B.C. Speaker Darryl Plecas’ report this week, accusing the legislature’s two highest-ranking officers of hundreds of thousands of dollars of spending abuses, has been making some people ‘sick’. But a transparency advocate is hoping the sick bags have a silver lining.
As the investigation into overspending by suspended clerk and sergeant-at-arms Craig James and Gary Lenz continues, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Sara Neuert said her non-profit hopes the scandal will lead to serious change.
“We are looking forward to this opening the door for the government to really take it seriously that there needs to be legislative change and broader transparency, because the public is becoming more aware and [is] going to continue to ask more questions,” said Neuert in an interview Wednesday with Black Press Media.
One such change would be to include the Legislative Assembly in the list of public bodies to which the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act applies, Neuert said.
This would provide members of the public with the statutory right to access information from the assembly, such as the expense claims of its clerk and sergeant-at-arms, subject to certain exceptions.
Currently, the FIPPA list of public bodies includes provincial government ministries, provincial agencies, boards, commissions, Crown corporations, and local public bodies. However, the assembly itself is not considered a public body under FIPPA.
MLAs are not included in the list of public bodies either, but have been posting receipts that justify their spending online for several years.
In 2014, an all-party committee of MLAs unanimously approved then-finance minister Mike de Jong’s proposal to publish receipts from politicians’ travel and other expenses. The proposal came after several high-profile spending scandals, including the $5,500 that then-speaker Linda Reid billed taxpayers for her husband’s business-class flights.
“There were a couple of scandals about MLAs’ travel expenses, so that created change for our political parties,” said Neuert, adding it was a policy change, not a legislative change. “What didn’t change is our legislative structure, the staff and that.”
For years, the association has been trying to get the same FIPPA rules applied to the Legislative Assembly as a whole, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“It’s easier for a government to put that on the back-burner and hit the hot topics that the public is hearing about and thinking about and seeing,” she said. “But then when something like this happens and it puts transparency into question, then we start to look at it. It takes something to give it that push and open that door.”
In 2016, a special all-party committee reviewed FIPPA and produced a report with 11 major recommendations and 28 other recommendations on the duty to document, proactive disclosure, extending the application of FIPPA and more.
“Their recommendations just got tabled. We haven’t seen anything come out of that,” said Neuert. “The new government has come in, they’ve been in power for almost two years now, and we haven’t seen any substantial changes to the legislation.”
Neuert credited the BC Ministry of Citizens’ Services with doing a public consultation on freedom of information and privacy rights last spring, but said the process also seems to have stalled on the path to legislative change.
“We’ve been waiting for a report on that consultation and we’ve seen nothing. We’ve put in requests and we’ve gotten nothing back,” she said. “I’m not quite sure why.”
Neuert said the last legislative changes to FIPPA occurred in 2005. She said the “minor” changes weren’t even close to the kind of reforms they were hoping for.
“Now we’ve got another issue around transparency,” Neuert said. “We think this is an opportunity for the government to take action and actually review what needs to be done about the legislation to ensure the public has transparency.”
A request for comment to the Ministry of Citizens’ Services has not yet been returned.