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January 27, 2010

HST Demonstrates Near Uselessness of FOI

”Your request requires a large volume of records to be searched. An extension of the time limit beyond the target date of January 21, 2010 will allow the Ministry to provide your with a complete response to your request. Therefore, the target response date is now March 4, 2010. We will respond sooner if possible.”
January 21, 2010 response to FOI 292-30/FIN-2009-00229

I wish I had kept records on how many times I’ve been told that the legal time limit for responding to a freedom of information request was extended due to the number of records that needed to be searched (Section 10 of the Act). Far from being the exception, it is one of many routine answers before the final answer comes in the form of a complete denial of access or pages of suppressed paragraphs.

I can’t help but laugh at the ”controversy” over the former Commissioner going over to the government side as the Deputy Attorney General. I respect the opinion of Bill Tieleman, Mike Smyth and others, but they are ignoring the irrelevance of the Office of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner. In my experience, both former Commissioner David Loukidelis and his staff were devoted to the concept of access to information, but the record of decisions from Loukidelis and his predecessor are strong on protection of privacy and weak on access to information. Much of that is blamed on the "Dr. Doe case" - or College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Information and Privacy Commissioner), which essentially gave the government a blank cheque to deny access to any information.

The test for the new Deputy Attorney General will be whether he influences the Campbell government to amend the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in accordance with his recommendations as Commissioner. In particular, can the Deputy Attorney General persuade government to fix problems that flow from the Dr. Doe case , which gives government power to deny access to virtually anything.

My January 21st request was simple, it asked for “any documents that mention how the estimate was determined of $6.515 billion for BC HST revenue before rebates as shown in Table 3 in the September budget documents.“ The request also asked for: “Any documents that discuss the relation or reconciliation between the estimates for BC HST on BC families.“

In the most generous terms, I could draft the eventual government response to my request: 1) the $6.5 billion return in the first year from HST is 7/5 times the GST return provided by the federal government after adjusting for differences in the tax base, 2) there are no records to account for the astounding difference ($3.2 billion) between this estimate and what was claimed as the impact of typical families. Rather than providing that simple and revealing answer, the usual FOI process will result in months of delay and a final answer that the documents are protected by one reason or another according to exclusions in the Act.

No change in who occupies the seat of the Commissioner will mean anything; changes require a change in the attitude of government. Not likely!