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Maclean Kay: Information law has to be fixed

This isn’t working. In response to repeated questions about using private email to do government work, Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims was reduced to reading the same canned response over and over.
Photo - B.C. legislature buildings generic
The B.C. legislature buildings in downtown Victoria.

This isn’t working. In response to repeated questions about using private email to do government work, Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims was reduced to reading the same canned response over and over. It didn’t make for great TV, but she didn’t have much choice.

There are several layers of irony here — including the B.C. Liberals’ own history with record management, which included some painful lessons. But Sims has had the benefit of those lessons, is most comfortable with the mantle of reflexive moral superiority and just happens to be the minister specifically responsible for the rules she broke.

It’s not a good look, and judging by body language, the NDP knows it. (Seriously, go back and watch these question periods. You’ll see facepalms, cringes and what appears to be prayer from ministers who really ought to have realized they were on camera.)

Sims admits she was sloppy, and there might or might not be more to unearth. But the real problem is the rules just don’t work. As the NDP is learning to its sorrow, it’s very easy to insist government must adhere to absolute transparency. But speaking as a former staffer, not only is that unrealistic, it makes it impossible to do your job.

I’ll explain. But first, let me confirm some of your more reasonable suspicions.

Yes, most MLAs, ministers and staff have personal email accounts. This is perfectly legitimate. Not everyone wants Christmas photos on their work email, subject to FOI searches. And as many of us have learned recently, you don’t get to take government emails with you.

Yes, colleagues often contact each other on personal email. Don’t overthink this; the legislature is full of people who socialize with each other, resulting in emails full of plans for a drink, jokes, commiserating, and memes, memes, memes. In other words, it’s like most workplaces, and once again, perfectly legitimate.

Yes, party business gets discussed on personal emails. Again — legitimate. Political staff are, by definition, politically active. And yes again, sometimes that happens in “work hours,” which as any millennial can tell you, is an arcane expression with minimal real-world relevance, like “hanging up the phone.”

Yes, sometimes there are honest mistakes with email accounts. This happens in three ways. First, government or legislature email servers go down. A lot. And that’s why I once had to send a provincewide news release on my personal email account.

Second, when discussing non-work things, someone adds something such as: “By the way, can you work on X?” Against the rules, but you can see how that could happen organically and accidentally.

And third, most insidiously, it’s frustratingly easy to switch between email accounts on smartphones, especially iPhones. One errant swipe, and you’ve inadvertently used the wrong account, and contravened the regulations. This happens more than you’d think, and in my experience, it’s almost always followed by an apology email, noting the mistake.

But the most basic problem with FOI isn’t technical. It’s politics. You can’t expect political staff — whose sole focus is protecting the interests and reputation of the minister and/or caucus they work for — to give honest, real-world political advice, if that advice can be public in a matter of days.

Sure, it would be more interesting to read, make better stories and even illuminate which staffers are smart — and which ministers aren’t. And yes, it would be more transparent. Just not realistic.

Put another way: Imagine having to tell your best friend she should dump her loser boyfriend … on Facebook.

Let’s say in a moment of weakness, Premier John Horgan told staff to triple income taxes. If your job is to protect his reputation, it’s hard to imagine a worse way to accomplish that than writing a detailed list of reasons why not — especially if one of them is political, such as: “We’d lose David Eby’s seat in Point Grey.”

You might gag, but that’s precisely what political staff are paid to do — give political advice. And that particular advice would be relevant, accurate and worthwhile.

The NDP has learned you can’t give honest or helpful advice with a megaphone. It’s time to change the rules to reflect the real world, and either exempt the executive council and political staff — because it seems they’re effectively exempt anyway — or freeze their records between elections.

Maclean Kay was former premier Christy Clark’s speechwriter for five years.

mmacleankay@gmail.com