If democracy dies in darkness, the government of British Columbia just threw our freedom of information rights into a black hole.
Victoria has slapped a brand-new fee on requests for public information. Now, when journalists and government watchdogs file freedom of information requests to get government documents, they will need to pay between $5 and $50 every time they ask to see a document.
What kind of documents? Contracts, receipts, emails, travel itineraries and hospitality spending are some of the documents that governments are now going to charge money for the rest of us to see.
Each paper in the paper trail will carry a fee.
To be clear: These are elected politicians and bureaucrats spending taxpayers’ money.
This kind of information should be posted on the internet ahead of time, for all to see, for free, before anyone ever needs to ask for it. That’s called proactive disclosure and it should be the standard operating procedure when dealing with the public and our money.
Charging money to access this essential information is an attempt to block people from knowing what the government is up to.
And governments are up to plenty.
It was through freedom of information requests that Kamloops This Week reporter Jessica Wallace found out that the former CAO of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District had blown more than $500,000 over five years on things such as alcohol gift cards, jewelry for staff and a champagne room.
Penny Daflos, from CTV, used FOI requests to discover that the government paid more than $100,000 to a headhunting group to hire a public health bureaucrat. They flew him out from Montreal, rented him an Audi and paid for his lamb chop supper. The now ousted public health official’s team also blew through about $40,000 on catered steak and salmon lunches and spent millions of dollars on faulty COVID-19 medical masks.
Investigative reporter Bob Mackin used FOI to uncover the fact that Premier John Horgan’s team was spending $15,000 per month on a rockstar TV studio for press conferences, even though there are plenty of facilities to broadcast from, which taxpayers have already paid to build.
And the Prince George Citizen used FOIs to find out that a parking garage being built downtown was ballooning in cost from about $12 million to $34 million.
Everyday, people and journalists need information like this to hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable.
Without essential tools such as freedom of information, we won’t know what our rulers are doing with our money and we won’t be able to see the influential paper trails behind the laws they pass.
We need more access to this information, not less. We already know what happens when we don’t have these tools.
Wood splitters happen.
Former speaker of the legislature, Darryl Plecas, noticed outrageous spending by the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms of the legislature shortly after he got the job. To keep track, Plecas kept copies of receipts and expense reports for more than a year and then he blew the whistle in two bombshell spending reports. Along with fancy international trips, loads of gifts and high tech cameras, taxpayers paid more than $3,000 for a wood splitter and more than $10,000 for a trailer to haul it around in.
The clerk and sergeant-at-arms were marched off of legislature property by Victoria Police. The former clerk is now facing charges of fraud and breach of trust. And Plecas’s work compelled legislature officers to post their expenses online. But the legislature executives are still not subject to freedom of information requests.
Now, with the Horgan government putting a price on freedom of information, holding the powerful to account just got more difficult.
The government rammed the legislation through last week, without proper debate, while the province is reeling from devastating flooding and broken infrastructure.
This is wrong.
We can’t let the government pull the curtains down on transparency.
Kris Sims is the B.C. Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.