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
November 15th, 2005 / 12:25 p.m.
Ted Menzies Macleod, AB
Mr. Speaker, I want to begin my remarks today with a truth that is very self-evident: the Liberal Party cannot be trusted to clean up its mess of corruption and scandal. Only a Conservative government, under the leadership of the hon. member for Calgary--Southwest, has the integrity and the plan to show Canadians that good government is still possible.
The legacy of 12 years of Liberal government will not just be the smear on the party of the sponsorship scandal. The sad truth is that all parliamentarians and holders of public office at all levels are now viewed by Canadians with such disdain and cynicism that it will take a very long time to regain their trust and respect. That is why I am proud to rise today to speak to the motion introduced by the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre.
In order to take the first steps forward toward regaining the trust of Canadians, the Conservative government is committed to introducing the federal accountability act. Everyone will notice I used the words “Conservative government” because I am optimistic about what will happen in the coming year.
There are two very important parts of this initiative that I would like to speak to today. The need for an open flow of information to Canadians can be secured by establishing a parliamentary budget office and the immediate need to provide Canadians strong, more transparent auditing and accountability laws for the federal government.
First, I would like to address the need to ensure truth in budgeting with a parliamentary budget office: create an independent parliamentary budget office to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation's finances and trends in the national economy; require government departments and agencies, including the Department of Finance, the Canada Revenue Agency and Statistics Canada, to provide accurate, timely information to the parliamentary budget office to ensure it has the information it needs to provide accurate analysis to Parliament; and ensure that government fiscal forecasts are updated quarterly and that they provide complete data for both revenue and spending forecasts.
Yesterday's shameful display of financial pretzel making was the ultimate example of how the Liberal government secretly gerrymanders the nation's finances.
Less than a year ago the Minister of Finance was crying poor. The cupboard was bare and every Canadian would just have to wait until the fiscal picture got better for any tax relief or increased investments in productivity and competitiveness. It turns out that all Canadians had to wait for was a dip in the Liberal polling numbers, as well as the release of the damning Gomery report.
Along comes the member for Wascana, a man, by the way, who was once the minister of agriculture and responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board and, I understand, represents a good number of farmers in southern Saskatchewan. He is a man who spent years telling Canadian farmers across the country that he would solve their problems and finally create a federal strategy for agriculture and agrifood, as well as for rural communities.
Yesterday's mini-budget was a perfect opportunity to make good on his commitments to agriculture. Farm incomes are at an all time low and producer groups from across the country have been beating a path to the minister's door asking for a real strategy to support Canada's farmers.
I was a grain producer for 30 years and it breaks my heart to hear that my neighbours are stretched to the breaking point, trying to decide if they can afford to pay their bills. No farmer wants to be paid a salary from the federal government to farm. All they want is to be able to make an honest living selling their products on the open market on a level playing field.
I am proud to say that the Conservative Party has been a loud supporter of Canada's farm and agrifood industries here at home and around the world. For example, I travelled to southwestern Ontario last week with my colleague from Selkirk—Interlake and the member for Essex to speak with Canadian corn producers, greenhouse growers and dairy producers. These producers told us of how U.S. farm subsidies were killing their markets. Grain buyers in Canada are filling facilities with U.S. corn and not allowing for delivery of Canadian corn. Harvest is not complete as a result and, as members have noticed, it is now snowing out there. There is no space for their corn. This is just the beginning of the concerns in the farm community.
How is it that the Liberal finance minister can announce a sizable surplus but no commitment to farmers is ever a priority for that party? That is why we need a parliamentary budget office. Canadians clearly cannot trust the government to tell the truth. By giving Canadians a real financial picture we will allow all sides to craft real and effective results.
We also need to designate the deputy minister of each government department or agency as the accounting officer for that department. The deputy would be responsible to Parliament for the departmental spending and administrative practices of his or her department. It would also require that in the event of a disagreement between a minister and deputy minister on a matter of administration, the minister must provide written instruction to the deputy minister and notify the Auditor General and Comptroller General of this disagreement.
This initiative will be an important element of a Conservative government's pledge to Canadians to treat their hard-earned tax dollars with respect.
By opening up the access to information laws to all government departments, agencies and crown corporations, Canadians could be confident that their money is not being wasted, is going where it is intended and is achieving the goals that Canadians deserve.
For example, earlier this year there were calls for a farm income aid package of at least $1.9 billion a year for three years to support Canadian producers as they face crippling foreign subsidies and artificially low commodity prices. The minister ended up announcing $1 billion, slightly more than half of what was requested from the industry. None of this money has even flowed to the farmers yet. Strong transparency and accountability laws would allow Canadians to know why the money is collecting dust in Ottawa instead of helping them to get on with business.
In media interviews and to anyone who would listen to him, the Liberal House leader threatened that a BSE package would be lost if an election were called. How arrogant do the Liberals have to be to blame the opposition for the Liberals' foot-dragging on farm aid programs? Canadian beef producers have been struggling to deal with the BSE crisis for over two years. Where was the government? Why is it only acting now?
The government has had 12 years to create and deliver comprehensive rural and farm programs. The legacy is clear. The APF, the agriculture policy framework, is a disaster. The CAIS program is unworkable and farm incomes continue to fall. Rural communities are suffering massive out-flux and these hard-working Canadians are being told they do not count in the Liberal world.
That is why opening up access to information laws to all government departments, agencies and crown corporations is so important. Canadians can be confident that their money is not being wasted, that it is going to where it is intended and that it is achieving those goals. After 12 years the Liberal government has perfected the slippery game of hide the money. Farmers are the ones paying the price.
In response to yesterday's budget, Bob Friesen the president of the CFA, said:
The last three years of Realized Net Incomes of farmers have been the lowest in recorded history and it is incomprehensible that the federal government has abandoned rural Canada and not supported Canadian farm families at this time.
Along with my colleagues on this side of the House, we pledge to Canadians that the Conservative Party will not allow their tax dollars to be collected without thoughtful reason. We pledge that once collected they will be spent with care and efficiency. We pledge to tell them how, where and why they are being spent.
Canadians can take this pledge and this motion to the bank. If Canadians are unsatisfied with what we tell them, they will have full and free access to the information regarding how federal policies and programs are handled.
Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his comments and his remarks. In reading the motion put forward by the Conservative Party, it gives me a sense of hope that we may be able to smash down the barrier put up by 13 years of Liberal obstinance and stubbornness on the issue of access to information.
Would the member give us an indication if his sentiments are shared by his entire caucus and the leadership of his party? We are at the death rattle of the government and we will witness a new government being formed. If a new government is put in place in the coming days, is the member able to commit to us that his government will put in place meaningful access to information reform as the number one priority item in a new regime of a new Conservative minority government?
Ted Menzies Macleod, AB
Mr. Speaker, I like the direction in which the question is headed. I tend to agree with the member that it is absolutely time for a new government.
Let me assure the hon. member that every one of my colleagues to whom I have spoken speaks only with great disgust when they look across the floor and see what has happened with the lack of accountability. Everyone in my party is determined and committed that there needs to be a process put in place, such as the one put forward in this motion, that will bring back the relevance of elected officials. We are accountable to those who elect us.
We believe we are not able to take taxpayer dollars and do whatever we want with them, to put them back into party coffers and spend them on buying boats. That will not be the culture of this party. The Conservative Party will be accountable to the electorate.
Guy André Berthier—Maskinongé, QC
Mr. Speaker, I would like to put a question to the Conservative member. One of the major proposals made by the Bloc Québécois is to have the Access to Information Act based on an effective whistleblower protection system to ensure that information released is not restricted by political considerations. I think this is a very important element.
Something we learned in the context of the sponsorship program, which I consider fundamental, is that a number of communications agencies that no doubt received grants or sums of money were not necessarily uncovered by previous inquiries.
People are afraid to speak up. These agencies were receiving contracts and are afraid of not getting any more from the federal government for communications or advertising. So, not all the information comes out in a scandal like the sponsorship scandal. It would seem that people are afraid, for political considerations, of losing contracts if they say something.
So, how would a Conservative government resolve this situation?
Ted Menzies Macleod, AB
Mr. Speaker, it is fundamental that those who are willing to step forward are able to do so. We have seen recently where that has seriously impacted one individual's life. That would be the individual who took a step forward, knowing full well that he was not protected at that time. He paid the price for doing so. That individual needs to be recognized and rewarded rather than penalized for blowing the whistle on what he recognized as inappropriate use of taxpayer money. We need good solid legislation in place. That would be one of the initiatives a new Conservative government would put forward, as most bills will soon die on the order paper.
The Conservative Party suggests that this protection is needed to ensure that there is accountability for any government that is in place. We would be very supportive of that type of legislation.
Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB
Mr. Speaker, I listened to the speech by the parliamentary secretary. Now that we have the official party line from my colleague, what does he really think? I would like to know what his gut feelings are about the freedom of information laws as they affect the larger picture of the health of our democracy.
I did not hear a lot of passion in his comments. They were more technical answers to the specific language in the motion put forward by the Conservative Party. I am wondering if the member shares the passion of other members of Parliament as they spoke about how critically important and vital freedom of information is to the health and well-being of our democratic system and how the paucity of freedom of information has led to the culture of secrecy that has allowed corruption to flourish.
I would like to hear from my colleague in his own words if he shares our view that the single most important thing we could do in these twilight days of the 38th Parliament would be to reform the access to information laws completely so that freedom of information, transparency and accountability are no longer buzzwords in Ottawa, but in actual fact are practised.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I have a comment and a question for my colleague.
Does he not find it a bit odd that the point of the debate today—as he knows—and what the Conservative motion seeks, is to use the Information Commissioner's bill? The hon. member is a member of our committee. Our committee had asked the commissioner to introduce a bill. It is a new committee, formed during this Parliament. When we first looked at this issue, we discovered Bill C-201, which was introduced during the last Parliament by a Liberal member and almost entirely re-introduced by our colleague from Winnipeg Centre. It was adopted with a few changes by the information commissioner.
Does my colleague not find it a bit odd that the Minister of Justice, who had even promised the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre that he would introduce a bill, decided to submit a framework for action instead? Does he agree with me that this was nothing more than a diversion by the Minister of Justice? Is he doing this to continue to allow crown corporations tainted by the sponsorship scandal—Canada Post, Via Rail and others—not to be subject to the Access to Information Act? Does he not find it a bit odd that the Minister of Justice did not take advantage of this to be more transparent and to bring forward a bill instead of a framework for action?
Marlene Jennings Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, for agreeing to share his time with me.
I will be voting against this motion which has been presented by the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre. Part of the reason is I find it is problematic and that it is precipitous of a proper process of discussion and consultation.
His motion proposes certain amendments to the Access to Information Act. We have heard members on both sides of the House, in particular the Bloc member who just asked a question of the parliamentary secretary, say that this motion virtually mirrors suggestions that were made by the Information Commissioner in the proposed legislation he brought forth at the request of the access committee.
Specifically, I intend to address the proposal that a general public interest override be provided for all exemptions in the act and the proposal that all exemptions be made discretionary and subject to an injury test. Those are exactly the recommendations that the Information Commissioner provided to the access committee in his proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act.
Indirectly, the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre undoubtedly raises the issue of reform to the Access to Information Act in general. I will not bother to give background information. Everyone knows the Minister of Justice tabled a discussion paper before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Everyone knows there were previous private members' bills. One had been tabled by a former Liberal member, which was then taken up by the NDP member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre. His bill virtually mirrored the private member's bill that had been tabled by John Bryden when he was a Liberal member of Parliament. The Minister of Justice had committed to bring forth real reform to the access to information legislation. We all know that.
The question is, what is the nature of this particular motion? As I have said and as has been admitted by members of the opposition, it virtually mirrors the proposed amendments that the Information Commissioner brought before the access committee at the request of the access committee. I am a member of that committee.
The Access to Information Act states clearly that Canadians should have a right of access to government records “in accordance with the principles that...necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific”. The Access to Information Act in fact contains 12 exemptions. Let us look at what the nature of these exemptions are. Because the member's motion would make all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test, it is important for members to know what the act actually says now.
The act contains 12 exemptions. It also provides that certain records are indeed excluded from its reach. These excluded records, as we heard from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, include material that is publicly available and cabinet confidences. Of the 12 exemptions, currently eight are already discretionary. Two of the 12 exemptions are mandatory but the two that are mandatory allow for discretion in certain circumstances.
For example, the exemption that protects information given to the Canadian government in confidence by the government of another country is mandatory. I think there would be, or should be, little disagreement among Canadians and members in the House that Canada has an obligation to take great care with regard to confidential information that belongs to other governments and that was provided under the seal of confidentiality to our government. However, this exemption also provides for discretion where the foreign government consents to the release of its own information. This is good sense.
Another one of the 12 exemptions is also mandatory, but it already provides for a public interest override.
The point I am trying to make in going through these 12 exemptions is that, were one simply to keep oneself to the actual motion that has been provided, one would go away from reading that motion with the impression that under the current access to information legislation all of the exemptions are mandatory, that there is no discretion with any of those mandatory exemptions. That is not the case.
To come back to my point, there is also the issue of one of the 12 exemptions which has a public interest override. That, for instance, refers to the exemption that protects confidential commercial information given to the government by a third party. Here again there should be no argument. There is no doubt that the government again has to be extremely careful with the confidential commercial information that belongs to a corporation.
At the same time, this exemption already provides for a public interest override in relation to public health, public safety or the protection of the environment. If one takes the time to read the discussion paper that the minister tabled before the access committee, the Minister of Justice raises the possibility of expanding this existing public interest override to include consumer protection.
Finally, there is one of the 12 exemptions that is mandatory and does not provide for discretion, nor does it provide for a public interest override. I would like to explain to the House and to members of the Canadian public exactly what this is.
The exemption I am referring to makes a connection between the Access to Information Act and certain confidentiality clauses in other statutes or in other laws. For example, the confidentiality clauses in our Statistics Act and the Income Tax Act are linked to this exemption that does not allow for discretion or a public interest override.
Most Canadians, and indeed most members of the House, if they stop to think and reflect on this, would agree that it makes perfectly good sense not to allow a particular government department the discretion to disclose personal information that Statistics Canada rigorously and assiduously keeps confidential.
As someone who is a taxpayer, as are all of the members of the House, because we make more money than the personal exemption so we pay taxes, we would also want to be assured that the information we provide through our annual tax statement to our federal government remain confidential.
I can remember a debate taking place in the House precisely about the opportunity for or the appropriateness of Revenue Canada, now the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, CCRA, being allowed to provide some personal information to, for instance, what used to be Human Resources Canada. There was a major debate in the House about it.
Therefore, I think that when one looks at the 12 exemptions carefully, one has to admit that discretion is already allowed under the existing statutes and there is also a public interest override that exists.
I find it interesting that a member of the access to information committee, of which I am a member as well, would put forward as gospel a motion that mirrors recommendations made by the Information Commissioner when the Information Commissioner himself said on the record that he had not consulted with any stakeholders before making his recommendations.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am trying to understand the position of my colleague, who is on the committee and has given us his Liberal interpretation of access to information. In fact, the motion by the Conservative Party actually mirrors the bill the committee called for. It asked the commissioner to draft the bill. Part (c) of the motion we are discussing today refers to establishing “a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions”.
When it comes to the exceptions, major and minor, my colleague has referred to, they all need to be discussed when we are studying the bill and calling witnesses. We are talking about the overall rule here. I will read an excerpt from the presentation made by Commissioner Reid, particularly the part concerning the necessity of records from public servants. When he spoke to us on October 25 in committee, he said the following:
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 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.
Let us keep in mind that Bill C-201 came from Mr. Bryden. So the independent analyst is telling us that there is no longer any exchange of written documents in the federal government; people no longer put anything in writing, they just talk. Denis calls Paul, or Tom, Dick or Harry calls Paul, or whatever, but nothing in writing. People keep saying “Don't write me, call me”. That is what he means by the oral culture.
He goes on to say:
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.
Here is my question for my colleague. Might she, by not wanting to debate this and not supporting the opposition in this serious undertaking of making access to information available to all, not be defending this culture of secrecy and corruption within the Liberal government?
Marlene Jennings Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC
Mr. Speaker, I must say that I am quite disturbed by the comments and observations or claims that my colleague in the Bloc just made. It is not that I have a problem with part of the motion introduced by the Conservatives, or that I am not sympathetic or favourably disposed to another part of the motion. The problem with this motion is that it contains five completely different components.
I agree with taking the necessary steps to ensure that an oral culture does not develop in the public service. But when I look at another part of this motion, which talks about making all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test, I have a problem with that. So this is what I spoke about for ten minutes. If I had had the time to speak for 40 minutes, I could have touched on all five components in the motion. Maybe it would have been easier if the Conservative member, instead of trying to bundle together all the recommendations of the Information Commissioner, who admits that he did not consult any of the parties that might have been interested in reforming this legislation, had taken just one of the recommendations. Then we might have had different positions.
But when he bundles several recommendations together in a single motion, I have no other choice than to concentrate on one of the components. I decided to concentrate on the exemptions because they are quite problematic. His motion implies that the existing exemptions are not discretionary, which is false. So I decided to concentrate on this. I reject his criticism and cannot accept people claiming on the basis of this choice that I am not concerned about the changing culture in the public service, which is tending toward a more oral culture. That is not true and I reject your criticism. That would have been another way of—
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)
Order, please. I would like to remind the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine that I did not criticize her. I would therefore ask her to direct her comments through the Chair. She still has 10 seconds.
Marlene Jennings Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC
Mr. Speaker, it is true that you did not criticize me but a Bloc member did on the basis of false claims. It is not the first time that this has happened. That is why we already had a debate on a question of privilege. So it does not surprise me.