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Victoria Is Secret, More than Ever

How BC Liberals are blocking info. First in a series.

Stanley Tromp 8 May

Freelance journalist Stanley Tromp is coordinator of the FOI caucus of the Canadian Association of Journalists and a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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Harder to pry open public files.

"We will bring in the most open and accountable government in Canada. I know some people say we'll soon forget about that, but I promise that we won't!" -- Newly elected B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, victory night speech, 2001.

How much more battering can the Freedom of Information system take? As a freelance news reporter, after making hundreds of FOI requests over the past 12 years, I can see government secrecy is sharply on the rise. Information is a source of power, prestige and profit -- and whoever wished to give those away?

Not the BC Liberal government. Latest evidence: The government introduced Bill 25 in late April claiming that it will "strengthen" the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) Act. But as the diverse groups that make up the Campaign for Open Government have noted, Bill 25 actually impedes them by increasing the ability of officials to stall requesters when a request is transferred from one public body to another.

In 2004 a special legislative committee, with 13 BC Liberals and one New Democrat, held hearings on the FOIPP Act and issued an exemplary report. Yet the BC Liberals have been very selective in choosing which of the report's recommendations to implement: of its 28 points, not one of the 10 picked for action improves the actual FOI request process.

Many nails shut the lid

Ideally, the government to would implement all of the committee's recommendations -- such as to allow persons to ask for their own personal records without an FOI request, and to amend section 13 to require the government to proactively publish 14 types of information.

Instead, since their election in 2001, the Liberals have:

Civil servant blows whistle

But not only politicians are trying to curtail the act's powers. In its own submission to the 2004 review, the provincial bureaucracy had claimed that it was only trying to "fine-tune" the act's language, so that its "original intent" would be better expressed. In response, the information commissioner's aide Mary Carlson, in a too little-known letter of April 2004, noted her "very grave concerns" in the bitterest retort that I've ever seen from that office:

"It is objectionable for appointed public servants who are subject to FOIPPA to, a decade after FOIPPA's enactment, purport to be identifying and expressing the 'original intent' of FOIPPA, an Act of the Legislature. Talk of fine-tuning the law or returning to its original intent disguises the real effect of the [bureaucracy's] recommendations discussed below -- to reduce the public's right of access and impair openness and accountability."

The bureaucracy had also complained that the commissioner's rulings to open up public-private business contracts had "undermined fair and open procurement processes that will result in the best deal for the province," to which Carlson replied, "This serious allegation is a calculated appeal to politics, and we note that no particulars or evidence have been provided to support this sweeping claim."

After NDP Premier Mike Harcourt's FOIPP act came into force in 1993, it worked fairly well for the first two years. Then, perhaps inevitably, the honeymoon soured when FOI requests began revealing scandals. Harcourt's genuine support for the FOI concept was sharply reversed when Clark took over in 1996. In fact, Clark, made a joke (or was it?) at an event with media present, that "If I had my way in cabinet, we wouldn't have an FOI Act."

On that point the first Commissioner David Flaherty -- a privacy expert whose rulings were mostly harmful to FOI -- upon retiring in 1999, disturbingly wrote that he had considered the possibility of the Clark government "abolishing" the FOI act as being "by no means an idle threat."

The supreme irony is that while in Opposition, the Liberals were the single biggest user of the FOI act, and in 1998 Gordon Campbell wrote, "When government does its business behind closed doors, people will invariably believe that government has something to hide." This is just as true today as it was when the NDP was in power.

FOI users who have faced difficulties are welcome to submit their stories to the Campaign for Open Government, or to relate them in the comments section after this article.

Tomorrow: What big B.C. stories have we missed due to government secrecy?

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