Sometimes what’s not there when the government releases documents in response to a Freedom of Information request can tell the real story.
That’s the case in a file handed over by B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture in reply to a request from The Globe and Mail for “all studies, reports and assessments, including briefing notes to the Premier” regarding the Agricultural Land Commission and the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The response: 93 blank pages.
What those empty pages show is that cabinet had a significant amount of information when it drafted Bill 24 – a highly controversial piece of legislation that the government is now striving to justify.
The redactions also show that the Ministry of Agriculture, which is currently seeking public input on the bill, has nothing to share with the public when it comes to the formulation of that legislation.
And that’s a problem – both for the citizens of B.C., who have a right to know why such significant changes are being made to the Agricultural Land Reserve, and for the government, whose credibility is at stake.
Before the past election, Christy Clark promised an open and transparent government.
“Open government means talking about our problems and setting our priorities openly,” she said. “Government will work with citizens to find solutions and explain decisions.”
That was then. Now, faced with a groundswell of opposition to its plans to hobble the Agricultural Land Commission, the government offers no explanations.
Most of the 93 blank pages released by the Ministry of Agriculture are redacted under section 12 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. That section relates to cabinet and local public-body confidences.
Under FOIPPA the head of a public body “must refuse to disclose … information that would reveal the substance of deliberations of the Executive Council.”
But that restriction does not apply once a decision has been made public. And Bill 24, which is before the House and has been the focus of protest rallies, is very public indeed.
The government can release those files if it chooses to – and it should. It owes the public an explanation of why Bill 24 is needed. Bill Bennett, the minister responsible for the core review that led to the creation of the bill, has said the changes are warranted because the ALC has been keeping too much land locked up in the land reserve.
“There is some land within the agricultural land reserve that actually is useless to agriculture,” he has said.
Last November, The Globe obtained a cabinet document, prepared by then-agriculture minister Pat Pimm, which called for the creation of two zones within the agricultural land reserve. It also sought to have the ALC stripped of its powers by moving it into the Ministry.
The release of that document – which is blanked out in the recent FOI release – caused a public uproar. When Bill 24 was subsequently introduced, it did not contain some of the proposals Mr. Pimm made, such as his recommendation that the ALC be stripped of its autonomy by bringing it within the ministry.
What reports did cabinet have that persuaded it to accept some of Mr. Pimm’s recommendations and not others?
What documents did it have that showed the ALC wasn’t functioning efficiently, or that it was locking up land in the ALR that shouldn’t have been protected?
What is the fiscal analysis? Will making it easier to remove land from the ALR drive up the price of farmland?
And who did the government consult before deciding on the changes?
Based on the outcry that followed the release of Mr. Pimm’s document, and which intensified once Bill 24 was introduced, we know it wasn’t the farmers and ranchers of B.C.
Newly appointed Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick is currently seeking public input on Bill 24, and he has promised to make changes to the legislation if warranted.
But if he wants real dialogue, if he wants to work with citizens, his government first has to show that it is honest and open. The place to start is by disclosing the 93 pages it is keeping secret on the agricultural land reserve.