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From ‘right to know’ to left alone

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Rob Shaw: The NDP is quietly backing away from promises to bring the legislature under Freedom of Information laws.

The BC government is back-peddling away from its promise to place the provincial legislature under Freedom of Information laws.

Government House leader Mike Farnworth said Monday he thinks enough public transparency has been put in place at the building to satisfy the public, without the major change.

“We’ve actually done that in terms of increased transparency and your ability to get information,” he said, when asked for an update on the legislature and FOI legislation.

“In fact, you’re able to access more information now than ever before.

“So, for example, all spending in the clerk’s office, all spending in the Speaker’s office is now public information and you don’t have to file an FOI request to get it.”

That’s not what Farnworth said in 2019, after three independent watchdogs urged the move as part of reforms to increase public confidence at the legislature, following then-Speaker Darryl Plecas’s damning allegations into misspending by top officials.

The watchdogs wanted whistleblower protection for legislature staff, hiring oversight by the merit commissioner and public access to records under FOI.

“It’s my intention to see that all three of their suggestions are in fact implemented,” Farnworth said at the time. “These are good ideas and reforms.”

Horgan also called for the building to be cracked open and placed under FOI, so the public could demand details of how tax dollars are spent by the clerk, sergeant-at-arms, Speaker and others.

“The public has a right to know how long this has been going on and how it can be fixed,” Horgan said in 2019. “Where I spend money should be available to my neighbour.”

The promises were made at the height of Plecas’ allegations of excessive spending against former Clerk Craig James and former sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz. Lenz retired and was not charged with any wrongdoing. James retired and his trial concluded last week on charges of three counts of breach of trust and two counts of fraud over expenses he filed, and a retirement benefit.

But Plecas has retired and the James trial, rather than being a blockbuster political affair, was largely muted the past six weeks. The political heat on the issue of legislature transparency appears to have cooled as well.

Farnworth now says he doesn’t want to make any changes that “impact the standing of the legislature.”

“That being said, we’re quite open to making additional changes in terms of improving transparency and we’ll continue to do that,” he added.

“We have a lot of work as government and that work will continue, but what we were particularly clear on and given what we saw back in 2019 with the results that came in terms of what was happening in the clerk’s office, for example, we moved very quickly to ensure that there is full transparency in that area and so that now you are able to access receipts and spending in the clerk’s office and in the Speaker’s office without having to access Freedom of Information.

“It is all online and I think that’s what the public wanted to know, that they could see those things, and you can do just that.”

A bunch of miscellaneous scanned receipts on a website is a far cry from full transparency, however. Nor is asking for financial information from the offices at the heart of the last scandal, which hid their paperwork so thoroughly you never even knew to ask for it.

Still, it doesn’t look like full transparency is going to happen. The BC NDP government has taken several bloody noses over the issue of FOI and transparency, it appears to have had enough of the issue.

Bad news for the legislature. But maybe after the next scandal inevitably hits, politicians will finally take the steps necessary to safeguard it from future misspending.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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