British Columbia’s acting information and privacy commissioner says it was worth the $10,000 taxpayers spent to send him and a deputy to a convention in Australia while the government was in transition last month.
Drew McArthur, who was appointed by the BC Liberal cabinet to replace Elizabeth Denham in mid-2016, told theBreaker that it was part of British Columbia’s commitment as the secretariat for the Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities.
“Information knows no borders,” McArthur said in an interview. “B.C. citizens’ information is traveling all over the world and there are investigations undertaken in different countries that involve B.C. citizens’ information and there is lots of good information we’re learning from other authorities on how they conduct investigations and the kinds of work they’re doing.”
McArthur and deputy commissioner Michael McEvoy appeared at the Sydney-hosted international forum of privacy commissioners on July 10-11, where attendees discussed topics like data protection, privacy law reform and artificial intelligence. Vancouver hosts the next forum, Nov. 15-17.
The inconclusive May 9 election led to an alliance between the NDP and Green parties that resulted in the June 29 no-confidence vote and defeat of the BC Liberals. The government remained in limbo until July 18 when 16 years of BC Liberal rule ended with the swearing-in of NDP Premier John Horgan. McArthur said it was not necessary for him to be in the province during the BC Liberals’ last week in power, because he had no role in the transition of government.
“We’re an independent office of the legislature, our investigation work continues no matter what state the government is in,” McArthur said. “I don’t have any authority to oversee any elements of transition or the creation or destruction of documents on behalf of the government. That authority is vested in the Information Management Act that appoints the chief records officer for the provincial government, whom you know has been dismissed. I don’t think we have a new chief records officer yet.”
Assistant deputy minister of finance Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland held that post, but she was among a group of 10 senior bureaucrats dismissed on the final day of the BC Liberal administration in one of Christy Clark’s last cabinet orders.
Leading up to the transition, theBreaker complained to the OIPC after finding evidence that documents in the Office of the Premier may have been destroyed before, during and after the election campaign. During Clark’s premiership, the OIPC found the BC Liberals mass-deleting government email, using private services like Gmail and avoiding written communication altogether in strategic efforts to evade FOI laws.
By comparison, when 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule ended in Alberta in 2015, that province’s information and privacy commissioner Jill Clayton issued a public statement to remind public workers of their obligations under records statutes. That prompted a whistleblower to complain about the shredding of 344 boxes of Ministry of Environment documents the day after Rachel Notley led the NDP to victory.
McArthur declined to follow Clayton’s lead in B.C. He said he was confident with the “very detailed instructions” about information-handling given to government workers by Clark’s deputy minister, Kim Henderson. McArthur deputy Jay Fedorak provided theBreaker with a copy of “Managing Records During an Election,” which is published below.
“I don’t have any authority or jurisdiction like they do in Alberta over the destruction of government records,” McArthur said.
“He needed to be here”: critic
IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis disagreed. He said McArthur had an obligation to be on-duty and on-call during the pivotal period in B.C. history.
“Whether he has jurisdiction or not is irrelevant, his office has already demonstrated that it can involve itself at its own initiative in government document management and its first and foremost responsibility was to British Columbians in the event something happened that would have required his immediate attention,” Travis said. “He needed to be here, not a dozen time zones away Down Under.”
B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vince Gogolek said McArthur and OIPC could have done more. He pointed to section 42 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which gives the commissioner power to inform the public of the law or research anything affecting the achievement of the law’s purposes.
“Some of these issues that we’re talking about here in terms of preserving records does, to my mind, relate to the purposes of the act,” Gogolek said. “The records have to be there to be requested. It might not be specifically put into the hands of the commissioner’s office, but I think there is scope there for the commissioner to certainly comment on those issues.”
Horgan appointed Jinny Sims as the Citizens Services minister with jurisdiction over the government’s information and privacy functions. McArthur said he was “pleased” to see language in her mandate letter about promoting transparency and increasing the efficiency and timeliness of freedom of information requests. The NDP promised to amend the laws to make government more transparent.
“We will see how that pans out and I’m certainly looking forward to an opportunity to work with her to look for ways to improve the government’s results in terms of freedom of information and protection of information for B.C. citizens,” McArthur said.
McArthur was Telus’s chief compliance and privacy officer until his 2007 retirement. In 2010, he joined the OIPC’s external advisory board. His post was supposed to last six months, while a special committee of MLAs sought a permanent replacement for Denham, now the United Kingdom’s information and privacy watchdog. They failed earlier this year to agree on a replacement, which means McArthur remains until a new committee completes a new recruitment process. Despite his temporary appointment by the previous cabinet, McArthur said he has not experienced any roadblocks or shied away from any investigations.
“I have never encountered any issues that would prevent me from doing my role the way that I see best,” he said. “I am not subject to political interference, have not been. I have spent my time making sure my office has the leadership, direction and support in order to do the important work that it needs.”
Travis said that McArthur’s successor needs to be “an advocate for access to information issues, for privacy issues and for lobbying issues; not somebody who is a bureaucrat at administration.”
- Are you a B.C. government employee or contractor who was behind-the-scenes during the transition of power? Did you witness deletion, destruction or disappearance of documents or files? theBreaker wants to hear from you. Contact theBreaker in confidence. Click here.