A controversial expansion of cabinet secrecy is going ahead despite a storm of criticism that erupted last week. That was when the BC government proposed changes to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act allowing the government to designate records of committees as the equivalent of the provincial cabinet.
“I think the amendments introduced today inadequately deal with the concerns BCCLA expressed last week,” said BCCLA President John Dixon. “I set out our objections in a letter to Premier Campbell last week, but the government still appears intent on restricting our ability to find out what they are up to.” [letter attached]
The government’s proposed changes would still allow cabinet to exempt committees from the Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Act. This overrides a July 26, 2002 order by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, who ruled that committees made up of MLAs which also include some cabinet ministers are not exempted from the provisions of the Act as are Cabinet meetings or Cabinet committees.
The amendments tabled today would make three changes.
First, that the committee being designated must (in the opinion of the LGIC) be exercising the functions of the Executive Council.
Second, that at least one third of the members of the Committee being designated must be cabinet ministers (up from one minister).
Third, the designation is done by regulation (instead of by Order in Council).
“These amendments still leave the designation of these committees to the discretion of cabinet, with no scrutiny by the legislature,” Dixon said. “Any expansion of cabinet secrecy is an important and substantive change affecting our civil liberties and it should not be done by regulation behind closed doors,” Dixon added. “British Columbians have a right to expect better from a Premier who campaigned on a platform of open government.”
October 17, 2002
To: Premier Gordon Campbell
Room 156, Parliament Buildings
Re: Bill 62 and Open Government
Dear Premier Campbell,
I am writing to you on behalf of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) to urge you to abandon your ill-considered plan to extend the exemptions to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to committees which are not part of cabinet.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is the oldest and most active civil liberties group in Canada. We are a non-partisan group of citizens who volunteer our energy and talents to fulfill our mandate: to preserve, defend, maintain and extend civil liberties and human rights in British Columbia and across Canada.
The amendments related to freedom of information contained in the Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act are a major expansion of cabinet secrecy, hidden in an omnibus bill.
We recognize the potential usefulness of the type of caucus committees you have established and your prerogative to establish such bodies. An initiative to make full use of the talents of all your MLAs is something many would applaud and it may well provide a more meaningful role for elected representatives than they would otherwise enjoy. However, there is no justification for cloaking the work of these parliamentarians in the very high level of secrecy reserved for the deliberations of the province’s cabinet and its committees.
We are also concerned that the proposed changes would override the July 26, 2002 order by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which ruled that committees made up of MLAs which also include some cabinet ministers are not exempted from the provisions of the Act as are Cabinet meetings or Cabinet committees. This was a carefully reasoned ruling, based on the nature and requirements of responsible government, and it examines in detail the rationale for the very high deference shown to the very limited class cabinet documents and records. It is very disturbing to see this approach being rejected, and replaced with exemption by government fiat. The proposed amendments would not only circumvent the Commissioner’s order, but would also allow cabinet to exempt any meeting where a minister takes part.
I would like to remind you of what you said at the first open cabinet meeting on June 27, 2001. “It’s important that we open up government and this is one of the steps we intend to take to do that.” You also said “We are governed by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. We will adhere to that act.”
It seems to me that these amendments are a startling reversal of position. As such, it is important for the genuinely important civil liberties issues raised in this bill to receive a very full examination. If your government does not abandon this unjustified plan to unilaterally restrict information available through the freedom of Information process, it should at least refer these proposals to a standing committee which can take the time to the study all the implications and hear from witnesses.
We would be pleased to present appear if such hearings were to take place, and we look forward to your response.
John Dixon, President
cc. Geoff Plant, Attorney General of BC
Sandy Santori, Minister of Management Services