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BC's Info and Privacy Watchdog Departs for Britain

Elizabeth Denham to leave key office after watershed year of investigations.

By Bob Mackin 23 Mar 2016 |

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since he began as a journalist in 1990.

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Elizabeth Denham has been BC's info and privacy watchdog since 2010.

British Columbia's loss is Great Britain's gain.

Following a watershed year of investigations in B.C., Elizabeth Denham, the province's information and privacy commissioner since 2010, is heading to the United Kingdom this summer.

Her appointment as information commissioner is pending approval by a parliamentary committee and confirmation by Queen Elizabeth 2.

Denham was nearing the end of her six-year term in B.C., and the committee to consider her reappointment held its first meeting last week. Now it will become a search committee.

Her new U.K. job pays 140,000 pounds a year, close to the $268,000-a-year role in B.C. She succeeds the U.K.'s Christopher Graham, whose five-year term is expiring.

Denham was appointed in May 2010 after the sudden January 2010 resignation of David Loukidelis, who became deputy attorney general. The office was in legal limbo for a week until Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser was appointed acting commissioner.

Denham, who is also B.C.'s registrar of lobbyists, was assistant privacy commissioner of Canada from 2007 to 2010. She applied to return to Ottawa as the commissioner in 2014 and was among six candidates for the job. Instead, then prime minister Stephen Harper nominated Daniel Therrien, assistant deputy attorney general for public safety.

Denham is not giving interviews about her appointment because of the confirmation process, according to a spokesperson in her office. She is facing a pre-scrutiny hearing in April.

In a letter to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, whose portfolio includes the government's FOI functions, Denham said it has been a privilege to serve B.C.

"I hope that my contribution to strengthening privacy and access rights has been of value to the citizens of our province. I leave believing that the independence and impartiality of this office has served the public well," she wrote.

"I also leave knowing that government's awareness of the importance of privacy and security of personal information, the need for good record keeping of government decisions and the public's right to know have been enhanced during my tenure."

'Bad time to lose the commissioner': NDP

The NDP's Doug Routley is deputy chair of the committee to find Denham's replacement and deputy chair of the committee considering changes to the information and privacy laws.

He said that he is happy for Denham to advance her career, "but for British Columbians it's a bad time to lose the commissioner -- so much has come to light recently."

"Her work exposed the fact that this government deliberately destroys documents and systemically does not produce them in the first place in a clear effort to avoid accountability to the people who elect us as MLAs," Routley said. "That's disturbing. So now I hope whoever is appointed is someone who can pick up quickly that baton and carry it further."

2015 was a watershed year for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner under Denham. In October, she released the results of an investigation into some of the highest offices in central government and found staff were mass-deleting records to avoid disclosure under FOI requests.

On March 11, George Gretes, a former aide to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, was charged with misleading Denham while under oath about his deleting of records. Gretes is scheduled to appear in court in Victoria on April 20.

The U.K. announcement comes less than a week after Denham appeared before the committee considering amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Denham had recommended a duty to document law, increased fines and broad powers to investigate document destruction across the B.C. public sector.

At that meeting, Denham criticized the government for dragging its feet on her July 2013 efficiency and transparency recommendations for proactive disclosure of contracts, calendars, travel and hospitality expense reports, and audit reports.

"If 21 per cent are calendar requests, get the calendar requests out there, minus personal information," she said. "Final audit reports, expenses -- all of these categories of records are frequently requested by applicants. Again, I think moving forward on proactive disclosure is a great idea. But studying it further? I worry about further and further and further study. We've seen years of study on the subsidiary corporation issue.

"I would like to see a commitment to disclose contracts, to disclose expenses, to disclose calendars in the government's report, but I haven't seen it."  [Tyee]

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