Information issues are going to be big in the coming provincial election campaign. In the past few months alone, we've seen controversy erupt over disappearing (or non-existent) government records, the use of private emails by public officials to avoid freedom of information requests, the rollout of problem-plagued IT systems, and plenty more. These issues are not simply going to disappear, especially when trust is going to be a top of mind consideration for voters.
Would you trust a leader who won't make concrete commitments to openness and transparency? Many British Columbians will be asking themselves that very question over the next six weeks.
With election hype already heating up, it's easy to forget that less than two years ago Christy Clark and Adrian Dix were still battling it out to lead their respective parties. We thought it would be interesting to look back to those leadership contests to see how each of them responded to questions (from various sources) about open government and transparency before they took over the reins.
On big picture questions, Dix and Clark tended to take slightly different approaches. When asked, for example, what changes he would make to improve the access rights of British Columbians in general, Dix committed to both "proactive routine disclosure" and the creation of "electronic reading rooms" as "practical solutions to long delays currently caused by obstructionist tactics like exorbitant fees."
For her part, Clark appeared conscious of the possibility that she would become premier and have to make good on any commitments made during the leadership race. In her words, "the work done by the Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act lays out a template for reform...The report laid out 35 recommendations and I would review them with the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the minister responsible." She also suggested that delays be addressed via a review of the centralized FOI process introduced in 2009.
Both candidates agreed that wherever possible, records requested through FOI should be provided electronically, and that subsidiary corporations set up by public bodies such as universities should be brought under the reach of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FIPPA). Though despite multiple on-the-record promises, Clark's Liberals continue to drag their heels on addressing the latter of these two issues.
But there were clearer distinctions between Clark and Dix when it came down to details. Take, for example, their respective positions on sections 12 and 13 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Meant to protect cabinet and ministerial confidentiality, these sections are also used with frustrating regularity to withhold records from British Columbians. These are serious roadblocks standing in the way of transparency.
Dix proposed more precise definitions that would cut down on section 12 and 13 denials. Clark, however, simply stated that "there is a balance that needs to be maintained that allows for cabinet confidences to be protected. I would ask the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review the issue." It's not clear whether that request for review ever landed on Commissioner Denham's doorstep.
Similarly, despite her apparent enthusiasm for open data initiatives, Clark elected not to specify whether she would make certain data sets, like Hansard, MLA voting records and MLA expenses, fully available online. Dix, however, committed to opening all of the data sets listed in our survey, and added that he would restore funding to Population Data BC, a program previously cut by the Liberals.
Of course, the world has changed significantly over the past two years. That's why FIPA will be sending a new survey to the leaders at the drop of the writ to see just how Clark and Dix's positions have changed. Will Dix be more cautious given his big lead in the polls? What will Clark do now that she has a record to run on?
Watch this space, we will be letting you know what answers they and the other leaders provide us.