B.C. government girds its barricades against freedom of information

Just as leaves turn red in autumn, governments can be counted upon eventually to hide their secrets.

John Horgan professed difference as he arrived in office but has proven no different than his predecessors in systematically shielding information that the public has paid to create but, as if we were a painter’s blind muse, cannot ever see.

The latest stunt was for his BC NDP administration to conduct a pretentious consultation on our freedom of information law, studiously avoid the most fervent critics and snub the province’s own information commissioner in foisting proposals it calls “strengthening” but is more accurately described as a desecration of the public’s right to know.

For four decades now, freedom of information laws have enabled Canadians to ask governments for records on their activities they would prefer kept confidential. From Day 1, governments of all stripes have not changed their stripes. Their defensive, protective, privileged cultures and powers have incrementally weakened the laws by reducing their scope and impeding their use.

Horgan’s government, like all before and around it, meantime spends staggeringly on controlling what it wishes to be public information, on thwarting and neutering its release and on denying access and releasing sanitized “statements” that have been edited more exhaustively than newspapers were at their zenith.

In this most recent case, though, it is guilty of what journalists call “burying the lede,” putting the most important news well down in its press release on the amendments. It is introducing mandatory $25 fees just to file a request.

As in many other provinces for decades, filing a request had been free – any fees came later, when the complexity of a request required extensive work by public servants to locate, review and release what they considered applicable. Now, British Columbia has joined Alberta as the only jurisdictions with the $25 application fee.

Those search-and-review fees stay, of course, and can be back-breaking.

No one asked for this.

The government’s own report on the consultation has no mention of it.

The information commissioner advised against it.

Yet, here it is.

To rub salt into his wound, the commissioner’s office will lose its power to waive that application fee if the request is in the public interest. It had such discretion to waive the search-and-review fees.

The commissioner, Michael McEvoy, was direct in dissing the Horgan administration: “We are living in a time when people are seeking more answers, and greater accountability, from public bodies and their governments, amplifying the significant role that freedom of information plays in allowing people to get information about what their governments are doing, and the decisions that affect them. To add another barrier of access ... is deeply troubling.”

Bring out more salt. The amended law would exclude the Office of the Premier from any requests. Earlier this year, I asked for any records that would shed light on why Horgan’s office budget had grown 63%, including a 30% increase this fiscal year. What I got back was anything but illuminating.

This is not an unusual outcome. In filing nearly 4,000 requests now over more than 30 years – what would be a six-figure B.C. application bill – I’ve concluded that if you’re not a professional researcher with a wordsmithing degree in your applications, the regulations exempt nearly anything of consequence from release. Still, with a carefully phrased application, the laws release what the government can’t any longer hide. Thus there can be “freedom” of information.

That quest for the occasional nugget of gold is what keeps some researchers, journalists, special-interest groups and opposition politicians panning. Now there will be a fee to enter the river.

This government is turning “freedom” into “feedom.”

It seeks sympathy, noting that the average request costs $3,000 to process. It thus chooses to erect an impediment rather than to realize that the moral and ethical solution is to make more information freely available. We have already paid to compile it, for heaven’s sake. It is as if we are paying a locksmith to keep us out of our home.

If the premier were serious about his campaign platform to fulfil the duty to inform, the law would have been made cheaper and swifter to use. It would also be a last resort because the government would open the door to more comprehensive disclosure of the information it holds.

Yes, it might endure embarrassment. But, like any individual or institution that professes vulnerability and fallibility, it might also gain respect for the difficulty of decision-making. By hiding its thinking and deliberations, it simply stokes suspicion and courts further cynicism.

It is time that this changed.

Rather than hire more communications specialists to get the positive portions of news out and about, Horgan could have hired more information freedom specialists to help us wade through the government’s strengths and weaknesses more proportionately.

But Horgan, like others in that position, reverted to form after talking a good game while in opposition, when his party used the law to evince records to embarrass the BC Liberals regularly. He made the pledge of all opposition leaders to improve the predicament. Now that he knows how the other side plays the game, he has changed the rules, moved the goalposts and tilted the playing field.

And, because the public does not know what it does not know, Horgan knows this is a brief issue that will, like the red leaves of autumn, soon be swept away. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.