds.
To no one’s surprise, the bill has been roundly condemned. Mr. McEvoy wrote a seven-page letter to Ms. Beare documenting his concerns. The journalist Stanley Tromp, who literally wrote the book on access to information legislation across the country, said Bill 22 was “by far the most bold and grotesque assault on the public’s right to know and its privacy rights ever seen in this province … .”
Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, also savaged it, saying that, “in one fell swoop, we have gone from the 21st century back to the Stone Age.”
It’s easier to find a palm tree in the Artic than it is anyone outside NDP MLAs who think this legislation is anything but a naked attempt by the government to limit scrutiny of its decisions. One that will make it harder for the opposition, the media, Jane Doe Public Citizen and anyone else to find things to which we should have access.
Just this week, the Liberals released a tranche of e-mails obtained under FOI that revealed that senior executives at the province’s 911 dispatch centre tried to ring the alarm over paramedic shortages ahead of a deadly heat dome that would claim the lives of nearly 600 people in B.C.
When asked in the legislature why the warnings had gone unheeded, Health Minister Adrian Dix had no explanation. I’m sure he and his colleagues were thinking this new FOI legislation can’t be enacted fast enough.
Despite all the outrage that this legislation has incited, the government has been unmoved. It has refused to put the amendments on hold pending a review by a legislative committee that was supposed to assess the FOI act and propose changes. Premier John Horgan has mostly left Ms. Beare to try and explain the bill and defend it, a thankless and impossible task if there ever was one. Not surprisingly, she has failed miserably.
It is beyond ironic that it was the NDP who brought in B.C.’s first FOI law back in 1993. At the time, it was considered courageous, groundbreaking stuff. Now, Mr. Horgan’s government is going to neuter much of the effectiveness of that original legislation for politically self-serving reasons.
The government has disappointed in other ways, too.
When the clerk of the legislature and the sergeant-at-arms lost their jobs amid a spending scandal unearthed by the Speaker’s office, the government committed to defining the legislature as a public body that was subject to the province’s FOI law. It broke that promise too.
Someone must have figured the move might backfire on the government somehow.
Worst of all is the contempt the NDP has shown for the democratic process. The government benches effectively went mute when it came time to defend the bill during second reading. The NDP MLAs in the chamber might as well have put their feet up on their desks and closed their eyes for all the interest they showed in trying to defend their work.
It was the kind of contemptible conduct that used to drive the NDP crazy when they were in opposition. Not any more. They’ve clearly decided the Liberals were on to something.
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