Editorial: Cultivate culture of truth

Premier Christy Clark has ordered all political staff and ministers to stop deleting emails. Now she should order them to be truthful.

When a B.C. resident, through an access-to-information request, asked the premier about the plan to build a bridge that would replace the Massey Tunnel on the Lower Mainland’s Highway 99, he got a response that has become alarmingly familiar:

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“Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located.”

After the premier announced in 2013 that a bridge would replace the tunnel, Delta South independent MLA Vicki Huntington sought information from the Transportation Ministry about a business plan and a cost-benefit analysis. She was told there were no records on the topic.

It’s ludicrous to say that no records exist of a project that will cost an estimated $3 billion. The premier talked about the project in speeches to the Union of B.C. Municipalities in 2012 and 2013, and yet her staff finds no records connected to the project? That stretches credibility far past the breaking point.

It’s insulting.

And it’s illegal. B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act puts it clearly: “The head of a public body must make every reasonable effort to assist applicants and to respond without delay to each applicant openly, accurately and completely.”

In a report on the B.C. government’s bad habits regarding record-retention, information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “A public body must be able to show that its search efforts have been thorough and comprehensive, and that it has explored all reasonable avenues to locate records and to assist applicants.”

Refusing to produce relevant records or deleting such records is a violation of the act, she said.

It is not a lie to speak an untruth if it is done in ignorance — a truthful person can be sincerely mistaken. A person genuinely ignorant of the facts can speak an untruth unwittingly.

But if ignorance is behind the reply that no records exist of a proposed multibillion-dollar project, it is wilful ignorance, and that is no better than lying. If it is true that no such records exist (and we don’t believe it for a moment), then those responsible have failed in their duty to keep proper records.

Sometimes in government business, confidentiality is necessary, but the default should be to openness, not secrecy. The premier needs to lead the effort that will change a culture of concealment to one of truth.

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