The Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy is awarded annually by the Centre for Free Expression, Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and News Media Canada to call public attention to governments, government departments, and agencies that distinguish themselves by denying public access to government information to which the public has a right under access-to-information legislation.
Awards are given in four categories:
- Federal Government and federal departments, agencies, boards and commissions;
- Provincial governments and provincial government departments, boards, agencies, and commissions;
- Municipal governments and municipal government departments, boards, agencies, and commissions; and
- Police Services and Law Enforcement agencies
On October 23rd FIPA nominated the Government of British Columbia, and particularly Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens’ Services Lisa Beare, for the Code of Silence Award. While a late submission to the awards, we can’t think of a better nominee than a Government Premier and Minister that abandons prior commitments and introduces a fee with the express intent of deterring the public from requesting information.
Our detailed submission from FIPAs President is below:
Please note this nomination was made prior to the passage of final legislation subsequent amendments are not reflected in the submission.
President Mike Larsen
On behalf of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, I am writing to nominate the Government of British Columbia, and particularly Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens’ Services Lisa Beare, for the Code of Silence Award.
On October 18, the BC Government introduced Bill 22, an Act to amend BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The Bill is a bold declaration of the Government’s disdain for transparency on several grounds. Specifically, if passed:
- Bill 22 will introduce a transparency tax – a fee for filing FOI requests for general government records held by any public body in British Columbia. Currently there is no filing fee under the FIPPA. Bill 22 would make the amount of the fee subject to a regulation under the Act, and the Minister has suggested that $25 would be reasonable. Whether the amount is $5 or $50, the step will introduce a financial barrier to people seeking to exercise their information rights, and it will disproportionately impact low-income requesters. This bold move on its own should make the BC Government a strong contender for the Code of Silence Award – but there’s more;
- Bill 22 removes the Office of the Premier from the Schedule of public bodies covered by the Act. Previous recipients of this distinguished award have often been recognized for their failure to comply with the letter and spirit of FOI laws, but we think that the decision to *actually remove his own office from the scope of the FIPPA* really sets the Premier apart. Mr. Horgan has dismissed concerns about the decision to remove his Office from the Schedule by claiming that he is ‘not that interesting’. His government’s own FOI stats show that a great many people disagree with him: the BC Open Information website currently provides links to 1541 published FOI requests to the Office of the Premier. Arguably, taking steps to actively remove the highest elected office in the land from the scope of FOI is itself worthy of serious Code of Silence recognition – but there’s more;
- Bill 22 short-circuits the work of the Special Legislative Committee to Review the FIPPA, and it completely ignores the key recommendations of the 2016 all-party Special Committee. BC’s FIPPA, s. 80, requires that a Committee review the Act at least once every six years. The current Committee has been formed but it has not begun its work, studied the Act, heard from witnesses, or received public submissions. Clearly, the Government has little regard for the role of this all-party Committee. It has also chosen to disregard the important recommendations of previous Committees regarding key gaps in BC’s FIPPA. For example, the 2016 Committee called for legislative steps to improve the routine and proactive disclosure of information, create a legislative duty to document, reduce barriers to access created by fees, improve timeliness, and expand the scope of the Act to cover the subsidiaries of public bodies. Taking these steps would allow BC to regain its long-lost title as the province with the most robust transparency law. By completely ignoring them, the Government has surely demonstrated a deep and enthusiastic commitment to secrecy.
We believe that the BC Government has distinguished itself by introducing legislation that not only fails to improve, but materially harms the right to information. Bill 22, if passed, will make public bodies in BC less transparent and less accountable. These steps are truly worthy of recognition through the Code of Silence Award.
Background information on Bill 22 can be found here: https://fipa.bc.ca/transparency-matters/bill-22-background/