Letter: Not so routine question

There was a debate about it on social media one night that caught my eye.

A bit of good news came out of Victoria this week, which could have easily been missed under the avalanche of bad news that was coming out of the capital.

British Columbia is now “operating debt-free for the first time in more than 40 years,” according to the province’s second quarterly report. But that’s not really the good news, at least for me.

Perhaps — now that the report and all the preparatory work is out of the way — the ministry might find some time to answer a question I had in early October.

It concerned a table found on page 85 of the British Columbia financial and economic review (78th edition). The review is published annually and is released with the province’s public accounts each summer. It’s also filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The table — Supply and consumption of electrical energy in B.C. — is a side-by-side comparison of supply (hydro, thermal and imports) and consumption (provincial demand and exports).

It goes back to 1989 and for every single year total supply has always equalled total demand (possibly on the balance sheet principle of accounting), except for 2017, when demand allegedly exceeded supply by 7,032 gigawatt-hours.

There was a debate about it on social media one night that caught my eye and I thought it was a fairly routine question that the finance ministry could easily answer. Big mistake.

Here’s how it started in an Oct. 4 email from myself to the communications manager at the ministry: “You’ll notice in the table below that column five for every year matches column eight, except for 2017. I’m wondering if you can shed some light on why that it is?”

The immediate response: “I am looking into your question and will get back to you once I’ve found the answer.”

Me one week later: “any luck?”

“The data in this table is provided by Statistics Canada. Staff are in contact with Stats Can to determine the underlying calculation. As soon as we have resolved this, I will let you know.”

Translation: “We don’t have the foggiest clue but don’t email us, we’ll email you.”

Me a month later: “today marks a month of waiting.”

“This data is provided to the B.C. government by Statistics Canada, and we are continuing our discussions with them about how they arrived at these figures. I recommend you reach out to them directly if you would like more information about their methodology.”

Translation? “You think the ministry understands every table we put in the public accounts? If we hadn’t put the table there, it would have been a big blob of white space. You want an answer call Stats Can.”

Me: “a contact to do so, please?”

And there ended the exchange. Nearly two months later, no answer to the original question and no contact information for Stats Can, who likely crunches numbers better than the ministry.

Answering questions from the pesky public falls under the bailiwick of the Government Communications and Public Engagement (GCPE) office.

The sub-ministry has a fairly lofty mandate: “GCPE’s primary role is to inform the public about government programs, services, policies and priorities through traditional communication practices and, increasingly, through direct engagement and online services.”

The first featured service on its website reads: “We want to ensure you know about programs, policies, and services that affect you — and communicate developments on these fronts through a variety of communication products, directly to media outlets throughout the province.”

As long as we don’t have any questions it would seem.

Once upon a time, governments actually answered questions, particularly the innocuous ones, novel as it may be in 2018.

In an age of cynicism towards governments and their mammoth spin operations, an answer to a fairly straightforward question might help.

It wasn’t as though I was asking for the nuclear code or how much the Insurance Corporation of B.C. may have lost on interest rate swaps through derivative hedging in 2015.

But when the spin department ignores queries, delays a reply possibly in the hope you’ll forget you ever asked the question or obfuscates in its response, it simply breeds more cynicism fueled by the accelerator of social media.

Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC

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