Grin and Beare it - The Orca
residentPOD

Grin and Beare it

Maclean Kay
SHARE

Accused of misleading the legislature, BC’s FOI minister says the decision note she approved didn’t amount to a decision. The Speaker's ruling will set an important precedent, says Maclean Kay.

This week, MLAs from the BC Greens and BC Liberals rose in the legislature on a point of privilege, accusing Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare of knowingly misleading parliament.

Normally, such things are obscure and complicated, and not easy to follow – but here it’s actually quite straightforward. During bill debate last fall, Beare repeatedly insisted she had not decided on a fee for Freedom of Information requests – but it very much appears that she had.

This isn’t new; it looked that way at the time.

“You’re not allowed to outright lie in the BC legislature. But you can, it seems, get away with misleading it, lying by omission, and flagrantly thumbing your nose at the institution. At least, that’s what Citizens’ Services [Minister] Lisa Beare pulled off,” wrote Rob Shaw in November.

This week, a formal point of privilege and new evidence further cemented the impression that some funny business was definitely afoot.

“The minister repeated time and again that she was listening and would continue to listen right up to the end of the debate on the last day of session, then somehow had an order-in-council ready to go with an amount already determined and reportedly signed shortly after the assembly adjourned,” said BC Green MLA Adam Olsen.

“The minister’s statements that she was listening and would continue to listen led this Legislative Assembly and the people we represent to believe that there was time to provide feedback and that perhaps even the minister would be announcing a process to gather more feedback. However, it appears the decision had already been made and the documents printed, ready for signing.”

What’s more, BC Liberal MLA Mike de Jong introduced emails obtained, like rain on your wedding day, through FOI. Among them was an approved decision note, explicitly described by the minister’s staff as “MLB approved”, for the $10 fee.

The problem is, for another four days Beare continued to tell the legislature that no decision had been made.

“The minister would have us believe that she instantly signed that order in the complete absence of having taken a decision earlier,” said de Jong.

What’s more, BC Liberal MLA Mike de Jong introduced emails obtained, like rain on your wedding day, through FOI.

(In a column for the Vancouver Sun, Vaughn Palmer did a tremendous job breaking down the particulars.)

At 5:15 pm Thursday, moments before the legislature finished for the week and thus with the smallest audience possible, Beare rose to mount her defence.

“The application fee amount includes consideration of what I heard from stakeholders, the opposition, the public, the media — while the bill was progressing through the House,” said Beare.

“My commitment to listen has been met, and as I’ve outlined, no final decision could have been or was made regarding the application fee amount until after royal assent.”

In short – yes, I signed a decision note, but only an irresponsible person would assume this amounted to an actual decision.

This is, to use a technical parliamentary term, horse hockey. It is the great big honking fish that just got away from your least reliable uncle. It is wiping raindrops from your face while bravely insisting the sky is clear.

In short – yes, I signed a decision note, but only an irresponsible person would assume this amounted to an actual decision.

It would be interesting to see another example of an interim decision note, in much the same way it would be interesting to see another example of a sasquatch.

Speaker Raj Chouhan is expected to rule Monday. While Chouhan is widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his good humour and fair-mindedness, he’ll be reluctant to come down hard on a fellow NDP member. The most charitable possible interpretation of Beare’s defence is that she wasn’t lying, merely being very, very, very clever. Chouhan will most likely lean into that, say the matter is not proven, and call for more general clarity from all MLAs moving forward.

Clarity is a good thing, as is transparency. This would be a short-term dodge for the NDP and Beare in particular, but also a shame. These events do not take place in a vacuum, but set precedents. As de Jong put it:

“I think we have to settle…are we going to have debate characterized by the honest exchange of truthful and accurate information, or are we to have debate where members use trickery or sharp practice to deliberately leave an impression in this House that was entirely false and inaccurate?”

As Rob Shaw wrote of the FOI bill itself in November,

“A couple of New Democrats laughed awkwardly and started to clap. But the vast majority sat silent. Deep down, they know what we know: It was a hollow victory that made liars of them all.”

The Speaker’s ruling on how this hollow victory was actually achieved may prompt a similar reaction.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca

SWIM ON