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Les Leyne: Opposition finds plenty to fault in NDP's freedom-of-information proposals

B.C.’s independent information and privacy commissioner piled on more criticism of the NDP government’s freedom of information bill Wednesday, as both Liberal and Green critics continued attacks.
Photo - B.C. legislature buildings generic
The B.C. legislature buildings in downtown Victoria.

B.C.’s independent information and privacy commissioner piled on more criticism of the NDP government’s freedom of information bill Wednesday, as both Liberal and Green critics continued attacks.

The NDP defence so far has been confined to a few brief scrums by Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare and some backbenchers’ speeches, most on the theme “the Liberals were worse on FOI than we are.”

Commissioner Michael McEvoy raised objections immediately after the bill was introduced on Monday, since his input was ignored on some key measures. He said the section dropping the legal requirement on public agencies to store people’s personal data in Canada was “extremely troubling.”

On Wednesday, he broadened the criticism, saying parts of the bill are of deep concern and “would be a step backward.”

The overriding problem is that key parts will be filled in by regulations to be written later, “about which we know nothing.”

Allowing B.C. citizens’ personal information to be held by foreign entities, something that has been outlawed since 2004, is one of the major changes. He said it is crucial for the government to disclose now what it intends to do to protect British Columbians’ personal privacy. “It is not enough for the government to say that guardrails will be put in place at a later date.” As the bill stands, the requirement could be dropped with no protection required for the data.

Even sections he supports depend on regulations that have not been released. One section would apply FOI law to the government’s subsidiary corporations. But it’s up to a cabinet minister to choose which ones. “There are no criteria governing when this should be done,” he said.

The NDP shielded a half- billion dollar investment agency it created this year from FOI and ignored McEvoy’s urgings then to include it.

Elsewhere, McEvoy cast doubt on a technical wording change. The premier’s office is exempted from one category of FOI applicability, although the government said it is maintained in another. McEvoy said it’s unclear why and the outcome is “not as clear as I am told government believes it is.”

On the high-profile issue of charging a fee to everyone who applies for non-personal information, he noted his office would have no power to waive the fee in the public interest.

There was intense debate in the legislature. Former B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said the NDP is “using fees to keep people’s noses out of the government they own.

“It’s a source of huge disappointment to me that some of the members opposite I consider to be friends are prepared to look at me with a straight face and support this legislation. I think it’s utterly shameful.”

And Green MLA Adam Olsen formally complained to the Speaker that the bill breaches his parliamentary privileges. He is on a legislature FOI review committee that is required to examine the law, but the NDP just rewrote it on its own.

Just So You Know: A group of doctors with their own views about how COVID-19 is being handled in B.C. made their debut Wednesday with an hour-long webcast. After listening to government officials for 20 months it was refreshing to hear Protect Our Province B.C., as they’ve dubbed themselves, give an independent medical view.

It wasn’t a denunciation of B.C.’s approach, like the stance a similar group in Alberta took about that government. But their first appearance criticized B.C. officials for underestimating and minimizing the importance of aerosol transmission of the virus. The doctors stressed that the coronovirus is in the air, not just in water droplets people exhale. So prevention measures apart from vaccination — such as better masks and ventilation — should be enhanced.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was rapped by other experts this year for sticking with the conventional wisdom that COVID-19 is spread by larger droplets, not minute airborne particles.

But the striking part of the local doctors’ webcast was the chatbox, which filled up instantly with flaming, vicious arguments about every conceivable aspect of the pandemic.

The off-topic rage got to the point where a number of texts were being deleted. That prompted more angry messages, matched by a wave of gratitude from others to the moderator.

“This is totally nuts,” wrote one watcher.

Welcome to the argument, Protect Our Province.

lleyne@timescolonist.com