Who’s got the most cavalier attitude toward transparency in government — the B.C. Liberals or the NDP?
The previous government was the odds-on favourite as the correct answer. But the NDP is catching up.
B.C. Liberals’ approach to the rules on documenting and preserving government records vacillated between casual disregard and open contempt. It culminated in the triple-delete scandal, where premier’s office staff were coached in how to expunge emails permanently (or so they thought).
As that attitude developed over the years, the NDP in Opposition would express outrage about the horrible violations of the sacred principles of freedom of information.
Then they took power and discovered what a pain it is to follow all those pesky rules.
By last spring, the Liberals in opposition were asking questions about the mass deletion of emails. They had filed requests for routine emails to and from key staff and got back nothing.
Was the new government miraculously running the province without using any form of text communication? They were messaging, of course. They just weren’t keeping the messages, mostly by using the familiar old dodge of considering them “transitory.”
Even the minister responsible for abiding by FOI law, Citizens’ Services Minister Jinny Sims, was caught deleting and had to apologize.
Premier John Horgan eventually had to apologize for the entire government, and a new round of training was ordered on how to follow the rules. After a generalized promise to do better, the issue faded.
Until this week. Opposition Liberals returned to the theme and dwelled on the continuing absence of any government emails from a briefly appointed special adviser — Maria del Mattia.
Her specialty is communications and messaging advice and she was retained during the transition period, but left little record of her time.
Then she switched to contract work, and asked to have her government email address deleted, preferring to use her private Gmail address.
Her request was speedily approved by a deputy minister. She was no longer a civil servant, but using private email raises a lot of Opposition suspicion.
Her emails were retained — Liberals read from them in highlighting the issue. But some of them illustrate what a murky path the government is on.
“Confidential information is only being shared with me in person, not via email,” she wrote at one point.
Wednesday there were more questions about how the former special adviser-turned-contractor communicated the government business she was doing.
Liberals quoted a note she sent in March to a group of communications people about setting up a group email. One of them was using a “bcndp” address.
Earlier, she had discussed strategy and recommended forwarding her note to all constituency assistants and “maybe some of those Government Communications and Public Engagement folks that are doing political stuff. ”
GCPE staff are normally considered to be handling government program communications, more than “political stuff,” although the line is very elastic.
The point is that all her communications — many of them benign thoughts about leadership and time management — are pinging through an assortment of government and private email users, from her private account.
Sketching out an idea for a tip-of-the-day email, she wrote: “If we think of it as selling our agenda and helping others do the same, we can send it a bit wider and benefit from that word of mouth effect.”
Obviously, her emails still got retained and were produced on demand to the Liberals.
But they say the notes should be sent from an official account, and are crossing political-government lines.
Sims kept treading water on the issue, citing the Liberals’ miserable record on the same never-ending issue.
“We all know that good record management requires that we go through our emails and we delete the transitory emails that gunk up the system.
“The other side has the information they were looking for. There is no other story here.”
That’s what the Liberals used to say.