Minority government offers chance for FOI overhaul
Stanley Tromp, The Province; Vancouver, B.C., 05 July 2017
There are some principles of democratic reform that would ideally transcend political parties and ideologies.
Matters of governance unlike, say, oil pipelines or union wage rates should be uncontroversial. And if the provincial political parties want to prove that they can co-operate and make a minority government work, the quick passage of such measures would be the best way.
One of these key principles is public transparency, as embodied in the 1992 B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
FOI requests by the media and others are essential to revealing governmental waste and wrongdoing, environmental harms and risks to public health and safety. B.C. has fallen behind the rest of the FOI world in some key ways, and advocates have urged desperately needed reforms to our law for 20 years, all to no avail. Progress on this matter is possible now that might not be so under a majority administration of any political stripe.
This minority B.C. government has no choice but to be responsive to the public will. The needed reforms are clear: n Implement the best of the 39 recommendations of the May 2016 report from the all-party legislative review of the FOIPP Act, which was chaired by Liberal MLA Don McRae. Many of these points echo sage advice from the B.C. information and privacy commissioner. n Extend FOI coverage to public bodies' secretive and wholly owned subsidiaries, which hide records and billions of dollars in public money. In doing so, raise a big cheer among UBC residents and students, who have vocally protested the secrecy of UBC's "private" real-estate company ever since its creation 30 years ago. Providence Health and the First Nations Health Authority require coverage also.
(Unfortunately, the NDP, like the Liberals, replied in a questionnaire to the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association that although they support this move, they will first "consult with affected organizations." This pledge to consult, with no set deadline, could lead to indefinite stalling, as we have so often seen before.)
Update the law's widely abused section 13 - policy advice - to add a harms test of the kind found in the British FOI law and clearly state that it does not apply to facts or analysis. The NDP pledged to FIPA that "we support the Commissioner's advice ... that the meaning of this section should be restored to its original, pre-B.C. Liberal, intent." n Act on the commissioner's recommendation to place a genuine "duty to document" in the FOIPP Act. (The duty to document bill passed early this year was rightly panned as a facade.)
The NDP has promised to do so. One quick fix should be done forthwith, by regulation: scrap the much rebuked practice, which started a year ago, of posting open FOI requests online, a nasty trick whose main purpose is to intimidate FOI applicants. The NDP has pledged to repeal it.
Such is the way forward. Yet any new government will still have to overcome the biggest FOI reform obstacle - bureaucratic obstructionism.
Senior officials eternally repeat the vacuous three-part mantra that "these are very complex questions, which need more consultation and study, due to the risk of unintended consequences."
Not so. The needed reforms are quite simple, they have been studied to death for decades and other nations have not been harmed from passing them.
If the B.C. shift in power is fluid today, so too are the prospects for FOI law reform.
Governmental opposition to it, like a thick wall of ice frozen solid for two decades, might now be melting and cracking in the 2017 summer heat.
We just need to raise our law up to accepted global FOI standards, a very modest and sensible goal.
Why would MLAs of any party vote against that? And what is the political cost of doing so? One longtime legislative columnist called B.C.'s record on FOI "the shame of the province." Let us now finally change that record into a cause for pride.
Stanley Tromp is an independent news journalist. His report on the B.C. FOI law, The Vanishing Record, is at his website: www3.telus.net/index100/foi