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Public Access Denied

Liberals pledged 'transparency' but secrecy shrouds a lot of the province's business deals.

By Paul Ramsey 2 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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In 2001 Gordon Campbell promised to run "the most open . . . government in Canada."  The election pledge has proven easier to make than to keep.

Over the last three years Mr. Campbell has made some high profile innovations that, in theory, were designed to make government more "open."  Chief among these were the "open cabinet meetings." 

Unfortunately, as anyone who has watched these sessions or read a transcript knows, the "open cabinet meetings" are more like extended press conferences.  The real business of cabinet--the debate, the compromises, the decisions--take places, as it always has, behind closed doors.

Secrecy on the increase

Furthermore, in dealing with serious issues related to freedom of information, the Campbell government's record is one of increased secrecy, not openness.  We expect government to conduct public business in public.  But our ability to access information has, in many ways, been reduced.

Routine government documents and reports are usually available on ministry websites or are otherwise easily obtainable.  But to get more detailed or sensitive information, members of the public or the press use the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The Freedom of Information Commissioner is charged with overseeing that process, with insuring that government lives up to the law.  However, the Commissioner has not been exempt from the government's budget cuts.  In 2000, twenty-seven people worked with the Commissioner to facilitate access to information.  By 2004 only seventeen people were left. 

FOI commissioner's budget cut

The reductions in the Commissioner's budget and staff have made his job more difficult.  His ability to assist people seeking information that government wants to keep secret has been significantly eroded. 

Some changes to legislation have also increased secrecy.  A recent case was the new Business Corporations Act.  While making many changes needed and desired by the business community, the law also, inexplicably, made it impossible for the public to find out who the shareholders are in private BC companies.

Knowing who controls a company is obviously important to those doing business with it.  The information may be crucial in determining whether conflicts of interest exist.  That information is now closed to the public.

Private deals out of view

Budget cuts and legislation are, however, relatively minor matters compared to increased secrecy that has accompanied the Campbell government's privatization agenda. 

Consider this: all operations of BC Hydro used fall under the Freedom of Information Act.  British Columbians could find out what was going on within their electric utility.

However, nearly one-third of all Hydro operations have now been contracted out.  A private corporation, Accenture, provides those services.  The Freedom of Information Act covers only public bodies--crown corporations, school boards, hospitals.  Private corporations like Accenture are exempt from its provisions.

A similar pattern emerged in the sale of BC Rail.  BC Rail's operations are now just another part of the operations of CN--a private corporation.  It will be impossible for the press or individual British Columbians to find out what's going on with the railroad they used to control.

It was, therefore, no surprise that great chunks of the information that the government recently released about the sale of BC Rail were blacked out.  Private commercial interests are secret.  The public will never know many details about the BC Rail sell off.

Ferries exempt for Freedom of Information
 
Finally, consider the new BC Ferries corporation.  It's still a company owned by the government of the province.  It's still responsible for providing personal and commercial transportation for BC's coastal communities.

However, the legislation which established the company explicitly excluded BC Ferries from the Freedom of Information Act.  The company can privatize ferry routes or decide to build new ferries in Europe rather than in BC, and the public can't find out why it made those decisions. 
 
Promising open government is easier than delivering it.  Instead of improving the public access to information, government has been shutting the doors.

Paul Ramsey is a former NDP MLA and Cabinet Minister. He now teaches at CNC and is a Visiting Professor in the Political Science Program at UNBC.  [Tyee]

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