Debates of Nov. 15th, 2005
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.
- Question Period
- Parliamentary Delegation Report
- Government Response to Petitions
- Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act
- National Capital and Gatineau Park Act
- Questions on the Order Paper
- Question No. 208
- Question No. 210
- Questions Passed as Orders for Returns
- Question No. 206
- Question No. 207
- South Asia Earthquake
- Canada-Philippine Friendship
- La Mosaïque
- Cambridge Memorial Hospital
- Dr. Peter Zwack
- Wildlife Protection Officers
- The Family
- Volunteer Firefighters
- Ski Bromont
- Status of Women
- Banting Homestead
- Marc-André Fortin
- Christmas Miracles
- Route of Honour
- Sponsorship Program
- Keeseekoose First Nation
- Parliament of Canada
- Keeseekoose First Nation
- Public Works and Government Services
- Intergovernmental Affairs
- Economic Statement
- Human Resources and Skills Development
- Parliament of Canada
- Economic Development
- The Environment
- Presence in Gallery
- Criminal Code
- Canada's military mission in Afghanistan
Bill Casey North Nova, NS
Mr. Speaker, I compliment the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre for this move today. It is certainly timely. I want to ask him a question about the current regulations as they apply to departments now.
For instance, recently the government announced it would close four experimental farms in Canada, one is in my riding. I submitted an access to information request to find out what possibly could be the excuse for these closings. I received the information in response to my request, which is the best tool to do my job. Page after page is blanked out. Page 8 is a letterhead with nothing on it. Pages 25, 26 and 27 are deleted. Page 62 is deleted, and so on.
This is an experimental farm. It has nothing to do with national security. It has nothing to do with our competitiveness. It has nothing to do with regard to people who would risk their jobs. Again, the government has just denied me the information to deal with an issue in my riding.
Could the member explain why these would be exempted and could he suggest what he would do if he were in a position to enhance the regulations to make departments provide the information that we need to do our jobs and to hold them accountable? After all, access to information is totally about accountability. In a case like an experimental farm, we should have access to all the information.
Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK
Mr. Speaker, in direct answer to one of the member's question, I cannot explain why some of the information he requested was not provided. Again, it goes back to what I call the culture of secrecy in which the government engages.
My belief is there should be exemptions. If we are talking about things of a national security nature, or if it is a cabinet confidence or if it is a matter of competitiveness, I agree there should be some exemptions. Beyond that, in my view there is no reason not to share the information.
The example which my hon. colleague has given seems to me a very straightforward request. It would appear to me that there is nothing of a national security nature, or a cabinet confidence nature, or a competitive nature that would prevent the government from giving the member the information he requested. I can only surmise that there has to be another reason for the government wanting to retain that information. Perhaps it is either embarrassing or damaging politically to the government, and that is not reason enough. If any government, of any political stripe, is doing its job and doing it job well, it should never be afraid of political embarrassment because it has done the job right in the first place.
Russ Powers Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON
Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have this opportunity to speak to elements of the motion put forward by the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre, many of which appear to be reflected in the draft provisions prepared by the Information Commissioner for consideration by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. I wish to take a brief moment to provide the House with some important background information.
As most members know, the Minister of Justice appeared on April 5 of this year before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. At that time the minister tabled with the committee a discussion paper on access to information reform issues. This paper was presented to the committee with the intent of involving parliamentarians in this important reform process.
During his speech to the committee, the minister made clear his goal. His goal was to present the committee with a paper that described a number of key areas for reform, all of which have proven to be difficult to resolve because of their high level of complexity. This complexity includes the need to balance competing interests of apparently equal importance. During his remarks the minister expressed his hope that the committee would be willing to provide its invaluable assistance with a balancing of interests and the resolution of at least some, if not all, of the difficult issues raised in the discussion paper.
I wish to echo the minister's hope that the committee will indeed become engaged in this fundamentally democratic issue, which is the reform of the Access to Information Act, by hearing the views of interested parties on the questions raised in the paper.
The committee, of which I am a member, chose not to study the issues outlined in the discussion paper. Nor did the committee consult with a wide range of stakeholders whose views are of crucial importance in the area of access reform. Instead, the committee asked the Information Commissioner to prepare legislative proposals to reform the Access to Information Act. At the end of September of this year the deputy information commissioner presented the committee with these legislative proposals.
On October 25 the Information Commissioner himself appeared before the committee to discuss his proposals. During his appearance the Information Commissioner confirmed that he had not consulted certain key stakeholders, by which I mean regular requesters, affected government departments, agents of Parliament, crown corporations and other federal entities, companies that provide sensitive commercial information to the government, and foreign governments that share national security information with us. This may explain why a number of the commissioner's proposals may seem acceptable in concept, but are problematic or even unacceptable as drafted.
For example, the Information Commissioner proposes to clarify that ministers' offices are subject to the act, although it appears that the commissioner's intent is to subject only those records held in ministers' offices that relate to departmental matters. The proposal as is does not clearly exclude records of a personal or political nature. This means that a person could potentially obtain information about a minister's constituency business by means of the Access to Information Act which has nothing to do with ministerial accountability.
As stated in the discussion paper, the government is of the opinion that records in a minister's office should not be covered. The current exclusion of these records allows for the free and frank debates that are required to ensure that the political process functions properly.
Further, confidentiality is required for the offices of ministers to respond to constituents' concerns. Also, ministers and exempt staff are already encouraged by the Prime Minister to proactively disclose information about their travel and hospitality expenses. This information can be accessed on their web pages in a timely manner.
On another note, the Information Commissioner proposes to cover cabinet confidences under the act. Currently, cabinet confidences are excluded from the act. Ministers meet regularly in cabinet to exchange views and opinions on policy matters in order to make decisions on government policy. For this decision making process to be fully effective and in order to foster cabinet solidarity, it is essential that ministers be able to have full and frank exchanges between and among themselves and to have the assurance that these exchanges will be protected. As such, the government believes that the exclusion of cabinet confidences from the act should continue, with one important modification.
The government would enshrine in the legislation the right of the Information Commissioner to go to court to challenge definitional issues. This would allow the Information Commissioner to ask the Federal Court to review the government's determination that information sought under an access request fell within the definition of a cabinet confidence and for that reason was properly not accessible pursuant to the act. If the court did not agree with the determination made by the government, the information would no longer be excluded from the application of the act.
The Information Commissioner on the other hand would make cabinet confidences subject to the act, but they would be protected from disclosure by a mandatory exemption. However, this mandatory exemption would have a public interest override attached to it. This means that any cabinet confidence could be disclosed if it were in the public interest to do so. Even leaving aside for the moment the question of whether cabinet confidences should be fully covered by the act, the commissioner's proposal is problematic for a number of reasons.
For example, the Information Commissioner has now consulted with the Privy Council Office to see what the impact would be of having a public interest override applied to cabinet confidences. Do we actually want the Information Commissioner telling the government when it is in the public interest to divulge the deliberations of cabinet?
As well, the addition of cabinet confidences to the act requires consequential amendments to the Canada Evidence Act, the Privacy Act and the other statutes that refer to confidences of cabinet. These necessary amendments have not been considered by the Information Commissioner. This may seem like a small point, but underlines why the commissioner's proposals cannot be adopted without great care being taken.
The Information Commissioner would also broaden the coverage of the act by including all crown corporations. The commissioner would not provide protections for sensitive commercial information. As I mentioned, the Information Commissioner did not even bother to consult with the crowns when drafting this proposal. It is anticipated that many of the crowns would therefore not be satisfied with the Information Commissioner's proposal.
Further, the commissioner would cover all bodies or offices funded in whole or in part from parliamentary appropriations, as well as bodies or offices that provide services in an area of federal jurisdiction that are essential to the public interest as it relates to health, safety or protection of the environment.
I am not certain that the criteria proposed by the Information Commissioner for covering federal entities under the act are the correct criteria. The government considers that the criteria should be related to stable characteristics of the organization, such as function or controlling interest by the government, and not to criteria that relate to fluctuating characteristics such as the level of federal funding. Further again, the commissioner did not consult with federal entities when developing his criteria to add these organizations to the act.
The commissioner would also cover the five agents of Parliament. Related to this, he proposes to create a mandatory exemption for information obtained from another government institution in the course of a lawful investigation. The new exemption proposed by the commissioner would not, however, protect the information created by the agents themselves in the course of their investigations. Apparently the commissioner does not believe that this class of information deserves protection. We disagree and believe that the agents should have an opportunity to give their views.
In addition, the Information Commissioner would amend the exemptions for provisions that protect not only sensitive federal government information, but also the sensitive information of our government allies and businesses. The Information Commissioner would make most exemptions discretionary, which would give governmental institutions a choice as to whether or not they would disclose the information.
Some exemptions function well being discretionary. On the other hand, certain exemptions need to offer a stronger level of protection. For example, section 13, currently a mandatory exemption, protects information received in confidence from governments of other countries. The Information Commissioner proposes to make this exemption discretionary. There is a strong risk that foreign governments would be extremely reluctant to provide sensitive information to Canada without the high level of protection offered by a mandatory, not discretionary, exemption.
Almost all exemptions would be subject to any injury test. This means that a government institution could only invoke the exemption if it could prove that the release of the record would cause injury. Again, some exemptions already contain an injury test and function appropriately. However, other exemptions would not work properly with the injury test attached.
For example, the exemption for information covered by solicitor-client privilege currently has no injury test, as is the case in all provincial and territorial jurisdictions. Subjecting solicitor-client records to the injury test would put the federal government at a clear and unjustifiable disadvantage vis-à-vis protecting the legal advice it receives.
Finally, all exemptions would be subject to a public interest override. The implications of such a general override have not been properly assessed. As I have already stated, the Information Commissioner did not consult with government departments and other entities that would be affected by such a sweeping change.
Currently, the act protects confidential commercial information supplied by third parties specifically including trade secrets which are not defined in the act. The Information Commissioner proposes to define trade secrets. This proposal may seem innocuous but we feel that it could be potentially problematic. When a term is codified it becomes frozen in time and may not respond to future developments in jurisprudence. If two years from now the generally accepted view of the term “trade secrets” changed, the Access to Information Act's definition would be outdated and stagnant.
As a whole, the Information Commissioner's changes to the exemption could result in less protection for sensitive information provided often on a voluntary basis to the government. As a result, third parties and other governments might refuse to provide information because they felt that their information was not adequately protected by the exemptions. This could impair the mandate of the departments that rely on those exemptions to protect, for example, information received in confidence from the governments in other countries.
Further, the Information Commissioner proposes to repeal section 24 in schedule II which contains over 70 statutory provisions that prohibit disclosure. Without this exemption, however, some government entities may be unable to protect sensitive commercial and personal information they need to carry out their mandates, as other exemptions may not adequately protect these types of information, or because the protection is not strong enough to assure those providing the information that it will not be disclosed.
For example, the confidentiality clauses in both the Statistics Act and the Income Tax Act are included in schedule II. My concern is that regarding the census, people would be much less willing to provide the government with necessary, but undeniably highly sensitive, personal information without an ironclad guarantee of confidentiality which the commissioner's proposal would not provide.
The Information Commissioner also proposes to legislate a statutory duty to create records. The failure to create such a record would be a criminal offence. This duty does not belong to the Access to Information Act. I understand what the commissioner is trying to get at and I certainly do not deny that the deliberate non-creation of records, an important decision, needs to be addressed, but does it need to be addressed in a law? Is a criminal offence necessary here?
Further, what would the operational requirements be to fulfill such an extensive duty? Would this actually help departments fulfill their duties or would it hinder them? Would a civil servant have to make a formal record for every conversation that he or she had with a colleague about departmental matters? This could be a crushing burden. The answers to these questions are not clear in the Information Commissioner's proposal.
The Information Commissioner would also allow any person regardless of citizenry to make access requests. This universal right of access could have significant costs for certain departments. More study needs to be undertaken on the costing and administrative burden of such a proposal before it can be adopted.
On November 3 a motion was agreed to by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics first, to accept the proposed open government act as drafted by the Information Commissioner's office, and second, to recommend to the House of Commons that the justice minister consider the advisability of introducing legislation in the House based on the Information Commissioner's proposed provisions by December 15 this year.
While the minister applauds the movement toward a modernized act that would result in greater openness and transparency within the government, he feels that the Information Commissioner's proposals threaten to disrupt the delicate balance between the need for openness and the need to protect legitimate government interest.
Further, the Information Commissioner did not consult with stakeholders when drafting his bill to reform the Access to Information Act.
Truly balanced legislation that reflects all competing interests and maintains the critical balance between the right of access to government information and the need to protect sensitive information cannot be constructed without full and complete input from all affected parties, including government departments, crown corporations, agents of Parliament, other federal entities, affected third parties and, of course, the media, the Canadian people and foreign countries.
We feel that the access committee, in supporting these proposals, has not taken into account the necessary range of interests and, as a consequence, has acted in haste.
The decision to move ahead with this is that we had spent a period of time with a sense of frustration and a desire to move on. I think there was a desire to do something but in my opinion we had a fair amount of dialogue on the motion that we approved. The hon. member for Winnipeg Centre had served notice. We had time to consider it. A lot of consideration took place by all the parties in question and ultimately it was modified.
I think the motion is very positive and there is a willingness to go forward. However, in doing that, it is not something that can be achieved overnight, even though a response has been asked for by December 15.
The Access to Information Act is a quasi-constitutional statute that has been described by the Supreme Court of Canada as a pillar of our democracy. As such, it is imperative that we strike the appropriate balance between openness and confidentiality in access reform. To do this, all elements and angles must be considered before we can move forward with an informed and balanced reform package.
As such, the adoption of the Information Commissioner's proposals to reform the Access to Information Act is premature. The committee needs to call on stakeholders from all sides to discuss potential areas for access reform in order to arrive at a balanced bill that reflects the needs and interests of all affected parties.
As the current Information Commissioner has stated on more than one occasion, the Access to Information Act is a good law. Equally true is that after being in existence for 22 years the act is in need of reform and modernization. On this I know that the Minister of Justice is anxious to proceed with access reform.
However the Access to Information Act cannot successfully be reformed by having people tinker with it in ways that do not recognize the complexities of the act. The Access to Information Act is a fundamental part of our democracy and we are fortunate to have a statutory right to check up on the government. We must not allow this democratic right to be altered in any way that is not entirely thoughtful and cognizant of the all the interests that are at stake.
Rob Nicholson Niagara Falls, ON
Mr. Speaker, I listened with care to the comments of the member and they confirm an impression that I have had for many years with respect to the Liberal Party on access to information.
First, what we have here is an excellent motion by the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre which asks the government to bring forward legislation that would open up government, make public life in this country more transparent and have greater access to the works and the spending quite frankly of crown corporations and other government institutions.
I think the member's speech was typical of what we have seen for many years. It is a government that is not truly committed to the idea of opening up government, the transparency of government and, indeed, access to information. Members of the Conservative movement in this country over the last number of years have been consistent in that we want to see this.
The member talked about the proposals from the Information Commissioner and said that while the Minister of Justice is anxious to move ahead, he had at least 30 caveats and problems with moving forward. Instead of the member saying that the Minister of Justice is anxious to move ahead, let us cut out the nonsense and say that the minister does not want this to see the light of day. That is the bottom line. If he were anxious he would have brought in legislation at any time over the last couple of years.
In fact, what the Liberals would really like to do is absolutely nothing so that when there is an election they can say that they heard the Gomery recriminations, they read the Gomery report and they will bring in legislation. In that way they actually do not have to do it in any sort of time line. Is that not what is really going on?
November 15th, 2005 / 11 a.m.
Russ Powers Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON
Mr. Speaker, I certainly think the response of the minister in introducing his proposals determined and reconfirmed the complexity of the legislation and the issues before us.
It is clear that there is a desire of the mover of the motion to bring it forward and ask for our consideration. However, when the minister tabled his report before the committee and in responding to the request of a former member of this House, John Bryden, and the initiative by the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, he went through that and determined there were too many unanswered questions and reconfirmed the complexity of the legislation. There were over 30 elements within the act that required clarification so he asked us to consult Outreach, which is why his approach was very prudent.
Raynald Blais Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC
Mr. Speaker, I have listened to the hon. member's speech with much attention and interest. I am prompted to react to certain elements of it and to ask certain questions.
The last sentence of his speech was superb. However, the rest of his 17-minute speech made one wonder whether this government really wants transparency, really wants information to be distributed. The argument he presents is a desire to protect information from foreign countries and that relating to trade secrets, no more and no less. It is my impression that we are straying away from what we, as democrats, really want in terms of true transparency.
We want to take steps to ensure that this is a far better informed society and one in which we will be able to know more about what departments are doing with our money. Unfortunately, the examples are legion. As the hon. member pointed out, the Access to Information Act has not been revised for a very long time. Amendments are therefore very much in order. This must not, however, be done according to the conditions set by the government, since some serious questions can be asked about transparency and trust as far as it is concerned.
I would like to ask the hon. member to review for our benefit the real reasons behind our having an Access to Information Act. It must not be limited or overly amended. Judging from what he has said, the result will be to further hamper those who want the government to be both more transparent and more responsible.
Russ Powers Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON
Mr. Speaker, Parliament itself is responsible for legislation and we have a right to ask those particular questions.
As things have evolved, I think everyone recognizes that there is a need for increased transparency. The legislation does require a modernization and an upgrade. I indicated earlier that the legislation is 22 years old and no substantial changes have been made in the way we do business. Not too many years ago we did not have access to emails or the degree of telephone calls or communications. Just for those reasons there is a reason to modernize it. Not only Parliament but the public is asking for transparency and access.
The challenge we have, whether it is the doings or the operations of government, it is like that in our public lives. In other words, in dealings that I am doing on, say, a real estate deal or buying my house or things such as that, there are elements of that business that I realize rightly should be kept confidential. What we need to do, and I certainly think it is the proposal by the minister and it is very clearly the intent of the Information Commissioner, is to de-minimize those but ensure the protection is there.
Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC
Mr. Speaker, in his last example, the member used a curious example of the sale and transaction of a home. I have just come from meetings involving the sale of a Crown corporation in my riding, Ridley Terminals, which is happening under increasingly suspicious terms. We cannot gain access to the government's handling of this very important file which is creating all sorts of uncertainty. All the while, the distinction does not seem to be made for the government between what is a private transaction, which is the sale of the hon. member's home, and the use of public funds in a transparent and open process. We cannot pry from the government the information required.
We heard testimony after testimony from the Information Commissioner and the Ethics Commissioner. Thank goodness for Ms. Fraser's diligence in pursuing what was blown open by opposition parties and the sponsorship scandal that came from it to show the Canadian public what was happening with their tax dollars.
Why after 12 years does the hon. member and others in the party talk about that sense of urgency they have toward transparency when they have had more than a decade in which to create that transparency? Why after so much time are Canadians meant to believe that in cases like the sale of the Ridley Terminal or other cases that have gone on before the government, they should have any faith in the government's sincerity and not believe just PMO rhetoric?
Russ Powers Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON
Mr. Speaker, there is no disagreement on this side that Crown corporations should come under the jurisdiction. That has created some problems and certainly the move forward to the open government act and the suggestions made by the Information Commissioner will do that.
The fact is that there are ongoing negotiations. I can only surmise what they are because I am not privy to them. The hon. member is certainly more privy to the details of the dealings.
What the legislation would clearly define, which would ultimately become the property of this House, is what should be maintained in a confidential manner and what should be available to whom and when. There are just too many partners involved in this to go in and change it overnight at the whim of a carte blanche motion.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this motion by the Conservative Party. A little background is needed to understand how, among other things, the Conservative Party came to table this motion today.
It is my pleasure to provide this background. It all began with the creation of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in this Parliament. Why was it established? Following the revelation of the sponsorship scandal, which I will address in part during my remarks, the Liberal government decided in the latest election to establish an independent committee to question officers who are supposed to be independent officers. The Information Commissioner is supposed to be one. No decision has been reached on the manner of their appointment, but it is hoped that the transparency of the Liberal Party will result in all parties being invited to appoint the Information Commissioner so as to guarantee his independence.
The background means that the access to information file is not new. I was surprised by my Liberal colleague's presentation. He is right. The act has not been amended for 23 years. Still, some Liberal members of this House have introduced bills. They include hon. member Bryden, who introduced Bill C-201 in the preceding Parliament, before the sponsorship scandal was revealed. At the time, there was already a certain Liberal intent in this Parliament, since the MP introducing C-201 was a Liberal.
Then, at the start of the present Parliament, the member for Winnipeg Centre, who had the privilege of introducing the first piece of legislation, had the unfortunate idea of negotiating with the Minister of Justice. A number of other bills could have been introduced, but his first thought was to introduce a bill to amend the Access to Information Act, which was practically identical to the bill tabled in the previous Parliament by MP Bryden. So he had the unfortunate idea of negotiating with the Minister of Justice, who told him not to table a private member's bill, since the government was going to table a bill to amend the Access to Information Act and especially to make it more transparent.
I agree with my committee colleagues. In order for there to be transparency, all government agencies, corporations and foundations needed to be subject to the Access to Information Act. We had just gone through the sponsorship scandal, which we are still going through. We are well aware that Canada Post and Via Rail are not subject to the act. I will spare you the indiscretions of their presidents, the money they spent to promote Canada and the commissions paid to the agencies, which were in turn handed over to the Liberal Party. That is what happened. Those who elected a large majority of Bloc Québécois members in Quebec and Liberal members in the rest of Canada expected more transparency, especially since the Prime Minister said he wanted to champion transparency.
The reality is that we, the newly formed committee, called the Minister of Justice as a witness. We asked him, since he had reached an agreement with the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, to introduce a bill. But what he brought forward was a framework for action. We realized that this framework addressed what the minister wanted and was not a bill. As my colleague was saying, after the presentation by the Information Commissioner, who said he was prepared to introduce a bill, the unanimous reaction in committee was to ask him to go ahead. We asked him whether he was prepared to introduce a bill that reflected his view of ideal access to information legislation. At the request of the committee and despite the fact that the minister did not want a bill, the commissioner went ahead with it. The minister instead wanted us to discuss a framework. Former MP Mr. Bryden gave a presentation in committee and shared his thoughts, as did our colleague from Winnipeg Centre, who was prepared to introduce a private members' bill. We welcomed the minister, who told all those people he would introduce a bill, but in the end submitted a framework for action. Accordingly, we asked the commissioner to introduce a bill.
This is what the Conservative Party is basing itself on today in its opposition day. I will use this document, which was produced by the Information Commissioner.
It is a bill in due form with explanations and everything that is needed and which was prepared by the Information Commissioner. So I am surprised today to hear my Liberal colleague tell us that, ultimately, this is not what was requested. And yet we were unanimous.
We asked the Information Commissioner to introduce this bill, which is not a framework and which we are using today for discussion purposes. It is what we are relying on as we make our interventions and hear from witnesses in committee. All that is done when we have a bill. When we have a framework for action or frame of reference, there is a discussion before the bill is introduced. So the committee was not fooled. Even the Liberal members followed us in committee.
We do not want any more procrastination now. We want a bill that we could discuss, that we could call witnesses on in order to finish with the access to information file. We think that the Minister of Justice just wants to gain time so that people cannot ask any questions of crown corporations, including Canada Post and VIA Rail, all the foundations and all these agencies that manage the assets and much of the money of Quebeckers and Canadians. People might ask them questions about how they spend this money.
We certainly would have liked the presidents of VIA Rail and Canada Post to account to all the people who had questions for them, but that was impossible. It is still impossible today. And in view of the Liberal position, it will continue to be impossible because the Liberals do not want to act. They want to gain time before amending the Access to Information Act. Why? Because of the sponsorship scandal, because if people start asking questions, they will find other things and because, ultimately, the senior executives of crown corporations are all government political appointees.
So they had better not try to tell us that the government, in an effort to be transparent, intends to resolve the democratic deficit. Forget it. We saw this recently: the current Prime Minister appointed Dennis Dawson—his political organizer in the Quebec City region—to the Senate. It has not stopped and never will. This Liberal Party is using public funds to win elections and it will never stop. We saw this yesterday. It is using money belonging to all Quebeckers and all Canadians in order to win elections.
This is a perfect example of this Liberal political corruption. It is even worse to make indirect use of something no one else would dare say or do and to make it systemic: the Liberals created a system. We see it today in the Liberal Party's answer with regard to access to information and transparency. Ultimately, all the Information Commissioner wanted to provide—I will read the text—is a bill that was supposed to be transparent. He has called it the “Open Government Act”. The Information Commissioner no longer wants to call it the “Access to Information Act” but rather the “Open Government Act”.
In theory, the government, which wants to be the government of transparency, should be applauding but it is not. Today, we are being told that we have not examined it enough, subjected it to enough questions or called enough witnesses. The problem is that we cannot even begin to call witnesses because the bill has not yet been introduced. That is how the Liberal Party works.
The commissioner presented his position, when he appeared before our committee on October 25, 2005. So it is public and in no way secret. Here are a few excerpts from his speech:
This committee asked me, before the summer break, to provide a proposed reform bill and I commend the committee for its determination to ensure that we have, in Canada, the strongest possible right of access to government-held information. Members from all parties understand that transparency of government is essential to accountable government.
Obviously, we unanimously asked the commissioner to provide what he considered to be the most appropriate bill possible. Thus, he has proposed a bill entitled the Open Government Act.
The following extract pertains to C-201. This was MP Bryden's bill. Members will recall what I said earlier. A Liberal MP introduced a bill before the sponsorship scandal. So, at the time, there was an incipient desire among the Liberals to really resolve the access to information problem.
The commissioner continued as follows:
My proposal, like Bill C-201, expands the number of institutions to be covered by the act; it reduces the scope of secrecy permitted by the act, it expands the powers of oversight by the commissioner in the courts, and it increases incentives for compliance and penalties for non-compliance.
The intent is to strengthen the Access to Information Act and in particular to have it apply to all the corporations not covered by it, including VIA Rail, the National Arts Centre, the CBC, Export Development Canada, the Canada Post Corporation, Atomic Energy Canada Limited, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and all foundations. As this money belongs to the public, the aim of the commissioner is to give the public the right to question those who manage it. In my opinion, this needs to be done especially when the managers are Liberal agents. And this has been the case for the past 13 years.
The commissioner continued in his presentation with the following statement, “None of these improvements can ensure accountability through transparency unless there is a foundation of professional record-keeping by public officials”. One of the important parts found as well in today's motion by the Conservative Party, is for officials to keep records. He went on to say, “The most fundamental, pivotal proposal I am making is that it be a legal duty to create appropriate records to be imposed and that an offence be created for failure to fulfil that duty”.
He then talked about Bill C-201. As I was saying, Mr. Bryden's bill was introduced before the sponsorship scandal. This scandal has also revealed that documents vanished and that it was impossible to find them. The commissioner said so, “Although this latter provision did not appear in 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”. In other words, we no longer write anything down, we just talk. That is how it works. We no longer write to each other for fear of getting caught. That is how the Liberal Party of Canada operates and manages public funds. These are the very words of the Information Commissioner, an independent officer appointed by the Liberals by the way.
He continued by saying:
The failure by public officials to be professional in creating records is also undermining the work of Parliament, the Auditor General, the National Archivist, the police and judicial inquiries. Conducting governance by winks and nods simply leads to poor decision-making, inept administration and corruption.
In other words, the Liberals' paperless mode of government can lend itself to corruption. It is not surprising that we had the sponsorship scandal. The decision had already been made to no longer keep documents but instead to just talk about things and make decisions based on that.
The Information Commissioner is the one who carries out investigations when questions arise. He noted what was going on only in the departments he needs to oversee, not the crown corporations headed by appointed Liberal Party cronies.
Further on in his annual report, he grades the departments, including the Privy Council Office. Hon. members need to understand that this is the body that gives all departments access to information, and supervises them. It got an F. This means that it no longer responds to over 30% of access to information requests. It is all very well for PCO spokespersons to say that they are short of staff and pressed for time, but the result is the same: they are not responding to requests.
As for delays and denials, the commissioner wrote the following on page 10 of his annual report:
The main causes of delay appear to be:
Inadequate resources in ATIP offices;
Chronic tardiness in the retrieval of records due to poor records management and staff shortages in offices—;
Difficulties encountered during the consultation process with third parties and other government institutions;
Top-heavy approval processes, including too much "hand-wringing" over politically sensitive requests and too frequent hold-ups in ministers’ offices; and
Poor communication with requesters to clarify access requests.
I repeat, one of the five reasons is “top-heavy approval processes, including too much 'hand-wringing' over politically sensitive requests and too frequent hold-ups in ministers’ offices”. In addition to documents not being available to the commissioner when he comes to do his job—because there are oral discussions rather than written documents—ministers and deputy ministers intercept requests in advance, hold on to them and examine whether they might pose a risk. When they see that they may be dangerous, they are not processed.
It is as simple as that. They interfere and provide no answers. It happens only in departments that fall within the purview of the Information Commissioner. There was no talk of new corporations that should be subject to it.
A certain regime has thus become entrenched in Liberal governance. It has existed for decades now, with the result that this entire oral system leads to corruption, as the Commission so aptly put it. This is what happens. We should not be surprised at these realizations, nor at the answers that the Liberals give us today, nor the fact that they are not prepared to review the Access to Information Act expeditiously. They simply do not want to.
The Minister of Justice has decided that we would have a framework that would allow us to have discussions and call witnesses before we have a bill, which would also be subject to debate and would be referred back to committee where witnesses could still be heard. That is the Liberal culture: it does not stop, it is the same thing day after day.
Once again, in our view, as far as transparency is concerned, the Liberals did not display it prior to the sponsorship scandal, nor during that scandal, and they are still not doing so after it. All this means is that, whether we are talking about Chrétien or the new Prime Minister, it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. That will not change and will never change as long as the Liberals are in power.
I will list the problems with access to information that even Judge Gomery had to deal with. We must not forget that the government sent a number of censored documents to the Gomery commission on the sponsorship scandal and refused to forward a number of crucial documents to the commission charged with investigating the case of Maher Arar.
How have we come to be defending an amendment to the Access to Information Act today? It is because we have examples, which we will list. The government misled Parliament in its answer to a written question on the order paper. In its initial response in February 2003, the government estimated at $137,500 the amount paid to the Prime Minister’s family business over 10 years. Following protests from the opposition, the government revised its answer in January 2004, bringing the total amount of federal grants to Canada Steamship Lines to $161 million.
These things are happening in Parliament. The culture that is entrenched in this government is an oral and figures-based culture. Obviously, figures talk. Since I am being told I have two minutes left, I will make full use of them.
We asked Parliament, the government and the then Minister of Finance who was in charge of the assistance programs to tell us how much Canada Steamship Lines had received in government grants. The answer to this question on the order paper was $137,500. Finally, after much research, the opposition said that this was not possible, that it had found other amounts in other areas. The government changed its position and came back in January 2004 to answer the question from February 2003—11 months earlier—and indicated that $161 million had been paid to the Prime Minister's company. This is how things work.
Clearly, the antics of André Ouellet, president of Canada Post, Michel Vennat of the Business Development Bank of Canada, Marc LeFrançois and VIA Rail were not enough. These people appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and before the Gomery commission. Following their testimony, it became obvious that they had wasted public funds, on sponsorships and commissions paid to firms that are all named in the Gomery report, that were part of the sponsorship scandal and that lined their pockets. Now, after all that, these firms, VIA Rail, Canada Post and the Business Development Bank of Canada are not subject to the Access to Information Act.
As a result, the public, which wants to know whether these executives may have skimmed a little off the top or what expenditures they did make, cannot find out. It is out of the question. The government is saying no. It is rejecting something a Liberal member had proposed in Bill C-201 even before the sponsorship scandal. It is rejecting what the member for Winnipeg Centre wanted to do, which was introduce a private member's bill, in view of the promise that the minister was about to introduce a bill.
The government has merely created a basic framework, with the emphasis on the word “framework". In other words, you were supposed to stay within the “framework”.
It had already anticipated what we could not do.
Today, the Bloc Québécois will support the Conservative Party motion. It is a motion about transparency, and we want real transparency legislation when it comes to access to information. The public must be able to ask questions and obtain answers. We no longer have faith in this Liberal government, which has been in power for too long and has filled one too many pockets.
Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON
Mr. Speaker, the member is on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics where this particular motion was developed and discussed extensively, so he might be able to shed some light on some of the underlying questions that have been raised.
The motion refers to expanding the coverage of the act to include all foundations and all organizations that spend taxpayers' dollars. We understand the intent here. However, we have found some concerns in other legislation about, for instance, having the Auditor General audit foundations where the foundations were not exclusively or solely funded by the federal government. There are other partners such as private interests, provincial interests, and other stakeholders in which case the legislation could not apply. That is with regard to even our current foundations of which there are a number of examples. What would we do if there were foundations that were not solely under the funding of the Government of Canada?
With regard to organizations that spend taxpayers' dollars, I assume by that broad statement that every province that receives transfer payments from the Government of Canada and therefore spends taxpayers' dollars would also be subject to the same extensive scrutiny. I am not sure if that was the intent. Maybe the member could comment on that as well.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, the intention—I trust—of the commissioner and the committee is that every time the people put their money into a federal body, they will be able to ask questions about it.
The bill introduced by the commissioner does, however, provide guidelines regarding trade secrets. Obviously, there is no intention of giving competitors the opportunity to ask questions and obtain trade secrets. That is understandable, and there are guidelines.
What we want is to ensure that, when the government invests the people's money into an agency, the public will be well aware that it can ask questions about what is being done with that money. I am not talking of money invested by private businesses. They will do as they please with their money, but we want to know where the public's money has gone.
That is what the Access to Information Commissioner and the majority of the committee are proposing to us at present, and I hope it will be accepted. We find it inconceivable that the people's investments do not entitle them to ask questions of those administering the money. This must be possible. We do know, however, that there must be certain guidelines, for instance where trade secrets and national security are concerned. We are aware of this and they are included in the bill.
Guy André Berthier—Maskinongé, QC
Mr. Speaker, I would like to first of all congratulate my colleague for his fair and apt presentation on the Access to Information Act. He has shown a great deal of perspicacity. I have a question for him.
This Liberal government has been in power since 1993. It administers public funds. Now it is 2005. This government has had to deal with several financial scandals, including the sponsorship scandal, where money was transferred in a special way to federal institutions at the time of the 1995 referendum. Still today, we note a degree of hesitation on the part of the government to justify all of its institutional spending.
This is my question for my colleague: in the aftermath of the many scandals we are all familiar with, what interest can this government still have, now, in wanting to conceal or deny public access to all f the facts about spending by the various institutions currently administered by it?
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I will first thank my colleague for his question. My answer is quite simple. It is nothing more than Liberal electioneering and opportunism.
By not amending the act, they are maintaining the oral and secret culture revealed by the Information Commissioner. He has said the act must be amended quickly. The most urgent requirement is for the government to keep spending records. The oral culture has led to corruption. When this sort of culture is practised for Liberal partisan purposes, corruption follows. No other reaction is possible. This is the only way to understand it.
In addition, they try to make it impossible for people to question how the president of VIA Rail or Canada Post or the Business Development Bank of Canada manages taxpayers' money. They make it impossible for people to criticize their chums appointed to these positions, who have been replaced by other chums. In fact, access to information means access accorded the public. They can ask questions. We can do so as MPs, but ordinary individuals can ask a question and receive an answer on a matter they have heard about. People are often interested in local and regional matters, such as VIA Rail, Canada Post or the Business Development Bank of Canada and would like to know why so-and-so got money or what happened.
Given their desire to maintain this ongoing culture of compensation for their friends, they do not want to amend the Access to Information Act. This is the answer I have for my colleague.
Roger Clavet Louis-Hébert, QC
Mr. Speaker, I too heard my colleague from Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel take part in the debate on the motion to amend the Access to Information Act. Some comments are very disturbing. We have often heard such statements in the House, but now they are becoming much more specific.
In light of the remarks made by my colleague, I want to ask him a question. In his opinion, does the government secrecy that the Liberal government loves to surround itself with take precedence over the public interest, the right to know and the desire for transparency? My colleague seems to be indicating that, on numerous occasions and in many respects, the Liberal government has violated these great principles of access to information and the public interest before all else. He mentioned, in particular, that appointments are often made without any consultations or transparency whatsoever. As a result, members who lose their seats suddenly ascend to new heights or the Prime Minister's Office; they are appointed to very important and well-paid positions. On occasion, they are appointed to the Senate; Liberal candidates who were defeated in the last election become senators, in repudiation of the people's decision.
Does this motion being introduced today, which my colleague supports, speak to this need to sanction the public's democratic legitimacy? Is this motion, which was introduced by the Conservatives and which the Bloc supports, a way for citizens—especially Quebeckers, since they are our first priority, but also Canadians—to obtain the right to transparency and an indispensable honesty in the management of public matters? Does this motion suggest some possible ways to improve the public well-being?