Rob Shaw: The NDP’s silence on its controversial FOI bill speaks volumes, and even if “who cares” carries the day now, it won’t for long.
They say silence speaks volumes, and if that’s the case then you can’t shut the BC NDP up about how incredible its new Freedom of Information bill is.
New Democrats have held the equivalent of a nonverbal TEDtalk in the house the past three days, extolling by osmosis the virtues of an FOI bill that brings in a $25 application fee for records requests, exempts the premier’s office from scrutiny, and bans the release of electronic metadata in an attempt to overrule a decision from the privacy commissioner that ticked the premier off.
Nobody said anything out loud, mind you, because the premier’s office ordered them all to shut their mouths and sit quietly on their hands.
But the BC NDP’s actions spoke louder than its words ever could.
First, was the introduction-and-run launch of the bill last week, in which the government could only muster up the courage to spend less than an hour defending its proposal in the face of rising criticism from the privacy commissioner, both Opposition parties and a group of 20 organizations that includes the BCGEU, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Canadian Association of Journalists.
The BC NDP’s actions spoke louder than its words ever could.
Then, there was the almost three days of silence, in which only BC Liberal and Green MLAs debated the legislation as a bare minimum number of New Democrat MLAs fiddled on their phones and picked away at their laptops without listening.
After that, there was the pesky issue of an amendment proposed by the Opposition that would have paused the bill entirely and sent it to the all-party legislative committee studying the FOI act instead. New Democrats ghosted the move, refusing to speak on the subject, reply to any questions or admit there was even an amendment on the floor of the legislature in front of them. Tap, tap, tap their fingers went on their devices, ignoring the rest of the world.
“If there is a better demonstration of a government that has come to embrace and be consumed by its own arrogance, I do not know what it is,” quipped BC Liberal MLA Mike de Jong to a disinterested government bench during debate.
But the show of legislative contempt could only go so far.
Eventually, the amendment went up for a vote.
Suddenly dozens of previously-hidden New Democrat MLAs materialized out of their hiding places for precisely long enough to stand and have their names recorded into Hansard, before once again disappearing quickly into the ether.
They did it again 25 minutes later, appearing for just long enough to flex their majority and ram the bill through second reading.
It was a farcical scene.
There was Murray Rankin, who as an MP in Ottawa once railed against $5 federal FOI fees as a “toll” on public access, sneaking into the chamber to vote in favour of a BC fee that’s five times worse before rushing back out of the house before his shame caught up with him.
There was Doug Routley, whose arguably most meaningful contribution to BC politics over 16 years as an MLA was to defend FOI as the opposition critic, sitting quietly in the corner of the chamber as his government flip-flopped on everything he ever purported to stand for.
It was a farcical scene.
There was Rick Glumac, appointed by the NDP to chair an all-party legislature committee on FOI who had his knees cut out from under him by the bill, but will still get a $16,787 paycheque to chair a committee that’s now utterly useless.
There was Adrian Dix, David Eby, Selina Robinson, and other cabinet ministers who used the FOI system effectively to dig up scandals in opposition, trudging into the legislature to vote to gut the same system as if they were helpless and without any power to influence cabinet’s direction.
Oh, what a sight. Just no sound.
It’s the kind of display of arrogance and contempt for the legislature that takes most political parties years to work up to. But the New Democrats managed to get there in just 366 days, or roughly one year after winning their new majority in the October 2020 election.
Premier John Horgan summed up his government’s feelings on the FOI issue last week with a glib “Who cares?”
The public doesn’t give a hoot about the issue of open government, especially during an ongoing global pandemic, amidst an overdose crisis, as housing prices continue to skyrocket, and inflation jacks the cost of everyday household items and groceries.
Oh, what a sight. Just no sound.
There are more immediate issues on the minds of voters than FOI. And even if there wasn’t, almost nobody will switch votes on the issue three years from now.
The BC NDP is in good company with this crass political calculation, because the BC Liberals used to use the same arguments to justify their mistakes and brush aside their mini-scandals.
When they were caught triple-deleting records, the BC Liberals argued no voter really cared about the arcane FOI system.
When they were accused of cash-for-access political fundraisers, they insisted the issue didn’t resonate in the mind of the public.
When they turned a blind eye to money laundering, or clawed back bus passes from the disabled, or fought teachers in court for almost a decade, or took the children’s representative to court over records, or put tolls on bridges, or allowed backbenchers to spew homophobia, the party sought refuge in the argument that, on its own, no single issue was enough to bring the government down.
But tiny scandals have a way of catching up to parties.
One day they are a jumble of mismatched individual issues, and the next they are stitched together by your enemies into compelling narratives that illustrate big-picture values voters do care about: honesty, trustworthiness, arrogance, and greed.
Arrogance was on full display this week by the Horgan government in the house.
It won’t cost the party anything, for now.
But one day, that “who cares?” quote and the BC NDP’s blatant hypocrisy in undercutting the FOI system will be a small building block in a larger argument made about the party’s character. And by then, it will be too late for New Democrats to talk themselves out of it.
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 Shaw last wrote about the provincial government’s updated, more ambitious climate plan – which was panned by many environmental groups.
- The FOI fee backlash was a major topic on last week’s Political Capital – and the way things are going, may well be again this week.
- The NDP’s reasons to limit or charge for Freedom of Information requests don’t seem to hold water. A 2019 attempt to deny requests from the Official Opposition may be more instructive, says Maclean Kay.