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Les Leyne: Provincial minister in a jam of her own making

Lisa Beare under scrutiny for how she introduced fee for freedom of information requests
Lisa Beare, B.C.'s Citizens' Services minister. GOVERNMENT OF B.C.

Legislative Assembly Speaker Raj Chouhan will make the initial call soon on whether a cabinet minister stick-handled her way past the truth within the rules of the game, or checked it into the boards from behind.

Either way, Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare has a mark on her record that’s hard to erase. Although Chouhan’s ruling is a key point, Premier John Horgan’s assessment of her conduct will be more important.

She gave every indication over a protracted debate last fall that she was going to consult with people further before setting the actual amount of the new fee the NDP government is charging for many freedom of information requests.

Then, after the NDP cut off debate on the significant controversy and forced the legislation providing for the new fee through the house, she quickly signed a directive that fixed it at $10 per request.

That prompted a co-ordinated objection from the B.C. Greens and B.C. Liberals at the first opportunity last week, by way of a parliamentary privilege motion alleging she misled the house. Some of the ammunition in the opposition’s case was provided by way of an FOI request, which provides a level of irony to the proceedings so rich that you could choke on it.

Based on the records obtained, Liberal MLA Mike de Jong read a minute-by-minute account he said shows how the fee was well on its way to being established even while the bill was being debated. Staff emails within Beare’s office referred a decision note to her on the “fee recommendation” on Oct. 27, weeks before the bill got its rushed final reading. Beare wrote “approved” three minutes after it was sent to her.

Two days later, there was reference to the “updated fee issue paper” for her approval. Then as CHEK-TV’s Rob Shaw reported, on the day the bill was passed, Beare signed a quick directive to impose the fee that turned into a formal cabinet order.

De Jong’s objection is that “while all this was taking place… the minister was pretending and conveying to the house that no decisions had been made… She purposefully sought to create the impression that no decision had been made.”

Over that period, Beare insisted she wouldn’t talk about the fee during debate. The bill was just setting up an enabling framework, she said. The actual fee would be determined later.

“I think it’s very important to hear that feedback on what a potential fee should be … I thank everyone who has written to my office to share their thoughts, because our government is listening.”

Green Party House Leader Adam Olsen said the breach of privilege is in Beare’s repeated assurances she was going to listen to input on the fee, “then somehow had an order-in-council ready to go with an amount already determined…”

For what’s worth, Chouhan dismissed an earlier objection on a different aspect of the same bill last fall.

He ruled against the complaint on a technicality, but added that Beare’s handling of the bill “could be” considered discourteous. She had introduced the bill just as a committee was supposed to be starting a review of legislation, which obviously overrode its work.

This one goes well beyond “discourteous.”

Beare is from Maple Ridge and was part of the NDP’s metro Vancouver suburban swell that got the party close enough to overthrow the B.C. Liberals in 2017, and won again as part of the solid majority in 2020.

She was formerly a flight attendant, trained as a commercial pilot and got into politics via the school board. She was named to cabinet as a rookie MLA and spent three years as tourism minister dealing with the pandemic’s catastrophic effect there.

She took over government services after the 2020 election.

Beare gave a two-minute, preemptory defence of herself last week, saying the case is based on misrepresentations and she listened to feedback on the fee all along, then decided. Chouhan’s call will determine if the argument gets elevated to a formal committee inquiry.

Horgan’s reaction after the decision will give a clue where his thresholds are when it comes to cabinet ministers getting into jams of their own making.

Her story is a variation on that clichéd complaint: “It’s not the money, it’s the principle.”

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