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Shutting Out the Public

How the BC Liberals closed off the view to public deliberations.

Russ Francis 29 Apr
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Last in a three part series on “open government” in BC.

If the late Liberal MLA Fred Gingell is remembered for one thing by advocates of open government, it is a policy he insisted on during his illustrious years as chairman of the legislature’s public accounts committee.

The committee is among the more important of all of the legislature’s select standing committees. Its task is the detailed examination of public spending, taking its cues from reports by the auditor general.

Despite persistent pressure from the legislature clerks—the officers of the house who provide legal and procedural advice to the legislative assembly—Gingell steadfastly refused to end public access to the committee’s meetings. The clerks urged that whenever a legislature committee dealt with its report to the house, the meeting should go in camera. The urgings were largely successful, for most committees did ban the public when discussing their reports.

But to his great credit, Gingell wouldn’t budge and the meetings he chaired remained open. Sadly, with Gingell gone, secrecy has returned to meetings of the public accounts committee.

Why is the admission of the public so important to the meetings? In a word, accountability. Far too often, the exchanges between MLAs during the public sessions are vapid. It doesn’t require a deeply suspicious mind to imagine that once the doors are bolted shut, our elected representatives take the gloves off and say what they really think. (While there is a version of Hansard recorded during the secret sessions, it is for the eyes only of committee members only, and is never publicly released.)

Curtain of secrecy

Here’s how Liberal MLA Barry Penner, a member of the finance and government services committee, explained the committee’s move into secret session on December 5, 2001: “If we’re trying to be making recommendations as a committee to the legislature, is it not appropriate that the other MLAs be the first to hear about that before the information goes elsewhere?”

Added Penner: “All committees go in camera when they’re drafting their reports, so I think that’s nothing unusual.”

Penner was wrong. Besides the Gingell-headed public accounts committee, a special committee established to review the freedom of information law, which met from 1997 to 1999, considered its final report to the legislature in public sessions. Yet as far as I am aware, no constitutional crisis arose in consequence.

Without exception, all of the legislature’s select standing committees now meet in secret session while debating their final reports. Perhaps the greatest irony related to closed-door meetings concerns a second special legislature committee that reviewed the freedom of information law. During the period from March 1 to May 20, 2004, the committee met nine times. On eight of those occasions, the meetings were closed for at least part of the time. In many cases, the secret sessions occupied the bulk of the meetings.

And the reason for the secrecy? So MLAs could discuss freedom of information!

Open Cabinet Meetings? Not Quite

Another measure that might appear at first glance to be opening up the government, in fact does no such thing. When the Liberals promised to hold regular “open cabinet meetings,” televised live around the province, eyebrows were raised. How on earth can the executive branch of any government properly conduct its business when its meetings are broadcast and recorded verbatim for posterity?

To many, it seemed like a silly campaign gimmick, one which would soon be forgotten after the election. However, the Liberals were cleverer than they might have appeared. While retaining the name “open cabinet meetings,” the government turned the events into what amounted to televised press conferences, with all ministers ordered to attend, spouting their scripts.

Whenever, sporadically, they occurred, that is. As Tyee columnist Will McMartin reported in December, 2004, the Liberals promised one open cabinet meeting a month, but over the first 41 months, the Campbell government found time for just 30 of them. And one of the Liberals’ biggest promises for open cabinet meetings fell by the wayside on major budget issues like RAV. That 2001 promise: "Ensure that major capital spending decisions and land-use decisions … are decided by Cabinet in public, and not behind closed doors." Still, from the Liberals’ viewpoint, the meetings hold one big advantage over press conferences: While reporters are permitted to attend, they are not allowed to ask questions. And that’s how, under the guise of “open government,” the Liberals created a brilliant, taxpayer-funded, regular public relations exercise.

If that seems to be nothing more than wild speculation, there’s evidence to the contrary. On July 17, 2001, the night before one open cabinet meeting, the cabinet met for 90 minutes at La Bodega restaurant, on Vancouver’s Howe Street. Of course, since that meeting wasn’t open, we’ll never know what was said or done there. To be fair, “pre-cabinet” meetings are held before ordinary “closed” cabinet meetings as well. However, according to the premier’s official agenda that summer, obtained under a Tyee information-access request, second closed, supplementary meetings were scheduled for after every open meeting—but not after ordinary closed ones.

Typical premier’s agenda

For instance, here’s how the premier’s agenda for August 15, 2001 read:

9 a.m. –11.45.a.m. [Open] Cabinet Meeting

11.45 a.m.—1 p.m. Cabinet Meeting Resumes (Chambers)

It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine the premier opening the 11.45 a.m. meeting with the following: “Good morning ministers. Now that the show’s over, let’s get on with the real meeting.”

To put it another way, the good news is that the public is entitled to attend an occasional cabinet meeting, or watch it on TV.

The bad news is that nothing happens at those highly scripted meetings.

Wednesday: 'Open, Transparent and Accountable'

Yesterday: Foiling Freedom of Information

Russ Francis is a veteran legislative reporter based in Victoria. He writes for Monday magazine and a variety of other publications. This article is adapted from his chapter in Liberalized: The Tyee Report on British Columbia under Gordon Campbell's Liberals.  [Tyee]

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