Vancouver Sun

B.C. needs strong access to informatio­n regulation­s


Freedom of informatio­n has in the past been chiefly the concern of journalist­s and advocacy groups frustrated in their efforts to ferret out documents from government archives. But the email scandal now engulfing the Liberal government has gained so much public opprobrium that it has earned its own Twitter hashtag: #deletegate.

While the tweets direct all their vitriol at Christy Clark’s government — or Clark herself — some of the invective should be reserved for previous government­s, dating back to at least 1993 when the NDP introduced the Freedom of Informatio­n Act and then immediatel­y set about trying to evade it.

The latest assault on the B.C. government’s culture of secrecy comes courtesy of Informatio­n Commission­er Elizabeth Denham, who has repeatedly called out politician­s and bureaucrat­s for failing to respect their obligation­s under the Freedom of Informatio­n and Privacy Act.

In her latest report, Denham decried “an entrenched oral culture of decision making in government,’” designed to thwart public requests for informatio­n.

As The Sun has reported, the Clark government stands accused of avoiding creating written records that might later prove embarrassi­ng through mass deletion of emails, and using private email accounts and secret code names — as did the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell before hers, and the Ujjal Dosanjh NDP government before his.

Each leader promised to overturn the clandestin­e practices of his or her predecesso­r and run an open and transparen­t government.

The failure of any government to honour its obligation­s under FOI legislatio­n suggests that the language of the related laws and regulation­s needs to be more explicit and penalties for failure to comply more severe. On that score, the Liberals have moved in the opposite direction, repealing penalties and sanctions in a new management informatio­n regime that had been part of earlier legislatio­n.

It beggars belief that politician­s and bureaucrat­s have been permitted to triple-delete their email messages, removing them from servers so they were lost forever. No corporate enterprise would give its employees that authority. Such material must be retained in the event of an inquiry, litigation and yes, an FOI request.

The federal Access to Informatio­n Act could serve as a reasonable starting point for a strengthen­ed FOI Act, for B.C. Section 67.1 states:

No person shall, with intent to deny a right of access under this Act, (a) destroy, mutilate or alter a record; (b) falsify a record or make a false record; (c) conceal a record; or (d) direct, propose, counsel or cause any person in any manner to do anything mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (c).

We must add to this list a duty to document — that is, a requiremen­t that public officials create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions — a measure enshrined in law in New Zealand and two Australian states. The NDP opposition has noted that it tabled in the legislatur­e last spring a new access to informatio­n law that includes a duty to document.

Clearly, an all-party review of existing and proposed legislatio­n with the active participat­ion of informatio­n commission­ers past and present will be key to improving this vital aspect of government accountabi­lity.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada