Having pounded a symbolic wooden stake through the heart of the secretive, disdainful and power-amassing Stephen Harper, people who are fed up with unresponsive governments have no further to look for a new target than Victoria. The latest revelations about the Premier Christy Clark government’s distaste for providing information to anyone outside its inner circle is, if you happen to be a democrat, simply depressing.
What is it that generates the secrecy and distrust in these — I use the term loosely in this case — public servants? In the provincial Liberals’ case it seems to be little more than it despises all forms of opposition, whether it comes from the public, the media or the opposition parties.
It’s a poorly kept secret that the Clark team isn’t a fan of letting anyone but its supporters in on the decision-making process that each and every policy and piece of legislation goes through. But the revelations in recent weeks that ministers and bureaucrats routinely “triple delete” (this era’s new “hanging chad” for a description of something almost no one seems to have known about before) emails make it plain that the government has no intent on allowing anyone, not me as a reporter, not NDP MLAs in opposition and not, my friends, even you, regardless of which party you might support. Information in the Clark government is provided on a need-to-know basis and none, repeat none, of us are deemed to have any need to know other than what this government wants us to know.
How paranoid is this bunch? Clark says she rarely sends emails, preferring to govern “face to face” with her staff and ministers. So we now know what keeps her so busy when she disappears from sight for days and weeks on end. Instead of cranking out emails or instant messages to convey her thoughts to those she works with, she apparently seeks them out, one by one (probably not wanting to speak with groups if at all possible in order to eliminate the possibility of someone turning state’s witness in the future) and has private discussions.
Post-it Notes, or stickies, those teeny pieces of colorful notepaper often used as reminders by the elderly who are concerned about memory loss, are another favourite within those hallowed chambers. The easier to collect and destroy them. Heck, I can’t stand Twitter because it limits messages to 140 characters, and Christy Clark could write an entire legislative package on a sticky note. Can etching the words on the head of a pin be next?
The always articulate and wise observer of provincial politics, Paul Willcocks, wrote last week in the Tyee online news service (full column at Tyee site) that “the state has immense power, and politicians and their operatives are motivated to wield that power to protect their own interests.
“Citizens, ultimately, are protected by the rule of law. If the state’s agents put themselves above the law, citizens have lost the most important thing standing between them and oppression.”
By now anyone interested in the provincial political scene knows that Clark brought in a former privacy commissioner to assess the situation and comment on recommendations made by information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who was clearly frustrated by what she sees. Or, more to the point, what she doesn’t see.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone blows off Denham’s concerns, dismissing them as “interpretations”. But as Willcocks pointed out, “the commissioner, under the law, makes rulings. Government can appeal through an adjudication process involving a Supreme Court justice.” In other words, the government members and staff do not have a choice but to comply with her rulings unless they are overturned in an appeal process. They can’t simply blow off her findings as differences in interpretation.
I’ll give the last words to Willcocks:
“There has been no accountability, no explanation for government inaction on years of reports setting out similar problems and abuses. Denham’s report invites the conclusion that there was a widespread belief in government that they were above the law.
“And if politicians and their appointees will break one law to protect their interests, they will break any law. The only test is whether they will get caught. (And without the whistleblower in this case, they wouldn’t have been caught.)
“This isn’t really about freedom of information anymore. It’s about the rights of all citizens to be able to count on the rule of law to curb abuse by the state.
“And today, British Columbians have little reason to believe they have that protection.”
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.