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Transparent transgression

Rob Shaw: The only thing transparent is Premier John Horgan’s disdain for the idea of consultation on government transparency.
Press Conference – Premiere John Horgan
Premier John Horgan addresses the media, October 7, 2021. (BC Government Flickr)

BC MLAs met recently for a “planning session” to brainstorm how they’ll go about reviewing the province’s Freedom of Information Act.

But no amount of planning will save that doomed committee. The entire exercise is a waste of the legislature’s time and resources. Whatever those MLAs come up with, it’s a sure bet the government intends to toss it in the recycling bin, sight unseen.

Premier John Horgan’s disdain for the idea of consultation on government transparency was made clear in October, when his government abruptly announced the biggest legislative overhaul to FOI rules in more than a decade.

In doing so, he kneecapped the legislature’s all-party special committee reviewing the FOI act, which his government had struck just a few months earlier but hadn’t even started work yet.

The cross-partisan committee was supposed to consult with experts, before recommending FOI changes. Instead the government changed the law first to accomplish its own partisan goals, and then told the experts and committee to stuff it.

No amount of planning will save that doomed committee.

Among the government’s unilateral changes: A new fee on FOI applications that groups like First Nations leaders and journalists called a barrier to access, and changes to allow data storage overseas that the independent privacy commissioner called incomplete and worrying.

A broad coalition of groups opposed the changes, but the Horgan government used its majority to cut off debate and ram the bill into law in November. Within hours, it had set the FOI application fee at $10, backpedalling on promises of further consultation. The new legislation allowed other public bodies, like the City of Surrey, to implement their own $10 fee, in a goal to reduce public records requests. Even more municipalities, health authorities and post-secondary institutions will follow suit.

It’s under that backdrop that the FOI committee last week began charting its “planning sessions.”

It will undoubtedly be an easy task for the four-person BC NDP majority on the committee – including chairman Rick Glumac, who is making off with the princely sum of $16,787 (on top of his $112,000 MLA salary) to chair a committee about nothing that will do nothing other than shuffle papers around in a circle and make no impact whatsoever on government policy.

The BC NDP will attempt to craft an impressive smoke show. It will invite academics, journalists, First Nations leaders, business groups, unions and social agencies that rely on timely access to government records under the FOI act to come and give their time and expertise to the committee, suggesting improvements to the law that will make government more open and transparent.

Problem is, the New Democrats actually couldn’t care less what they have to say. Those experts might as well turn their microphone off before speaking and deposit their written submissions directly into the shredder, for all the good they will do.

If the government was truly interested in ideas for reform, it would have waited a few months for the committee to gather up its ideas and then changed the FOI law in a way that had the broad support of those who testified.

Problem is, the New Democrats actually couldn’t care less what they have to say.

Instead, it arrogantly charged forward to change the law to shield the premier’s office from pesky records requests from the Opposition, deter the public from filing FOIs with new fees and hide public records behind yet another wall of red tape and bureaucracy.

Green MLA Adam Olsen, who alongside two BC Liberal MLAs make up the minority presence on the committee, admits he finds the entire exercise frustrating.

“The reality of it is committees cost money,” said Olsen. “We’re asking people to take time out of their day to present and we just finished the government putting the largest revision of the act in 10 years.

“So what confidence do people have that this committee has good value for money, that the government isn’t going to open the act back up and make amendments and we’re just expending considerable legislative resources after the fact?

“This is really bad governance and there is no way around it. You can’t escape how backwards the process is.”

But changing a law first and then consulting angry stakeholders later is only backwards if your goal is to make a good law. If the goal is to take crass partisan advantage of a situation solely for the benefit of the political party in power by making it harder for the public and Opposition MLAs to get access to public records that might hold the government to account – it’s actually not backwards at all.

“It makes a mockery of the process,” said Olsen.

That much is true.

The fools in this case are the public. And anyone who thinks this FOI committee is going to do anything useful at all.

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.

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