Les Leyne: NDP eager to put Virk on the hot seat

Les Leyne mugshot genericThere were some illustrations of the hit-and-miss nature of freedom-of-information requests to government on Monday when the Opposition stacked its responses and non-responses side by side.

Example 1: Last summer, Citizens Services Minister Amrik Virk was encountering a spot of bother about his previous involvement with the board of a university that was making end-runs around the salary caps for executives.

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Eager to keep the pot boiling, the NDP filed an FOI for all emails that his chief of staff, Nick Facey, sent the minister at the height of controversy.

What they got back was zilch, as in, there are “no records,” which is absurd. Ministers and chiefs of staff email each other constantly. The answer conjures images of the chief of staff communicating with the boss the way a third-base coach relates to a base runner, with hand signals and head shakes.

Virk said the trusted public servants who respond to such requests track down whatever exists.

But the Opposition had filed another request to cover the other half of the exchanges as well. They asked for all emails received by the minister from his chief of staff. That one returned 41 pages of emails.

So the search for those sent turned up nothing, but the separate search for those received produced hundreds.

Even in a random, chaotic universe, that’s hard to square. Lucky for everyone, Virk didn’t try. He clung to the first answer: “Trusted public servants … They respond to the request based upon the information. If the information is available, they respond.”

Example 2: The Opposition asked last fall for any briefing notes on any guarantees or indemnities authorized in the previous three years. In December, they got a reply from the Ministry of Finance saying no such documents exist.

But NDP MLA Carole James said they asked in 2010 for the same thing and got back a report. If it existed then, it should exist now. They asked for exactly the same report and the exact title, she said.

Virk rejected any notion of political interference and said public servants apply the act judiciously. The ministry later said the NDP sent the request to a specific office that doesn’t do such reports, so that’s why there was no response.

Maybe they should have referred it elsewhere. But maybe the NDP should specify the right office.

Example 3: NDP MLA Jennifer Rice said they asked about the disappearance of some notes from meetings about Highway 16 and the safety concerns for women on that stretch of road.

The first response was that the ministry needed time to transcribe the notes. But in later correspondence, the official reply was that there were no records, that those notes never existed, she said.

The government said Monday a response is in the works.

The working theory from the NDP is that government has adopted the widespread practice of claiming important records don’t exist. “No records” is the new “no comment.”

But that’s not exactly news. A national survey a year ago turned up a similar conclusion. And FOI law is a background issue that doesn’t really move too many people.

What’s also in play is the NDP’s penchant for getting Virk up on his feet during question period.

They are either extraordinarily interested in learning what he thinks about things, or just keen to set him up and let him talk himself into trouble.

He was the lead minister last week responsible for answering questions about the $43-million discrepancy between the appraised value of some Crown land in Coquitlam and what the government actually realized from the sale.

Virk did the best he could, but Opposition Leader John Horgan summed up his side of the land argument with one word: “Outlandish.”

Premier Christy Clark showed up the next day and took over the defence. Then Finance Minister Mike de Jong took over from there.

The last time Virk was under the gun — about the university board — he talked himself into a predicament that led indirectly to him being shuffled out of his portfolio and into his current one.

Whenever they get a minute, Opposition MLAs are keen to see if it can happen again.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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