Welfare report Suppressed during election campaign
Victoria — From Monday's Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2009 10:22PM EDT
The provincial bureaucracy suppressed a routine report during the spring election campaign that shows the province is facing a significant increase in welfare costs this year.
The data tracking the number of people on income assistance put added strain on Premier Gordon Campbell's assertion that his February budget is on track for a $495-million deficit.
An internal government e-mail exchange shows that a Web services analyst was preparing the monthly update of welfare statistics on April 21 when the public affairs bureau stepped in.
“Hi John – Can we please hold off on posting these updates until after the election? Thanks for your help,” wrote government communications officer Amanda Thambirajah.
Read the e-mails, accessed under a freedom of information request
Download this file (.pdf)
Ms. Thambirajah was invoking “interregnum” as the basis for keeping the information out of the public realm during the election – the notion that the civil service should act as a caretaker between one reign and the next.
“It was determined the best approach was to remain neutral and non-partisan about all information except for information about public safety,” Ben Stewart, the minister responsible for the B.C. government's public affairs bureau, said in an interview Monday.
He said the government's entire force of 32,000 civil servants was aware of the protocol, but could not produce a copy of the edict because it does not appear to have been written down anywhere. It was left to the communications directors in each government ministry to prevent the publication of any statistics, reports or other information during the 28-day campaign.
The analyst, John Paul Johnson, sparked a cascade of e-mails when he notified the public affairs bureau that the monthly welfare statistics would be ready to post on the government website on April 30.
His initial e-mail was written the day before Mr. Campbell issued a mid-election campaign assurance that the budget was on track. “Our budget that we brought in in February is a solid budget,” Mr. Campbell said at the time. “We will perform to that budget.”
The statistics show that welfare claims in March had swelled by 26 per cent compared to March, 2008. New Democratic Party Leader Carole James said that information would have been helpful to voters in an election campaign that was focused on the state of the economy. She called the decision to keep the numbers secret until several days after the May 12 vote “disturbing.”
According to budget documents, every 1 per cent increase in welfare cases costs the treasury an additional $3.5-million.
The government so far has allocated an additional $61-million to cover increased welfare costs, a government official has confirmed.
The e-mail trail was obtained through a freedom of information request by former New Democratic Party MLA David Schreck, who turned them over to the opposition. Ms. James noted Monday that the government also prevented health authorities from delivering their proposed health-care cuts until after the election.
“What else did they keep from British Columbians during an election campaign?” she asked. “It's pretty clear that we're in a difficult situation in British Columbia, and the public deserves to know that information.”
Some things were not covered by the unwritten protocol. For example, BC Stats, the government's main statistics agency, released seven economic reports during the campaign. As well, the Liberals announced in the first week of the campaign that the new Port Mann Bridge would open to traffic a year earlier than promised, and the next week, Mr. Campbell opened a new $4.6-million B.C. Visitor Centre.
The finance ministry is preparing an updated budget for Sept. 1, but has not provided any economic update since the election despite warnings from economists that the recession has dealt the government's fiscal health a substantive blow.