Time to reform freedom-of-information laws

Stanley Tromp, Times - Colonist; Victoria, B.C., 20 Jan 2018


The 1992 B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act grants citizens the legal right to view government records. Yet this province's law has fallen far behind the rest of the FOI world, and advocates since then have urged desperately needed reforms, all to no avail.

Their hopes were boosted in the last B.C. election campaign, when the NDP, in a questionnaire to the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association on April 27, pledged to solve the three biggest problems.

First, Section 13 of the act allows officials to seal records of policy advice. The trouble is that public bodies are applying the section too widely, to include all "facts and analysis" that were used to create that advice. This new black hole enabled a ministry to withhold 100 pages of factual records on the health impacts of liquefied natural gas, and the Provincial Health Services Authority to keep secret its internal audits. Even the former NDP attorney general pleaded for Section 13 revisions.

Second, the act should be extended to the growing number of wholly owned subsidiaries of universities and Crown corporations, which perform public functions and spend billions of dollars of your money, and yet are excluded from FOI laws.

One could recall the vast losses through the government's fast-ferries subsidiary in the 1990s. Providence Health and the First Nations Health Authority need coverage also.

Third, we need a legal duty to document decisions, so that never again can officials stop recording minutes of their meetings after being annoyed by FOI requests for them (as did the 2010 Olympic Games Secretariat).

As well, one problem that should be easily fixed within a day - without law reform - is suspending the pernicious and widely condemned B.C. Liberal-era open-request website, whose main real purpose is to intimidate FOI applicants from filing requests. The NDP pledged to scrap it eight months ago, but did not.

We have heard such promises before, in former premier Gordon Campbell's victory speech in 2001: "We will bring in the most open and accountable government in Canada!" Former premier Christy Clark echoed the same vow in 2011. Both pledges were followed by the opposite result.

It seemed as if the government of Premier John Horgan wished to break that old pattern. Yet the clock is ticking, for it usually happens that incoming politicians' enthusiasm for FOI sags within a year, dampened by officials who will always oppose it, mainly because they fear a loss of control.

The bureaucrats' briefing notes last April to the incoming minister state on FOI: "Further review and consultation is required." The authors must be well aware that public bodies already have had 20 years of opportunities to consult through four legislative reviews.

Worse, there is no deadline set, which encourages this needless new activity to expand ad infinitum.

As matters are going, it seems possible that in 2038 we might be pleading for the same reforms, with the outstanding recommendations - some dating from 1998 - raised again by our grandchildren.

Officials still recite the vacuous scripted mantra that "these are very complex questions, which need more consultation, due to the risk of unintended consequences." Incorrect. The needed reforms are simple, they have been studied to death and other nations have not been harmed by passing them.

In the throne speech of Feb. 13, the NDP should fulfil its written pledges of last April, as well as implement the recommendations of the 2016 report of the FOI legislative review. One columnist called B.C.'s record on FOI "the shame of the province." Let us now change it into a cause for pride.

In sum, the opponents of reform depend upon the public's unawareness and indifference to the FOI dilemma, and one need not oblige them. If you want to exercise your basic democratic rights, and gain access to records on health, safety, misspending and environmental harms - all records produced at taxpayers' expense and supposedly for your benefit - then you can call Horgan and your MLA. Now is your best chance to make it happen. 

Stanley Tromp of Vancouver is a longtime independent news reporter and author of a book on freedom-of information laws.