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Have FOI requests become political paywalls? BC NDP charging for info on Asia trade mission

‘If this is information that could be made available to the public, it should be made available to the public by default.’
Premier David Eby with Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Vancouver International Airport, before he boarded a plane to Tokyo on May 27

The B.C. government charged a reporter $40 to find out that it budgeted $193,000 to send Premier David Eby, three cabinet ministers and nine bureaucrats on a trade mission to Asia.

That charge – rather than proactively releasing the costs – supports the prediction a watchdog made in November 2021, when the BC NDP imposed a $10 freedom of information (FOI) request fee.

Jason Woywada, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said at the time the government would turn it into a paywall for political purposes.

“The government is using this as the excuse to try and say, ‘Well, we've had this explosion in FOI requests,’ when really they're just forcing more and more people to apply for FOI, rather than releasing the information proactively,” Woywada said. “If this is information that could be made available to the public, it should be made available to the public by default.”

George Smith, Eby’s director of communications, declined to provide the budget estimate prior to the May 26 to June 7 junket. He said actual costs would be contained in the public accounts sometime later in the summer.

The answer was the same last fall and the fall before that from the Minister of Environment when Environment Minister George Heyman flew to attend the annual United Nations climate change conference.

Trade missions and conference visits are planned months in advance. Travel budgets for cabinet members and their staff are supposed to be approved and in government files well before they depart. The government’s core policy and procedures manual requires everyone complete a pre-trip budget approval form for all out-of-country travel.

Since the government refused to provide the budget before the trip, four separate FOI requests were directed to four departments to obtain the form for each traveller.

Minister of State for Trade Jagrup Brar started the trip in Vietnam on May 25 and flew to Japan on May 27 to meet up with Eby, as well as Energy and Mines Minister Josie Osborne and Jobs and Economic Development Minister Brenda Bailey. They continued to South Korea from May 31 to June 3. Eby finished the trip in Singapore on June 7. They met government and industry officials on each leg to promote B.C. technology, resources and education.

The forms show that Bailey and Brar had the highest cost estimates for transportation, meals and lodging, at $18,811 each.

Eby’s deputy minister, Shannon Salter, had the lowest estimate at $10,758.

Eby ($14,698.04), chief of staff Matt Smith ($14,834.72) and senior adviser of intergovernmental relations Jessica Smith ($11,284.13) did not include the dates that their respective travel was authorized. Neither did Osborne and aide Andrew Cuddy, who both estimated $15,150.

The forms for Eby and the two unrelated Smiths included additional cost estimates, ranging from $268 for Jessica Smith to $448 for Eby. But the government censored the description of the specific good or service due to personal reasons.

Deputy minister Silas Brownsey and assistant deputy minister Leslie Teramoto estimated their travel would cost $16,694.70 each. Unlike the others, they included 10 per cent contingencies (or $1,517.70) in the totals.

Also accompanying Bailey and Brar were deputy minister Fazil Mihlar ($13,180) and the executive director of B.C.’s trade mission office, William Hoyle ($12,987).

Hoyle made an advance trip from April 11-22, which he estimated at $11,696. Similarly, Marlene Behrens, event director with Government Communications and Public Engagement, made an advance trip from April 14-26 that she budgeted at $13,172. The figure for the trade mission was $14,000.

Marie Della Mattia, the government’s deputy minister of communications, authorized both of Behrens’ trips.

Including the advance trips, the total budget was closer to $218,000.

The 30th anniversary of B.C.’s FOI legislation, one of the NDP achievements under former premier Mike Harcourt, is coming Oct. 4.

Murray Rankin was on the legal team that helped Attorney General Colin Gabelmann draft the openness law. Rankin later became an NDP MP who told a House of Commons committee that the $5 federal application fee is a “tollgate on the citizens’ right to access.” In 2020, Rankin was elected the NDP MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head and he voted a year later to impose the FOI fee.

In the first week of the spring session of the B.C. legislature, Green MLA Adam Olsen (Saanich North and the Islands) tabled a private member’s bill aimed at repealing the fee. It went nowhere because Eby’s caucus did not call the bill for debate. 

In a January report, Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy found the $10 fee resulted in an 80 per cent year-over-year drop in requests from the media during the first six months. From Nov. 30, 2021, to May 30, 2022, it collected $15,360 from applicants.