Last week I used the province’s freedom of information law to ask the B.C. Office of the Premier for any records to support, even justify its 30% budget increase this fiscal year.
I will a) fall off my chair, b) eat my hat, c) drop my jaw, d) buy my colleagues a steak dinner if I receive anything approaching the truth of the matter. I might as well be buying lottery tickets and burning them as the machine spits them out.
This is how governments of all stripes – New Democrat in our case provincially, Liberal in our case federally, Conservative in our case at times historically – treat the public right to know. It is more of a public right to no. As in no, you can’t have that.
There was thus zero surprise to learn late Thursday that details of the coronavirus presence in the province are concealed from release. Two leaked documents from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) carry important and timely information about COVID trends, local and neighbourhood “hotspots” and other data that would be so useful in this time of fatigue, frustration and fear.
Journalists, among others, have been asking for this data for more than a year. Other jurisdictions routinely provide it. Our province has argued, against most experts, that privacy is breached when such information is spread.
Some news reports about the leaked documents indicate the province has been “hesitant” to release the data. That’s untrue. Closer to the truth is that it has been “deliberate” in choking the supply of information.
We could take this personally as British Columbians. But in some respects, this government can’t help itself. It is part of any government’s DNA.
An early and persistent revelation from using the freedom of information laws for three decades is that there exists a life cycle of demanding openness while in political opposition, pledging open government upon election, and reverting to form upon exercising power.
There are elaborate systems involving bureaucrats and communications advisers to shield the information and to provide a concertedly positive view of any government’s operations. There are vastly more public relations officers in government than there are journalists covering government.
There are dozens of ways to dodge disclosure of important information – not creating a record in the first place is one of them, but so is using personal email for correspondence, texting and employing encrypted and inaccessible communications apps instead of using government channels that might be accessible by information laws. Those laws, of course, are tilted heavily in government’s favour; there are hundreds of exemptions to keep records safe from view. What could you expect when the people who create the laws – elected politicians – exempt their own activities largely from the laws?
The only differences among governments are the degrees of their false promises in assuming power and pious claims of transparency wielding it in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. No one within government seems to lose sleep over this, however – even if many of us would with such constant fibbing.
The question now for John Horgan’s government and Dr. Bonnie Henry’s health office is whether this leak can be turned into a stream. Late in the game, can the government suddenly trust the public with a fuller set of facts?
Clearly someone deserving of our thanks inside the BCCDC thinks it ought to tell us more, and if this government now wants to keep a lid on the details, presumably there will be another leak. It is hard to see now how the government can stay its miserly informational course.
At an afternoon briefing, the tone was still defensive-minded by Henry and her deputy, but they appear to be nudged into slightly more candor, if only in the weeks ahead.
In a public health emergency it is of course important not to fuel panic or violate personal privacy. But it is equally important not to fuel anger, cynicism and defiance when it is clear you are thwarting basic confidence in those who elect you. In that context there is no such thing as too much information for our own good.
The leak of information ought to spur this government to have faith we can handle the truth, particularly now that we can see what we have been denied all along. Today ought to turn that page.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.