Freedom of Information? Not in B.C.

06/01/2016 / Politics 

In late 2015, there were accusations that the BC Liberals were deliberately deleting sensitive government emails on controverial issues. In addition, a decision was made to stop recording the number of homeless people turned away from shelters.  Both of these issues show a disregard by the B.C. government for freedom of information and the right of taxpayers to openness from their government.

Every dollar spent by government should be open to scrutiny by the taxpayer and voter. For this reason, we support the pressure on the Liberals regarding their deletion of sensitive emails, and we also support the criticism of their decision to stop tracking the numbers of people being turned away at homeless shelters, a decision that makes it near-impossible for policy makers to properly assess and address needs in our communities.  These types of government actions, however, are not new. The censorship of what should be public information began already in 2001, when a Bill was quickly and quietly passed by the B.C. NDP, blocking access to information regarding abortions in the province. 

David Eby, the MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, has been particularly relentless in pointing to the unjust muzzling of Freedom of Information, and the accountability a government must be held to in its allocation and use of public funds. While understandable that the Opposition would take such an approach, we find Mr. Eby and the NDP’s response rich with hypocrisy, as this same party had no problem with the muzzling of statistics when they were in power.  

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In 2001, as one of their last acts in government, the NDP introduced Bill 21, an Act requiring hospitals to perform abortions while at the same time allowing them to keep the resulting statistics secret. The legislation was a striking, unprecedented breach of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. In fact, the Information and Privacy Commissioner at that time, David Loukedelis, wrote a letter to deputy premier Joy MacPhail the very next day, informing her in no uncertain terms that Bill 21 unnecessarily limited public freedom to information collected by the government. Nevertheless, the NDP pushed ahead with this blatant act of censorship.

There is no excuse for the Liberals to delete information that the public has a right to know. But make no mistake, it was the NDP’s censorship bill which was the first law to restrict specific public information and exclude it from the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  The NDP took this step despite there having never been a case regarding abortion statistics where compromising personal data was or could have been released. This purely ideological decision ensured that the abortion debate in British Columbia and, by default, Canada, would be stifled.  It is no longer possible to state with accuracy what type of abortions are being used, which procedures carry higher risks or have more complications, the reasons women choose abortion, the gestational age at abortion, or even the simplest statistic: how many occur each year? 

We often hear that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Well, it’s already legal throughout the entire pregnancy and we know that abortion advocates have long parted with caring about how rare it is.  By refusing to let the residents of British Columbia know anything that pertains to the procedure, we now don’t even know if it is safe. More importantly, how can policy makers and advocates know what situations are leading women to choose abortion, and how can these very real cries of desperation be answered with programs that are actually pro-woman? The reality is that, without the information, no one knows, and therefore nothing concrete can be done for those who may be feeling like their “choice” is no choice at all.  

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It is ironic that the same party that sought to muzzle the debate on abortion by eliminating access to accurate statistics is the party now criticizing the Liberals for muzzling the debate on homelessness by eliminating access to statistics.  Even more ironic is that the spokesperson for the NDP is an “award-winning human rights lawyer”, who previously served as executive director for the BC Civil Liberties Association. Freedom of Information should be David Eby’s area of expertise, yet he has never spoken out against Bill 21, and it continues to stand in law over this province.

Holding the government accountable is the opposition’s role, and an important one. As such, the NDP is right to criticize government control over statistics. Provincial governments have a responsibility to ensure that the citizens who elect them have access to all the information needed to understand the use of taxpayer funds – whether regarding homelessness or health policy. No matter what your thoughts are on pre-born human rights or abortion, this form of censorship is contrary to everything an open and democratic society should embody.

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