This week, the report of the Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that was published earlier this summer was officially table in the Legislative Assembly. As a member of the Committee, I had an opportunity to speak to the process and the contents of the report.
As the committee heard from nearly every presenter there is a growing culture of secrecy in government and an overwhelming desire for transparency and movement toward open government. Presenters rejected the fee for Freedom of Information applications; however, this issue is not addressed in the recommendations as these are consensus reports.
I spoke at length to the amendments of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that occurred in Fall 2021 and the negative impact those changes had in undermining good public process.
This was a demonstration of how our BC NDP government is prepared to flout democracy and good governance in order to suit their own agenda leading to a further erosion in confidence in government and our democracy.
The tabling of this report closes this chapter of this work, for now.
October 20, 2021: Bill 22 – When the Freedom of Information is not free
October 21, 2021: A Question of Privilege: The Response from Mr. Speaker
February 9, 2022: Did the Minister of Citizens’ Services intentionally mislead the House?
I’d like to thank both the Chair and the Deputy Chair, who spoke before me. As well, I’d like to thank the staff and the presenters to the committee, the committee members and the staff, both in the Legislative Assembly and in Hansard. I would just like to acknowledge, I think, the incredibly challenging situation that our Chair was put in, in having to chair this Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
I’m a strong proponent of committee work. It’s some of the most productive and collaborative work that happens in this democratic institution. Despite the good work of this committee, the government’s actions last fall tainted the work of this report. The committee consistently heard frustrations about the freedom-of-information system. It’s expensive; it’s slow. The culture of secrecy in our institutions is resulting in the public losing trust in their government.
On March 6, Sean Holman, from the University of Victoria, framed the importance of free public access to their information like this:
“Freedom of information is not just a legal mechanism that permits access to government records. It is a statement about what kind of society we want to live in…. We are increasingly turning citizens’ right to know into the government’s right to say no to legitimate requests for information.
“If the public cannot access the information…in an increasingly uncertain…world, they will look to other forms of…control. They will look to conspiracy theories and to extremist ideologies.”
By this definition, this B.C. NDP government is increasingly regressive. Despite empowering the committee to examine, question and recommend improvements, their actions seem to reflect a different priority: their own pursuit to consolidate and protect power. A few weeks after this committee was directed to do this work, the Minister of Citizens’ Services tabled some of the most substantive legislative changes the act has seen in a decade, ultimately undermining the good work and good public process of the committee.
Right now there is waning public confidence in democracy. In a time of growing fear and misinformation, in a time when people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and less likely to trust their government, this assembly needs to be held to a higher standard. The truth needs to be readily accessible and available.
The committee heard repeatedly that we need to embrace a culture of transparency and take an open-government approach. Through the process, we heard about frustrations created by the freedom-of-information system. Accessing public information can be expensive, and people frequently experience long delays in getting the information they request. There were few positive comments about the current user experience. A majority of the participants complained about the addition, last fall, of an application fee, further limiting free access to their information.
I was excited by the idea that this institution might one day embrace open government and a culture of institutional transparency. The current gatekeeping of public information is not necessary, and cabinet secrecy only breeds mistrust and misinformation. The committee heard of how our government can achieve open government by more aggressively adopting publication schemes to proactively disclose far more public information.
It’s time for the cabinet ministers to emerge from the shadows. We know that the rapid development of technologies such as artificial intelligence in decision-making means that we need a more serious and detailed approach than tinkering around the edges to make it more expensive for the political opposition to dig up dirt. We need to reform our thinking, from the regressive approach embraced by this current government, to a progressive vision embracing open government.
The committee work summarized in this report was both necessary and futile. It is necessary to update deficient legislation, and despite the changes to the act last fall, there’s still a long way to go — as we heard from numerous people who presented to the committee. It was also futile, in that we faced time constraints and legislative changes that limited and undermined our work.
Instead of supporting the committee, engaging the public and offering recommendations to inform changes to the act, the government decided to intervene mid-process and to pre-emptively undermine committee efforts to satisfy government’s own agenda. As the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association said in their presentation to the committee, increasingly, “…public bodies have a culture of secrecy by default, in which there is a focus on the risks associated with releasing records.”
This is a dangerous path from democracy to autocracy. In a healthy democracy, those entrusted with the most power need to show humility in their service to the people. This report has the consensus recommendations that were possible under the near impossible conditions created by this government. It is our responsibility to protect the integrity of this assembly, so it can protect those it represents.
If this government is serious about democracy and ensuring the health and well-being of the freedom-of-information system, as they claimed they were last fall, they will act upon this report with immediacy. So my question to the government is this: will they commit to open this act up and implement the recommendations put forward by this report?