Did Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare lie?
Not according to Speaker Raj Chouhan, who ruled this week she did not deliberately mislead the house with her evasive and hair-splitting account of how she set new Freedom of Information fees in secret while pretending to tell MLAs she was still consulting and considering the rate.
But in the real world, outside the pedantic rules of the capital building, it’s much easier to put all the evidence on the table and draw your own conclusions.
None of them are good for Beare.
The question is when Beare actually decided upon a new $10 application fee for FOI requests, which was part of a bill she introduced late last year.
We can put aside the fee itself – it’s opposed by academics, First Nations leaders, journalists, unions, community groups and others as a major step backwards in government transparency, but that’s not even the issue anymore.
But in the real world, it’s much easier to put all the evidence on the table and draw your own conclusions. None of them are good for Beare.
The issue is timing and misrepresentation, which MLAs Adam Olsen and Mike de Jong cited last week in a point of privilege in the house accusing Beare of misleading the legislature.
To fully understand that timeline, start on Nov. 1, when Beare was at committee-stage debate of her FOI bill in the house and said: “There’s no fee set yet.”
She said a lot of other things too: how there will be consultation to set the fee; how her office is listening; and how she’ll take it all into account before setting the fee, in the future.
Beare added: “It will be set in regulation at a later date, and that will require policy work associated with it, as well, that’s not laid out in this legislation.”
No fee set. A regulation at a later date. And policy work to come.
All not quite true.
Beare had signed off on the $10 fee five days earlier, on Oct. 27 in a “decision note” which her ministerial assistant in an email described as “to update fee recommendation.”
“Approved,” Beare replied by email.
With the fee set, the “policy work” began. The decision went to the Citizens’ Services ministry, which on Oct. 29 began preparing the work to notify the treasury board.
“I will contact legislative counsel and cabinet operations to request another regulation change is required,” wrote assistant deputy minister Kerry Pridmore. Several more people approved the new policy paperwork, including the minister herself who signed it again later that afternoon.
So. A fee set. The policy work done. Draft regulations written and completed.
Which makes it all the more egregious when Beare stood up, just days later, and declared to MLAs in the chamber that “no fee is set yet.”
In the real world, saying you haven’t done something when you already have is the very definition of lying.
But the legislature is its own little world, with procedural rules dating back to the time of lords with white-powdered wigs in the United Kingdom.
A fee set. The policy work done. Draft regulations written and completed. Which makes it all the more egregious when Beare stood up, just days later, and declared to MLAs in the chamber that “no fee is set yet.”
Beare mounted a defence, which boils down to this: Sure, she had all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, and sure the fee might have been chosen, printed and ready to go after multiple approvals through treasury board and elsewhere, and sure she might have hidden the actual amount by pretending she hadn’t made up her mind yet – but she didn’t sign the actual final regulation document until a few hours after the bill passed the house.
“No final decision could have been or was made regarding the application fee amount until after royal assent,” Beare told the house.
It’s a bit like saying the condo you just bought for $500,000 didn’t really cost anything until the realtor put the keys in your hand – never mind the offer you made, the paperwork you signed and all the decisions and approvals that got you up to that final point.
In the legislature though, Beare’s legal technicality allowed her to skate.
Speaker Raj Chouhan said he “must accept her submission that a final decision on the application fee had not been made until after Bill 22 duly passed all stages of consideration in this house and that she views the commitment she made in the course of debate as being fulfilled.”
In other words: The legislature took the minister at her word.
But back in reality, Beare’s credibility is ruined.
It will be hard to believe a single word that comes out of her mouth in the future, without thinking she’s obfuscating, misdirecting, lying by omission, or flat-out not telling the truth.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.