House of Commons Hansard #150 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was information.

Topics

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3:20 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

The same is true in the case of seniors. They say yes in committee and no before Parliament. How is the public expected to react? How can they take the work of parliamentary committees seriously if the Liberals fiddle behind the scenes with access to information and order members to toe the party line and ignore what the MPs want to do? It is a matter of privilege. People must have access to information.

At the start of my remarks, I said that I was a journalist for some 20 years. On my arrival here, I was very disappointed to see that things were not going so well.

The Bloc Québécois supports this measure. Given the weakness of the status quo the Liberals are proposing, our committee is still hoping to have an affirmative answer thanks to the work of the other opposition parties. However, we might get a negative answer in Parliament.

If that happens, it will be bad faith, because we will conclude that this government is determined to control information and not share it. If the Liberals want to demonstrate that they can adopt a new mindset and show that things are different in this Parliament, they will have to vote in favour of the motion defended today by the Conservative Party, because it addresses the expectations of the public, the media, MPs and everyone entitled to have access to information.

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3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I did stay to listen to the end of the member's speech as I know he is very interested in the subject matter.

I will speak about one of the principles in this motion. As members know, the motion should be read in the context of considering the advisability of these provisions and also the fact that these are quite broad brushes. There are some significant exceptions which likely would be included in any subsequent legislation. For instance, there is the issue of the Ethics Commissioner as an officer of Parliament and whether or not the public would have access to the information that officer would have. That would cause some difficulty and there might be some conflict with regard to that commissioner's operations.

I would ask the member for some context through which he could help the House better understand the concept of public interest. In the motion, public interest is basically put forward as a test which may override some of the exemptions that are included either in the act today or in a subsequent bill. I want to know whether or not the member could give his view of what he thought was of interest to the public as opposed to what was certainly of public interest, which should override any of the exceptions that are being considered.

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3:25 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Speaker, I realize that the Liberals are afraid to provide information. I am a fan of freedom of information. The members of my committee, people on other committees and members of the Parliament of Canada are able to decide what should be official and made public and where some restrictions might possibly apply.

However, we cannot accept the Liberal practice over the last few years of hiding behind agencies in order to refuse to provide information. We saw the mess that this has created in the sponsorship scandal, in some Public Works and Government Services Canada contracts, and in many questions asked in this House in order to get at the truth.

The Bloc Québécois is proposing an Access to Information Act that would enable the public, members of Parliament and the media to get what they want.

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3:25 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière not only for his excellent speech but for his longstanding commitment to the issue of freedom of information, something we all recognize and appreciate.

He and I have both listened to the speakers from the Liberal Party on the subject of this opposition day motion. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister stated in his remarks that “the various components of this complex subject must be studied first before we proceed”.

I would ask the hon. member to comment. Does he not agree with me that this subject has been studied and studied ad nauseam, ad infinitum? We have studied this issue to death for a decade or more.

Does he not agree that it was offensive when the Minister of Justice came before our committee and tabled a discussion paper so that we might begin the process of studying the issue rather than proceeding with legislation? Would he agree with me that the Liberals deliberately stalled, undermined and sabotaged meaningful reform by taking this route?

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3:25 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Speaker, that is what I said in my presentation. Based on the way in which the Liberals on our committee act sometimes, we wonder whether they really want to move in the right direction. I fail to understand why the government is introducing draft legislation when we already have all the tools and documents we need to make a decision.

I have a good story to tell. A former Supreme Court judge, an eminent jurist, was hired to study the unification of the offices of the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner. Most members, including the Liberals, thought that this was pointless. Our knowledge of the two offices and how they had developed left no doubt in our minds that this would not work. So they ordered a study to show the advantages or disadvantages of this kind of unification.

It is also evident in view of the arrival of a preliminary draft on the verge of an election campaign that we must renew our efforts. The opposition parties, including mine, the Bloc Québécois, will continue their efforts to obtain this legislation, which will give people real access to information.

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3:30 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, out of the blue, the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister, I believe, ordered a report to be done by a wonderful jurist in our country, Gérard La Forest, on the topic of whether the information commission and the privacy commission should be united, notwithstanding the fact that both the Privacy Commissioner and the Information Commissioner said it was not a very good idea.

My suspicion is that this is another tactic to stall this whole process. Does the member agree?

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3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Speaker, I was saying earlier that we are against merging the two commissioners' offices. It is increasingly evident that the two organizations have different mandates and cannot work together. People try to convince us of the opposite, saying that unification would save money and so forth. But in both cases, what is really needed is additional personnel and more tools to improve the services provided.

Both commissioners have said in this regard that they are currently battling with Treasury Board to obtain the resources they need to do their jobs.

I would point out that these two organizations do totally different work. Things have changed since 2001 and we have to respond now to the expectations of our modern society.

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3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would first like to congratulate my colleague from Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière on his speech and especially on his statement that information is the very basis of democracy. There is no way around it. All good democrats will say that, without information, people cannot progress, say their piece, decide and act. That is true of Canada too, of course.

I would add here that the Parliament of Canada is one of the major pillars of democracy. People often say that a veil has been drawn over government activities and they feel this is contrary to the very mission of the Parliament of Canada. As proof I would point to what is said in the Gomery report about the Liberal Party. It says that there is a culture, a system, a veil of secrecy to keep people in the dark about certain activities.

I have a question for my colleague. Can we not now see the same thing happening in this government in some major files? One of my colleagues just raised the issue of seniors' incomes, but employment insurance—

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3:30 p.m.

The Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member, but his time is up. The hon. member for Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière for a brief response.

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3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague gave conclusive examples that should convince us that we need to improve this legislation. It is time to remove the veil of secrecy over what parliamentarians really do, especially the federal Liberals.

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3:30 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in the debate this afternoon. For members and those listening, the debate is with respect to a proposed new access to information act. I will read that resolution again. It states:

That, in the opinion of the House, the Access to Information Act should be amended to:

(a) expand coverage of the act to all Crown corporations, all officers of Parliament, all foundations and to all organizations that spend taxpayers' dollars or perform public functions--

That is not being done now. It goes on to state:

(b) establish a Cabinet-confidence exclusion, subject to review by the Information Commissioner;

(c) establish a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions--

It has been suggested in the committee that if this took place, the ad scam scandal never would have taken place because we would have known about these things. It goes on to state:

(d) provide a general public interest override for all exemptions, in that the public interest should come before the secrecy of government; and

(e) make all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test.

The rationale for this resolution is to provide an open and accountable government which is essential to restoring the faith of Canadians in Parliament.

The people in my riding have listened to what has happened in this place. They have listened to what has happened with the ad scam scandal. They listened to the Gomery report. They are very disillusioned with politicians, whether it be provincial, federal or municipal politicians. The Liberal government has given politicians a bad name and, quite frankly, I resent that. One reason the resolution is being brought forward is to restore the faith of Canadians in Parliament.

Officers of Parliament and corporations that use taxpayer money should be accountable to the taxpayers. We have just gone through yet another scandal, the Dingwall scandal. It did not really matter. It seems people can do anything they like. Mr. Ouellet is another one. The attitude that they can do anything they like goes on and on. That is the second rationale, that officers of Parliament and corporations using taxpayer money should be accountable to the taxpayer.

Transparency and accountability in the manner in which taxpayer money is spent is in the public interest and must take precedence over the current culture of secrecy, an entitlement of which the Liberals have taken advantage.

Crown corporations such as Canada Post and VIA Rail, which their politically appointed presidents were involved in the sponsorship scandal, must be accountable for their spending. That will only be done if they are subject to access to information requests. Is it not strange that these corporations are not subject to the access to information legislation?

Finally, the continuous stalling has been mentioned previously. The member for Winnipeg Centre has brought up about how we have gone over and over this topic on a continuous basis. The Leader of the Opposition and the members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics out of frustration have drafted legislation which will eventually be brought before the House. Even though the Liberals talk about meaningful access to information reform, they continuously stall and delay important changes to access to information legislation.

I put a question to the member from the Bloc who spoke previously. What I believe happened is the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister decided to look at unifying the two positions. They hired retired Supreme Court Justice Gérard La Forest to make a report. I doubt if we will ever see that report. Then they will say that they cannot doing anything until they look at that whole subject, which may never happen. It is yet another stall tactic.

An interesting piece of information that the House should be made aware of is this. In response to the Auditor General's report on sponsorship, the Prime Minister called for the Treasury Board to examine the possibility of the extension of the Access to Information Act to all crown corporations. Yet in 1995, 1998 and the year 2000 he voted against meaningful amendments to the Access to Information Act. His record really is not that good as far as trying to put meaningful change into the access to information legislation.

Historically, the act came into being on July 1, 1983. It has been mentioned that former member John Bryden brought forward Bill C-201. Some of the members who have been around this place know more of the history of the bill than I do. Mr. Bryden came before the committee. He talked about its history and how he had tried to implement the legislation. The bill died on the order paper in 2003.

The member for Winnipeg Centre brought forward the precise bill, I believe, in 2004. The Minister of Justice went to him and asked him if he would mind stalling his bill and putting it aside because the government was going to draft its own bill which would be the same, if not better, than the bill by the member for Winnipeg Centre. The member for Winnipeg Centre took the Minister of Justice at his word and set the bill aside. Nothing ever happened.

We then move into this discussion in the committee. The member for Winnipeg Centre ultimately joined us in the committee and we discussed the whole topic of the new information legislation. It was discussed that we would perhaps instruct the present Information Commissioner, John Reid, to put forward new legislation.

When that was announced, the Minister of Justice said that the government would draft another bill and introduce it in the fall. It is now November 15. I have not seen the bill. I do not know where the it is. All we have had is the Minister of Justice telling a retired justice to do a report on whether the two commissions, the privacy commission and the information commission, should be united.

The committee will put forward a report to the House shortly that we will have a new bill. The bill will come to the House for debate.

This has been the history of this legislation since its inception in 1983. There has been continual resistance by the Liberal government toward making meaningful changes to that legislation.

I referred to crown corporations. A lot has been happening with respect to them with the ad scam scandal and trying to get information out of them. Not counting the Wheat Board, eight crown corporations are still not subject to this legislation. They are VIA Rail Canada Inc., and that name seems to pop up in the ad scam scandal if I recall, the National Arts Centre Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Export Development Corporation, Canada Post Corporation, and that name seems to pop up in the ad scam scandal as well, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Public Sector Pension Investment Board and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Why are those commissions not subject to this legislation? They are funded by public moneys. They do work for the taxpayer. Why can access not be made to those corporations just like any of the other institutions in this place?

There is no question that there would have to be exemptions for some of these crown corporations. There is no question that there would be issues of privacy. There would be issues with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. If we were too difficult, it would put it at a disadvantage with the private broadcasting system. I also understand that there might be issues of security. With some of these corporations there would have to be exclusions with respect to security. However, surely all of that could be straightened out and these crown corporations could be made subject to the legislation.

Access to information in Canada is a bit of a problem. A recent media report card was issued last May by the Canadian Newspaper Association. Eighty-nine reporters from 45 newspapers across Canada visited city halls, police forces, school boards and federal government offices to test how bureaucrats obeyed laws enshrining the public's right to know. I appreciate that some of these things are not under the jurisdiction of the federal legislation, but it is a downward movement. All the provincial legislation and other pieces of legislation came from the 1983 legislation, so it is most relevant that we look at the attitude of these public officials toward people trying to get information from these institutions.

“The public's right to government information that has an impact on our lives is in failing health, and will get worse unless we start fixing it”, said the president of the Canadian Newspaper Association, Anne Kothawala. It was the Canadian Newspaper Association that launched the audit. Do members know what the federal government's grade was for this audit? It was an “F”. That is a complete failure. My friend in the Bloc talked about going to school. It was bad enough getting a “D”. An “F” is far below.

Along with four of the provinces, the federal government failed. Of eight requests submitted to federal departments, all through the Access to Information Act, only two saw records released within the 30 day statutory period for responses. The other six did not even reply. Perhaps they are still looking for the information.

It turns out that quite frequently there is no information to release. It is a disturbing reaction to access to information legislation. Quite often there is very little or nothing on the paper to explain how millions of federal dollars are spent. A prime example of this, as I and others have indicated, is the famous sponsorship program. It seems that officials have stopped writing things down.

This is what Commissioner John Reid said in his evidence to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on April 12:

--the troubling shift, especially at senior levels in government, to an oral culture. A right of access, no matter how strongly worded, will be of little effort if there are no records showing what decisions were made, what action was taken, who called the shots, and who knew.

How does one know when people go to restaurants and hand over money in paper bags? There is no record. Everything is oral.

Commissioner Reid went on to point out:

The overall creation and management of records in the federal government is in crisis. It is this crisis, more than any defect in the Access to Information Act, which puts at risk the public's right to know, to challenge, to participate in, to influence and ultimately hold to account, the government. I urge you to make information management reform a key element of your access to information reform work.

I have another quote from Commissioner Reid's April 12 evidence to the committee, which I believe would be instructional to all of us:

The right of access arose from backbench and opposition ranks, no government enjoys the rigours of transparency and accountability imposed by the right of access, and no government will nurture and strengthen the Access to Information Act without persistent encouragement from non-front bench members.

There it is. Governments do not enjoy access to information, but they should. They should do that because a fully informed citizenry strengthens democracy and improves government.

Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gérard LaForest in a 1997 decision wrote:

The overarching purpose of access to information legislation...is to facilitate democracy. It does so in two related ways. It helps to ensure first, that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and secondly, that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry.

In his 1998 book Secrecy: The American Experience , former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded, “Secrecy is for losers. Because it shields internal analyses from the scrutiny of outside experts and dissenters. As a result, some very poor advice is used to inform many government decisions. Also secrecy distorts the thinking of the citizenry, giving rise to unfounded conspiracy theories and an unnecessarily high level of mistrust of governments”.

That is what we have today, an unnecessarily high level of mistrust of governments. It is because of the government over there that this has happened. In a review of Senator Moynihan's book in Newsweek , George F. Will observed, “Government secrecy breeds stupidity in government and in the thinking of some citizens”.

All parliamentarians are aware that our current Access to Information Act needs to be strengthened and expanded. The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics voted unanimously that the legislation be amended. That unanimous vote included all of the Liberal members on the committee. We will see what happens when we have a vote in the House.

I had the opportunity of attending a conference that was held by the Canadian Newspaper Association in Ottawa this year. A presentation was made on this general topic. At that conference, it was stated that more than 20 years after the nation's first law establishing the public's right to know, there are attitudes of “why do you want to know” and “why should we tell you”. Those attitudes from the bureaucrats and people that hold the information of the government prevail in many departments and ministries at all levels of government. We as parliamentarians have to stop that.

What stood out most for me were the excuses given by bureaucrats and others across the country, not just in the federal institutions but in other provincial and municipal institutions.

In Kingston a public health employee told a person requesting restaurant inspection records that he would have to go to court first. A citizen asking for information on municipal employees' sick days in Edmonton was told that such records are private. City officials in Summerside, P.E.I. decided that information about police complaints and suspensions could not be released to the public. In Peterborough a request for water test results inspired an official to declare, “I am not interested in giving that out”.

I could go on, but the excuses are priceless. They are sad. We need legislation to fix the system.

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3:55 p.m.

Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca
B.C.

Liberal

Keith Martin Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Speaker, I think all of us would agree that transparency and accountability are our responsibility as a government. That is why I take umbrage with the comments made by the hon. member, who listed a series of problems but did not list the series of solutions we have implemented. I am going to cite some of them.

One of the things we have done is to increase the powers of access to information requests as they apply to crown corporations. We have also made sure that the Auditor General has increased powers to peer into crown corporations. This has never been done in the history of our country, but we have done it.

We have also introduced a comptroller general. The comptroller general will have oversight in all departments and will oversee all government expenditures so that we can ensure that the hard-earned taxpayers' money will be spent where it is supposed to be spent. That is a hallmark of good governance.

We have also implemented an expenditure review system. That system obligates every single minister to take the lowest under-performing 5% of his or her department's programs and reallocate those moneys to higher and more effective priorities.

We have also announced a new internal audit system that will again act as an oversight mechanism.

There is nothing more physically we can do.

I would ask the hon. member if there are any other solutions he could offer in this House today, that this government has not already implemented, to improve the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of how we spend Canadian taxpayers' hard-earned money. We would all be very interested to know what those constructive solutions are, beyond what we have already implemented this year.

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3:55 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Justice said to the committee that the act needs to be changed. He said that on two occasions.

I can appreciate the member saying that certain things need to be done. If members listened to my comments, there are still eight crown corporations, and I believe the wheat board is another one, which are not subject to the legislation. Why are they not? Two of them are involved in the ad scam scandal. Why are they not in the legislation? Why not put them all in? That is what the resolution said. If my colleague would read the resolution, we are saying to act on all crown corporations, to put them all in. That is what we are suggesting.

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3:55 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, first I want to congratulate my colleague from Dufferin—Caledon for his speech. He is our acting chair. I am pleased to ask him this question.

It is not that easy to understand the Liberals' position. In committee everyone agreed that the Information Commissioner would introduce the bill. Today's motion by the Conservative Party is directly linked to what had been recommended by the committee, which went against what the minister wanted. My colleague is right. The minister has submitted a framework for discussion. We are saying this is not the time for frameworks. It is time for a bill.

I refer to the words of the Information Commissioner, Mr. Reid, who, during his appearance at our committee on October 25, spoke of a major gap.

This is also found in subsection ( c ) of today's motion:

—establish a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions.

This is what the information commissioner said during his presentation in committee:

The most fundamental, pivotal proposal I am making is that a legal duty to create appropriate records be imposed and that an offence be created for failure to fulfill that duty. Although this latter provision did not appear in [Mr. Bryden's] Bill C-201, there is universal acknowledgement of the reality that the right of access is being rendered meaningless by a growing oral culture in government.

He finished his presentation by saying:

Conducting governance by winks and nods simply leads to poor decision-making, inept administration and corruption.

Does my colleague agree that the Liberals' attitude upholds a culture of secrecy and a culture of corruption, which could have been corrected by passing true access to information legislation that would do justice to all?

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4 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, yes, I do, which is why not just the committee, but all opposition parties, my colleague from Winnipeg Centre and the Bloc member who just spoke, are united and I hope the Liberal Party is united as well because its members on the committee voted for this piece of legislation. It is going to be brought to the House in a report. What a way to do things, that a committee has to get a bill into the House through a report.

The Minister of Justice indicated he was going to introduce a bill. He said that twice. We have not seen a bill. It is almost wintertime and he said it would be done in the fall. All of this has been very frustrating to all members of the Bloc, the NDP, the Conservatives and I believe even the backbenchers in the Liberal caucus. For some unearthly reason the Minister of Justice wants to take no action and I do not know why.