If "information is the currency of democracy," as Thomas Jefferson is believed to have said, British Columbia is going broke. Taxpayers deserve far better when it comes to open, accountable government.
Most citizens will go their entire lives without filing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. But every single one of them benefits from the information dug out of government through FOI requests by journalists, researchers, advocacy groups and others.
It's not just the information itself that is valuable -- taxpayers benefit from the accountability that comes with politicians and bureaucrats knowing that their work, reports and communications could end up as part of the public record. This accountability raises the level of due diligence in policy making.
As those of us who work in advocacy know, vigilance is paramount when dealing with government. No victory, nor any defeat, is ever final when it comes to a democracy. A strong, effective Freedom of Information Act -- where citizens have a legal mechanism to obtain information from their government -- is a key part of maintaining that vigilance.
But the provincial government does not seem to see it that way.
In early April, investigative reporter Bob Mackin will learn if PavCo, the Crown Corporation charged with stewarding taxpayers' $1.4 billion investment in B.C. Place Stadium and the Vancouver Convention Centre, can stop answering his FOI requests.
Mackin has worked the PavCo beat for years, breaking several important stories. Since 2007, he has filed a couple hundred FOI requests with PavCo, asking for information which should be available to the public.
Why shouldn't taxpayers know what the B.C. Lions or Vancouver Whitecaps pay to play in our $563 million stadium? Why shouldn't we be aware of the legal issues surrounding the stadium's roof? Or why the Telus naming deal died?
But instead of looking in the mirror and pondering ways to make more information available without forcing people to use FOI, PavCo went the banana republic route, trying to silence Mackin.
They have filed an application to ignore Mackin's requests, using a section of the FOI Act to claim his requests "unreasonably interfere with the operations of the public body because of the repetitious or systematic nature of the requests, or are frivolous or vexatious."
Sadly, PavCo is simply following the lead of the B.C. premier's office, which was criticized recently by Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham for evading information requests by creating an "oral culture." Indeed, only 55 per cent of the requests filed with Premier Christy Clark's office by B.C. taxpayers, media, advocacy organizations and other interest individuals came back with any information.
Imagine a CEO's office in a $44 billion corporation trying to operate without writing anything of substance down -- it's sloppy and potentially dangerous.
If the province's top politician and her handpicked team of advisors don't respect FOI law, why would PavCo, chaired by Clark's handpicked B.C. Liberal candidate in the Surrey-Fleetwood riding?
Bob Mackin isn't wasting taxpayer money by filing FOI requests, PavCo is -- by not proactively releasing important, fundamental information, and by taking up the Information and Privacy Office's time with this ludicrous, heavy-handed attempt to shut Mackin down.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner should send a strong message, to both this government and the next one, by rejecting PavCo's application against Mackin and recommending the Crown Corporation open up more of its inner workings to the public. After all, this information belongs to the people -- not to politicians and their staff.