A few short days from now, the writ will drop on the 2013 provincial election, kicking off twenty-eight days of heated campaigning. And while there’s no shortage of issues for voters to consider, recent controversies around government secrecy and attempts to undermine Freedom of Information make it clear that information policy should be a top priority for voters.
The information rights of British Columbians are being undermined on many fronts. When it comes to access to information, a widespread and growing oral culture at even the highest levels of government is making it tougher than ever before to obtain records and hold government to account. And when it comes to privacy, the story isn’t much better. New data linkage and information sharing schemes like the BC Services Card and the Integrated Case Management System have been slammed by civil society organizations and Legislative officers as privacy-invasive, unreliable, and even dangerous to vulnerable communities.
This election is our opportunity as citizens to make sure those seeking election to the Legislature pledge to protect our information rights. That’s why the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association will be working hard this election to ensure the information issues that matter to British Columbians are taken seriously by candidates and parties.
Perhaps the most pressing of these issues is the attempt by the Office of the Premier to avoid its FOI obligations by refusing to create records of what they are doing and destroying the few that they actually do create. Recent outrage over this refusal to keep records and the use of private email accounts to avoid transparency requirements has put this problem front and centre. This is a basic test of trustworthiness and fitness to govern, and we are looking for all parties to take a strong stand against this cancer on credibility.
We’re also looking for candidates to firmly commit to bringing the subsidiary corporations of universities, colleges, and other public bodies under the scope of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Liberal ministers have been promising to close this information laundering loophole since at least 2006, but we’ve yet to see any action.
The same goes for the growing problem of FOI denials under sections 12 and 13 of the FIPPA. These sections allow public bodies to deny requests in order to protect cabinet confidences and “policy advice.” But the government has pushed these exceptions to the breaking point with increasingly absurd claims of what they can cover. The last straw came when they claimed that a pamphlet destined for every household in B.C. outlining the virtues of the Harmonized Sales Tax was “advice to the Minister” and was therefore exempt from release. This would be comical if it weren’t so abusive and counter to the spirit of the law. Section 12 and 13 are now significant barriers to access, and must be fixed through legislative action.
Candidates and leaders should also tell voters where they stand on the issue of public bodies failing to comply with their section 25 duties to release information relevant to the public interest, even when no request has been made.
But access is only half of the equation. Our next government will also inherit the unreliable Integrated Case Management (ICM) system, which has been roundly criticized for threatening both privacy rights and public finances. That same government will also have to figure out what to do with the privacy-invasive BC Services Card, which finally made its debut in February, three months before the election.
Information and Privacy Commissioner Denham has called for public consultations on the government’s data linkage projects, and FIPA (along with our allies) has repeatedly called for a public inquiry specifically to investigate the mess that is ICM. Candidates must let voters know what they intend to do with this potentially catastrophic situation.
There’s a lot at stake in this election, but strong information rights are central to a healthy democracy. That’s why we need parties and candidates to stand up for public transparency and personal privacy at a time when both are under fire.