British Columbia·Analysis

Triple deleted emails shed light on troubling political culture

The mass deletion of government emails has raised serious questions of how widespread the practice is and what the government will do to change it.

How access to information policy can be interpreted in so many different ways.

The routine deletion of emails has become standard government practice raising questions about public accountability. (Getty Images)

"Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."

Boston Ward boss Martin Lomasney spoke those words nearly a century ago, long before the existence of emails, freedom of information or Christy Clark for that matter. 

But the B.C. premier's government appears to be operating by Lomasney's credo all the same. 

Martyn Brown cites this quote often. As chief of staff to Clark's predecessor, Gordon Campbell, Brown never wrote down anything that could get himself or his boss in trouble.

"The most important advice to cabinet members, to ministers, is still not delivered in writing. It is actually delivered orally," he said.

But here's the problem. This isn't 1933. Clark isn't the ward boss of a notoriously corrupt system. Freedom of information exists, as does Elizabeth Denham, B.C'.s privacy commissioner.  

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And there is an expectation from the public that their governments be open and accountable.

Era of accountability

In fact, it was only a couple of years ago Clark promised an actual new era of accountability, saying her government would release more information without the need for freedom-of-information requests, would distribute documents released through such requests through its website, and would post a host of government data online.

So why are political staff triple deleting emails: purging them not only from their mailboxes and trash, but from the government's backup servers?

We've all deleted emails —  but this seems to be a special effort that goes well above and beyond that.

Premier Christy Clark promised her government would usher in a new era of accountability. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Clark's explanation —  essentially that this is all a big technological and guideline misunderstanding — is in direct conflict with Denham's version of events.

"It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems that my office discovered in the course of this investigation and the resulting effects on the integrity of the access to information process in our province," Denham's report reads.

"In light of the serious nature of these problems, it is important the government take immediate action to restore public confidence."

Millions of emails wiped

But it may be too late for this. Millions of emails are gone and wiped from the public record. Just as alarming, it's becoming clear the government didn't think it was doing anything wrong.

Premier Christy Clark told reporters that her deputy chief of staff Michele Cadario was following the rules as they were commonly interpreted. Denham said in her report that interpretation led to the "permanent deletion of almost all emails she sent in the course of her work."

B.C.'s Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Thursday he "triple deletes his emails from time to time." (CBC News)

Clark has announced, through a letter to staff, that no emails should be deleted from now until the report being done by former Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis is finished.

"We have been doing things this way a long time and she (Denham) has said the interpretation of the law is much different," Clark said.

"If we have to make any changes and I sure we will, then all the emails from today on will have been preserved."

But that doesn't get to the core of why political staffers have been trained for years to mass-delete all emails. Government staffers insist the reason they cleanse their emails is so that they can do their job effectively. 

For example, if an advisor to the premier were to send an email with a criticism of a minister's idea, the release of that email could greatly compromise the working relationship between the staffer and that minister.

What are the rules?

Government officials have also made it clear they understand under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act  they can delete "transitory" emails, which some have interpreted as basically every email they send.

Clark acknowledged there have been inconsistencies.

Christy Clark has appointed former Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis to clarify the rules around email deletion. (iStock)

"One of things the commissioner has drawn attention to is the interpretation of the act in terms of what we retain and what we dispose of, has been applied a little differently according to individuals."

This is not just about the information lost when the emails were deleted, but a loss of faith in politics and the political system.

Even though officials may have been conducting themselves as they understood the rules, you can't blame the public for feeling something is being hidden from them.

"I'm concerned that the government doesn't seem to understand that this information does not belong to them," NDP leader John Horgan said.

"It is not about them looking good or bad. It's about openness and access of information. They are oblivious to that."