The NDP accused the Liberals Wednesday of flouting B.C.’s freedom-of-information law by withholding or destroying important government records.
For the second straight week, the Opposition produced documents that show one senior official denying the existence of records only to have another person release them.
NDP Leader John Horgan, whose party highlighted three similar cases last week, said the documents paint a disturbing picture of increasing government secrecy.
“The government talks about being the most open and transparent government in Canada, and yet the evidence is completely counter to that,” he said.
Horgan said the NDP was even denied access to the training manual political staff use when deciding which records to keep and which to destroy. “I think all British Columbians should be concerned when their government hides things from them,” he said. “The whole point of having access to information is so we can all make reasonable judgments about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of our political leadership.”
In the latest case, the NDP asked for emails sent by Premier Christy Clark’s deputy chief of staff, Michele Cadario, over two three-day periods last November.
The request produced a few heavily censored emails and little else. A similar request to Clark’s chief of staff, Dan Doyle, produced more emails from Cadario for the same period.
“They weren’t transitory notes talking about lunch plans or dinner plans,” NDP critic Selina Robinson said. “They were proposals for providing legal representation for the families of the victims of the Babine mill explosion. They contained policy advice on Site C — records of important policy discussions.”
Robinson demanded to know why political staff “are either destroying or hiding important government records and then claiming that they just don’t exist.”
Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk was unable to shed any light on the issue in the legislature. But in a later interview, he argued that the case merely shows that some officials are more efficient at destroying “transitory” emails than others. “Transitory records are temporary in nature and different people do manage them in different ways,” he said.
“The documents that need to be kept are kept. That’s my expectation. The transitory records — those are not records that record key decisions and, as such, they’re temporary in nature and they’re managed in a different way. They are not required to be retained.”
As for the training materials, Virk said he was unsure why the Opposition was denied access and would investigate. “It’s a public document and it’s absolutely available.”
Information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham issued a report in March 2013 after receiving complaints that the government was increasingly responding to freedom-of-information requests by stating that “no responsive records” existed. She said the number of such replies had increased to 25 per cent from 13 over the previous four years.
The premier’s office told Denham that it was general practice for staff to communicate in person rather than by email, and that most emails were transitory and deleted once a permanent record was created. Denham recommended that the government legislate a “duty to document” rather than operate an “oral” government.
“Without a duty to document, government can effectively avoid disclosure and public scrutiny as to the basis and reasons for its actions,” she wrote. “The lack of documentation undermines the ability of citizens, journalists and the public to understand the basis for government’s actions on any particular matter.”