- On the Parliament site
Last in Parliament May 2004, as Conservative MP for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot (Ontario)
Won his last election, in 2000, with 41.16% of the vote.
Statements in the House
Supply May 13th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, I do not have adequate words to respond to the fine things that were just said. Of all the things that one can acquire in life, material things, abstract things, there is no greater thing of value than the respect and the honour of one's colleagues and particularly our colleagues in this place.
I thank those who spoke. I can tell all of them and all the people who are watching that it has been a tremendous privilege to be a parliamentarian. I love this place. I wish that Canadians could somehow feel what I feel in my heart for the 10 years I have spent here. I know they will be unable to feel that, Mr. Speaker, but I will leave the House and I will always know it. I thank all.
Supply May 13th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, it is quite an honour to rise in the House for my final speech just after the tributes to the hon. member for Calgary Centre.
Before I go into a discussion of the subject before the House, I would like to build on a remark of the right hon. member for Calgary Centre. He was saying how this place reflects Canada. My time in the House is much less than that of the right hon. member for Calgary Centre. I have only been here 11 years. However, I can say that it has been a wonderful experience and I have learned something that outsiders perhaps would not really appreciate or appreciate in the same sense as we who serve here, and that is, how very human the House is.
I have found, whether I am on this side or that side, my colleagues to be people who are motivated by sometimes the highest principles and sometimes by the most human principles. We have everything here from debates concerning the grand issues of the nation and the grand issues of the world, to the expression of petty personal and political rivalries.
That latter point is important. What makes this place work--in my opinion after the years I have been here--is the fact that it is so human. It is not just the strengths of people that we see here; it is also our weaknesses. That is terribly important because in a true democracy the human psyche has to be represented in the House. Otherwise we would have an elite.
If Parliament were to select members of Parliament based on their education only, or based on their experience, or on their ability to speak in the House, then we would not have the kind of democracy that this country is so fortunate to have.
It has been genuinely a pleasure here. I am impressed by the fact that, unlike any other democracy I know, the happenings in the House are watched by the nation. We are genuinely a real drama that is followed by Canadians from one end of the land to the other. We have television cameras. We have the scrum after question period. These are all the things that bring parliamentarians before the people.
What is so great and important is that we do not have to be a cabinet minister, and we do not have to be a prime minister to have an effect on the nation. We do not have to be anything more than a member of the House.
This gives me an opportunity to actually mention one of the things that has always bothered me. It is the suggestion that there is some kind of democratic deficit in this Parliament. It is something that the current Prime Minister has commented on or suggested, and also the former leader of the reform party. I remember away back in 1993-94, he was constantly saying that Parliament was broken.
This Parliament is not broken. Any shortcomings that occur here are shortcomings that belong to we who serve here. Anyone, and I like to think I am an example, has an opportunity to speak out in this place, to speak out in caucus, and to promote those items of legislation or those causes that are near and dear to them.
I do not think there is another country in the world in which that type of opportunity is afforded ordinary individuals who become ordinary MPs. I think it is an absolutely marvellous thing.
As always, I always try to take advantage of the time I have in the House. Even though this is my last occasion before the election to speak in this Chamber, I am not going to say goodbye because I am not a person who says goodbye. I like to think that, whether I am here after the next election or not, I will be haunting the corridors of the House in some way or another.
I will use the opportunity of my time here today to promote one of the things that I as a backbencher have been working on for years. That is access to information reform. The reason why it is relevant is the debate we have before us today involves the sponsorship program and the investigation that has taken place over many months, using the public accounts committee and, if I may say so, an investigation in which I took part two years ago.
The bottom line to me in this whole question of transparency and accountability is changing the protocols to make it impossible for this type of situation that we see in the sponsorship program to occur ever again, where it would appear that documents are not in the file, things have gone missing, and we have a senior bureaucrat who declares that one of the reasons why he did not keep the appropriate records was because he was afraid of the Access to Information Act. I fear that in the debate before public accounts, this point, this tangent shall we say, of transparency and accountability, which is the need to reform and elaborate on the Access to Information Act, has so far been lost.
I will remind members that two weeks ago in this chamber, this House voted on private member's Bill C-462, a bill sponsored by myself, which is a comprehensive reform of the Access to Information Act. It is a product of many years of work. It is a product of backbench MPs working together on all sides of the House. There is a lot of expertise in this bill. Because of that and because of the will of the House, it was passed at second reading by a unanimous vote of 198 to zero. That sends a very strong message from this House about where we as backbench MPs, where we as every MP, stand on transparency and accountability. Where we stand is that we now know it must come forward.
Now, here is my problem. I have sponsored the bill, and the bill is before the House. An election is coming and there seems to be a very strong probability, if not a certainty, that I will not be returned. Consequently, I will not be there to promote in the next Parliament my access to information bill, which I believe is absolutely in the interests of this House, this Parliament and the country.
Therefore, what I am saying to the members gathered here in the House is to remember, if I am not here, that access to information reform is a backbench initiative, a torch if you will, that has to be taken up by other backbench MPs. I believe the groundwork is covered. I believe the will of Parliament is there. I believe that the leadership on all sides of the House and the leadership in the civil services are behind the legislation, and so I do hope it goes forward, and I will be content. It is not necessary to have one's name attached to a bill. It is not necessary to have one's name attached to any initiative that is positive and in the public interest in the House. The important thing is that it be done.
Let me end on one final note so that people watching can perhaps understand a little more about what motivates us here, what motivates us on all sides of the House when we are at our best. The thing is that we as parliamentarians here, be we ministers, prime ministers or backbench MPs, have an opportunity to change the lives of Canadians and we have the opportunity to change the lives of people who we will never know and never see. I would suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that this is the highest form of charity, the highest form of good, not simply to help people whom we can see and get the satisfaction in our hearts and souls because we have made their lives better, but the really greatest good is to do something in this House that will help people we will never see, but that makes the lives of Canadians better.
Immigration and Refugee Protection Act April 27th, 2004
Madam Speaker, I know my riding of Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot is a bit of a mouthful but I have to say that I am the fault of that because I was the one who originally named the riding. I suspect, however, that it will be renamed very shortly to a somewhat shorter name.
I rise to speak to Bill C-436. It is an act that would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act pertaining to the sponsorship of relatives.
What the act does or what it purports to do is it would give all citizens and permanent residents of Canada a once in a lifetime opportunity to sponsor a relative of their choice. What it does is it gets around the limitations that currently exist in legislation that restricts the sponsorship of relatives to direct relatives, like parents and grandparents, or to nieces and cousins who are in particular situations, like being orphaned or things like that, but it does not allow for the sponsorship broadly of distant cousins, uncles and other relatives.
The bill before the House, however, would get around that limitation that now exists in the Citizenship and Immigration Act and allow this one time sponsorship of any relative.
One can appreciate why the member for Vancouver East would bring forward a bill of this nature, because she comes from a riding that has a very large number of new Canadians and landed immigrants. Of course anyone who has come to this country from another land would naturally want to bring in as many relatives as possible.
I was on the citizenship and immigration committee when we dealt with this problem in the early 1990s and the difficulty was that the sponsorship program, as inherited from the Mulroney regime, was so broad that we were getting so many newcomers to Canada who could not be expected to contribute significantly to the nation, and it was felt that the sponsorship program should be limited in the way that we see in the legislation now.
There are some major difficulties with what is proposed by the member for Vancouver East. What she is saying is that every person in Canada ought to have the right to sponsor a relative. Well, there are 30 million people in Canada, so what the bill would do in effect is invite every Canadian and every permanent resident to sponsor a relative. I would suggest that basically would make it very difficult for Canada to control the type of newcomers who would like to come into the country, because every nation in the world has the right, and indeed it is a privilege, to want to have some say in who comes into the country to become a part of the nation's society.
There is another problem that is even more difficult and that is the problem that the bill would extend this privilege of sponsoring a relative once in a lifetime, not only to Canadian citizens but to permanent residents. Now the difficulty is that out of the 30 million people who are part of Canadian society, 1.5 million of them are not Canadians.
Indeed, we saw what happened late last year when the government introduced a program whereby people who did not have Canadian citizenship but were permanent residents were required to take a permanent residency card. There was a lot of conflict in our constituency offices over that. What was amazing was to discover in my own constituency office that many of those people who were captured by this requirement to have a permanent residents card had been in the country for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years. These people had come to the country many years ago. and many of them actually from the traditional countries that sent people to Canada, the United States and particularly Britain and Western Europe, but these people had come to Canada and they could not be bothered to take out citizenship and they could not be bothered to acquire the right to vote, even though they had been in Canada for many years. Often we had a situation where they raised their children under the citizenship of another nation.
What the bill would do is allow this type of person, who is not sufficiently attached to Canada, to acquire citizenship, to bring in relatives to become part of the country, to acquire the wealth and benefit of the country, to follow the same pattern and not bother about having a real attachment to Canada. I think this would be very unfortunate because Canada is a fine country and I think it is respected worldwide.
At the very least, we should try to attract people who want to be here because Canada is a fine country and who want to become part of Canadian society because they want to share in our values, our values that have to do with freedom of opportunity, freedom of speech, the respect for the rule of law and democracy and the respect for basic human rights. We do that when we become Canadian or when we at least hold it out as an option.
However to say to people who have chosen not to be Canadian, who have chosen only to take advantage of the material benefits of Canada, that they should have the right to bring in their relatives, just the absolute right to bring in their relatives to take advantage of the material benefits of Canada again, just like them, is quite unacceptable.
I would suggest that while I appreciate that the member for Vancouver East has proposed the legislation because she genuinely sees in her riding and among her constituency a desire for family reunification, which is very understandable, the legislation, unfortunately, as written, particularly because it includes permanent residents and provides for no criterion of adherence to the values of Canada, I regret to say it is legislation that I do not think the House should support.
I commend the member for Vancouver East for bringing it forward because I think the intent of the legislation is fine and we do want to be a country that welcomes people. However every nation ought to have the opportunity to screen people for their potential desire to come to this land to adhere to our values.
Open Government Act April 26th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin and summarize the contents of Bill C-462, so that people watching from outside will see that the proposals in the bill are for the most part very reasonable.
First, the bill would change the name of the act to the open government act.
Second, it would require government records that are more than 30 years old to be automatically opened, except when specifically exempted for reasons of national security, public safety or international obligation.
Third, it would establish the principle that records be provided without unreasonable barriers as to time and cost.
Fourth, it would provide protection of information relating to endangered species and threatened ecological or archeological sites.
Fifth, it would bring cabinet confidences under the act.
Sixth, it would protect information related to critical infrastructure.
Seventh, it would extend the act to crown corporations and agencies previously excluded and to all incorporated not for profit organizations that receive at least two-thirds of their funding from federal government sources.
Eighth, it would make ministers of the Crown, their exempt staff and officers of Parliament subject to the act.
Ninth, it would make travel and hospitality expenses of MPs and senators subject to the act.
Tenth, it would allow the disclosure of retained records pertaining to public health and safety, and the environment to be disclosed in the interests of public safety.
Eleventh, it would specify what cabinet records must be disclosed.
Twelfth, it would give the Prime Minister discretion to release the records of previous cabinets under previous administrations.
Finally, it would provide public access to government records pertaining to third party contracts and opinion polling.
I believe we would agree in the House that the majority of those suggested amendments are not controversial and would vastly improve the effect of the act. However, I would like to address some of the criticisms advanced by the member for London West.
She made three points expressing, I presume, the concern of the government. One was the allusion to section 24, which pertains to all kinds of clauses in various legislation that cite exemptions and protections from the Access to Information Act.
I think she made a very valid point that totally eliminating section 24 could have all kinds of unintended consequences. I say before the House right now that if the bill were to go to committee stage, I would be prepared at the outset to suspend that section of Bill C-462 which would eliminate section 24. I am afraid the committee would be bogged down for months, if not years, discussing the implications of that particular amendment. Right at the outset, let us put it aside now so that the bill can go forward quickly.
The other two points the member made, she expressed the concern that the CBC would be afraid that the confidences of its journalists would be affected by this legislation. I can assure her absolutely, that is a red herring from the CBC itself. The Access to Information Act, as presently constructed, provides all the protections needed for not only MPs' confidences, but also the confidences of journalists and the confidences of the operations of ordinary corporations. That is not a problem.
Finally, she expressed the concern about the provision that non-profit organizations receiving two-thirds of their funding from the federal government would be included in the act. She is quite right. The intention is to capture charities and it is to capture foundations that receive most of their money from the federal government.
I point out that the Foundation for Innovation and the Millennium Scholarship Endowment Fund, which are almost totally funded by the government, have been the subject of a lot of concern in the House because they are not suitably transparent. They are a means of the government to put money aside through a third party agency that is not accountable directly to the people and not as transparent as the government would be if it spent the money itself.
Yes, that is the intention. I would be prepared to defend it in committee. I think the member would find very broad support among Canadians. Wherever federal taxpayer money is spent in large sums, there should be the same regimes of transparency and accountability as exist when the federal government is spending the money directly.
Bill C-462 reflects an effort that goes back far beyond me. The actual origin of the access to information bill was the initiative of backbench MPs. This initiative of bringing transparency and accountability to government has always been an initiative of all members of the House, regardless of party. It has not been an initiative of government.
What we are dealing with here is the recognition by MPs, generally, that transparency and accountability is the heritage of Canadians, it is the right of Canadians. Because backbench MPs are not hooked up with government, as it were, they tend to be more sensitive to this.
I would propose that all backbench MPs in the House, at the very least, support Bill C-462 on principle because it is a principle, I believe, that is in the interests of all Canadians.
Westbank First Nation Self-Government Act April 20th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, I am going to take this debate in a slightly different direction than it has been so far this morning and comment on clause 16 in the bill before us which is a related amendments clause. It says:
Subsection 13(3) of the Access to Information Act is replaced by the following:
(b) the council, as defined in the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Agreement given effect by the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Act.
Well, Mr. Speaker, section 13 of the Access to Information Act requires the government to keep in confidence information it has received from either a provincial government, or a foreign government, or an aboriginal government. Mr. Speaker, this section basically denies public access, particularly as we read here, to the debates, the exchange of information with the council of the Westbank nation.
The reason why section 13 exempts foreign governments is obvious but the reason why it exempts provincial governments from the application of the Access to Information Act and the requirement for transparency that is therein contained is that provincial governments, that other order of government, all have freedom of information legislation of their own.
Municipal governments across the country are subordinate to provincial governments. It varies from province to province, but if provincial governments want to require municipalities to have freedom of information or access to information legislation, then the provincial governments can impose it. Indeed, if I may say so, in come cases provincial freedom of information and privacy legislation is better than the federal law.
However, what we see here is an instance where the federal legislation is creating an exemption for all aboriginal governments. We can see the problem. For some reason the federal government has decided that aboriginal communities and aboriginal governments will be excluded from the requirement for transparency and accountability that is required of every other order of government and indeed just about every other institution that is subordinate to government in the country.
So we have this again, Mr. Speaker, and I think it is something that every Canadian should be very concerned about, we have a situation where because it is an aboriginal community, it is given, shall we say, a benefit of secrecy that is not accorded to non-aboriginal communities and non-aboriginal orders of government.
We need to be very concerned about this. We know from our own experience, anecdotally perhaps, that those institutions that operate without transparency, those institutions that have money to spend and influence to use, to apply, in order to benefit friends, to benefit people who should not be benefited, where transparency does not exist in these groups, abuses do occur.
The difficulty is that I think most of us who have had any experience with aboriginal communities at all know that some of the problems that exist in aboriginal communities have to do with the fact that the leaderships of those communities are not accountable and do not have requirements of transparency.
The previous Liberal government attempted to address this problem in a broad sense by something called the corporate governance bill. That bill would have required aboriginal communities to meet standards of governance, standards of transparency, standards of election and disclosure that were at least parallel to the same standards that we would find in the municipalities across Canada, that we would find in school boards and in any other political or quasi-political institutions in the land.
I regret to say, Mr. Speaker, and I really regret to say that the current government, under this Prime Minister, has not carried forward on that important legislation. Many of us who have long experience on the aboriginal affairs committee and many of us who have had experience with aboriginal communities in our own ridings know that one of the fundamental reasons for poverty and distress on Indian reserves and in Indian communities across the country has to do with the fact that there is not the level of transparency, there is not the level of accountability, and the money is getting to the leadership in too many cases and not getting to the people. It is a management problem that could be addressed by transparency, which would lead, I think, to increased efficiencies.
Really, we should not, anywhere in this country, want to see any kind of political entity operating without the legislated requirement of transparency. If there is an inherent right of all Canadians, it is the right to be able to see how we are governed, to see how those who govern us spend our money.
What we have done in this legislation, in this Bill C-11, is that the federal government, on its initiative--on its initiative, Mr. Speaker--has excluded the Westbank nation from coverage under the Access to Information Act, even though everywhere else in the country provincial legislation applies to municipalities. Those municipalities or school boards that do not have adequate transparency regimes are still subject to provincial law and could have them, but in this particular case aboriginal self-government is entirely subject to federal law and we have this instance where the federal government has chosen--I do not like to say this--chosen based on race to exclude a government from the proper regime of transparency that we expect of all other Canadians.
So, Mr. Speaker, I think this is a major flaw in the bill. It is very, very disappointing. Because of other circumstances my attention has been diverted in the last month and a half or so, but I am very, very sorry that I do not have an opportunity to move an amendment, because what we really ought to see in this legislation is that we ought to see the Westbank First Nation subject to the Access to Information Act.
I should tell you, Mr. Speaker, that the Access to Information Act is an act that provides protection for all kinds of confidences. The federal government, this federal government, operates very effectively under the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, and so there is no reason why an aboriginal first nation government could not operate under the Access to Information Act.
So it is a disappointment, Mr. Speaker, and I think it does have to do with a weakness in the charter. I tend to agree with many of the speakers who spoke before me. It is too bad that the charter basically exempted Canada's first nations, Canada's aboriginals, from the application of the charter. It does so in section 25. I will read it, if I may, because I think it is important for Canadians to know what section 25 says. The rest of the charter describes all the protections that Canadians have, freedom of speech and democracy and so forth, and then section 25 goes on to say:
The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal peoples of Canada--
In other words, what the charter does is put aboriginal rights, as defined by treaty or other means, above or beyond the charter. This is precisely the debate that we are carrying on today. Is it right, is it proper, for any aboriginal community or any aboriginal government to be able to operate outside the charter?
So, Mr. Speaker, I really do think that what is really necessary is not to repeat this type of situation over and over again. What is really necessary is for the government to rethink its entire strategy with respect to Canada's first nations and treat them in law like other Canadians.
Budget Implementation Act, 2004 April 19th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in this debate because it is important on the opposition side to point out not just negatives in a document like the budget, but also positives even when those positives fall far short of what could be done by the government.
I would like to comment on the provisions in the budget pertaining to charities and draw the attention of the House to a very important rule change that has occurred in the budget pertaining to the 80% disbursement rule.
The House will recall that in 1996 I did an MP's report on charities called “Canada's Charities: A Need for Reform”. It was a litany of all kinds of shortcomings in the oversight of Canada's $90 billion charity industry comprising some 80,000 organizations. I regret to say that the government has always been terribly slow to respond to the great number of recommendations that I made in that report.
One of the most important recommendations was the observation that the 80% rule, as it existed up until this budget, was extremely flawed. What it said was that all charities had to spend 80% of their tax receiptable donations on charitable activities. That sounds wonderful, but what it really means is that only a tiny percentage of a charity's income--that income that pertains to tax receiptable donations--actually has to be spent on charitable activity.
In fact, charities and charitable foundations were transferring funds to other charitable organizations and those charitable organizations did not have to use any of that money whatsoever on charitable activity. Often there were situations where a charity would get the main portion of its funding from another charity, like the United Way for example. It would amaze members to know that up until this budget, charitable organizations receiving money from the United Way did not have to use any of that money on charitable activity, none whatsoever.
After eight long years of billions and billions of dollars of abuse by many charitable organizations, the government has finally plugged part of the loophole in this budget. It has said that any transfers coming from one charitable organization to another charitable organization are covered by the 80% disbursement rule. So, when the United Way gives money to a small charity, that small charity must spend 80% of that money on actual charitable activity, not on paying salaries, not on administration, but actually on the charitable activity.
I regret to say, Mr. Speaker, that having taken a fine first step, the government did not take the second step. That second step would ensure that all transfers to charities are subject to the 80% rule because the majority of transfers to charitable organizations, particularly hospitals, for example, or any large charitable organization that is providing social and medical services, most of the money that they receive is from government.
The difficulty is, if the 80% rule does not apply to the money received from government, that large charities like hospitals, which are a classic example, could spend all kinds of money on salaries and administration rather than on caring for the sick and the injured or paying doctors salaries. Thus we have the situation where large hospitals like the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto pay a CEO $500,000. This is the kind of abuse that is possible because hospitals are not under the 80% rule when it comes to spending government money.
I would like to make the observation that the Prime Minister has suggested that he wants to put more money into health care and he wants to make it conditional on that money being used properly. All he has to do is to make hospitals subject to this 80% rule so that when they receive money from government, they have to use 80% of it on providing charitable activity.
Mr. Speaker, the other aspect of this problem is that there were many other opportunities that the government had to increase transparency of large and small charitable institutions. It is all part of a package. It has made one very important step.
It is providing in the budget access of the public to the financial statements of charities. Never was that opportunity in existence before. What would happen is that if we wanted to find out a charity's spending practices, the only access we had to any kind of document that described those spending practices was the T-3010 form, which can be filled out by anyone. There is no requirement that an accountant do it. It is a simple form that provides minimal information.
So the prospect, particularly with large charities where they have to present a financial statement to their boards of directors and their boards of directors demand that a chartered accountant or public accountant or some qualified person examine these financial statements, the fact that these are now going to be available to the public is indeed a very, very important step, and I am very glad to see it. But again, the government has failed to take advantage of the opportunity to spread the transparency around so that we can see into these large institutions that are spending mostly government money.
I proposed in 1997 that large, non-profit organizations and charities come under the Canada corporations act so that there are the same standards of corporate governance that apply to all charities, to all organizations that use public funds, particularly, again, large hospitals and large institutions that provide social and medical services.
I regret to say that there are no standards of governance across large institutions like the Cancer Society or any of the large hospitals. I would suggest that if they were committed to the same type of standards of governance and transparency that exists in the Canada corporations act for for-profit organizations, we would see enough into those organizations that we would be able to see the management inefficiency. We would see the kind of nepotism that must exist in any large institution that does not have oversight. And if we could see that, we would correct it and there would be a huge saving to the taxpayer.
We do not have to put more money into health care. All we have to do is put in a regime of transparency and accountability, a real legislated regime, not just hope and smoke and mirrors. This has been on the agenda. I have been talking about this particular issue for seven years now. Seven years and there has been no progress other than a small crumb: that the financial statements will now be available from large charities. This is not good enough.
I despair. We work very hard on these things and it does not matter what side of the House we are on. I tried very hard to get this agenda forward. I thought I was making progress a few years ago, but what did the government do? It went out to the charitable sector and asked them what they thought. And so the voluntary sector round table and various other charitable organizations and institutions, and sometimes the very people, the very individuals I criticized in my report for failing to live up to their obligations of transparency and accountability, became the advisers to government.
And so we see in the budget document that credit is given to the charitable organizations that advise the government to do the least possible.
Mr. Speaker, that is what it amounts to. Sometimes we really, really wonder around here, when politicians spend years working on a problem and develop expertise and they cannot be heard by their own government.
So yes, Mr. Speaker, progress has been made, and I am delighted to compliment any small move forward in this file, which is worth billions of dollars and affects the lives of countless Canadians. Any small move forward is a positive thing, Mr. Speaker, but this is yet another, another opportunity lost.
Open Government Act February 24th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, on a point of order, there seems to be consensus, as a matter of fact, unanimity, in the House that this is a piece of legislation that should go forward immediately. I would therefore like to move a motion to the effect that this go directly to committee now.
Open Government Act February 24th, 2004
Yes, Mr. Speaker, the archives act does need to be upgraded for the reasons that the member mentioned. However, he might like to know that the current act provides a penalty of two years in jail for people who deliberately try to circumvent the content of the act. I would suggest that anyone who fails to keep documents or destroys documents is breaking the existing law and that should come out in the sponsorship inquiry that is underway right now.
Open Government Act February 24th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, I think the Treasury Board-Justice Department task force itself determined that the cost of administering the Access to Information Act for any government department or crown agency is quite reasonable. It is more than reasonable in the context of the management efficiencies that always accrue when there is a reasonable amount of public transparency.
One of the problems right now is that the Auditor General or internal audit is the only control ensuring that management within government, where agencies are under the Financial Administration Act, is operating in the proper fashion. That is a spot process. It comes in casually.
However, if access to information were to apply to all organizations that are subject only to audit--and there are a great many of them, Mr. Speaker, just so you understand, that instead of being under the Access to Information Act are only occasionally audited--the management efficiencies would more than pay for the cost of actually implementing the Access to Information Act.
As for the passages blanked out that my colleague referred to, he is quite right. The Access to Information Act is so desperately in need of reform, after passage in 1982, that there is all kind of information that is deleted that should not be deleted. For instance, information that may have been received from the United States as American historical documents is blanked out in Canadian documents. There is information that is 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 years old and completely useless to anyone in terms of national security or sensitivity and is blanked out.
That is one thing that Bill C-462 would do, in addition to bringing crown corporations and other agencies under the act. What it would do is clean up a lot of these idiocies of the old act where information is protected for no fathomable reason. The Access to Information Act was a good act when it came in, but it is an old piece of legislation and it needs cleaning up.
Open Government Act February 24th, 2004
moved that Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker,I rise this evening to speak to Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act.
This legislation has a very long history. In fact, exactly 10 years ago, plus 15 days, I sent a letter to the then justice minister in which I proposed to him that the government undertake to re-examine the Access to Information Act with the eye in mind of making certain substantial reforms.
By that time, it had been evident to anyone who used the Access to Information Act or had any encounter with it whatsoever that the act which was by then 10 years old had many flaws. It was good legislation for its day, but needed to be repaired.
The justice minister of the day replied, and I can actually read his letter to the House. He said:
I recognize the need to consider reform in this key area...It will likely be autumn before we can do so, and I will speak to you again about it as we prepare a strategic approach.
That was 10 years ago.
What time lost, what opportunity lost. We now have a government that is engaged in a situation, and some would call it a scandal, involving the sponsorship of various organizations using government funds. That scandal, as revealed by the Auditor General, has involved crown corporations. This very day we are to understand that the government is prepared to discipline members of some of the crown corporations mentioned in the Auditor General's report.
Had the government moved on access to information reform 10 years ago and done what was so obvious to everyone, and that was to include all crown agencies under the Access to Information Act, it would have been impossible for this situation to have occurred, where it is perceived that officials of crown corporations have acted improperly in the handling of certain financial files. Transparency is always the answer and always has been the answer.
I suggest that had the government moved 10 years ago, this problem would never have emerged. I would suggest that the government with this bill, which includes all crown agencies under the Access to Information Act, should move with this legislation forthwith.
Let me give members a sense of what is the problem. Right now, under the current Access to Information Act, out of 246 crown agencies and corporations, only 49 are covered by the Access to Information Act. Only 49 crown agencies are required to keep a regime of transparency, such that the ordinary Canadian citizen at any time can look at the operational documents to ensure and satisfy themselves that a particular government agency is conducting itself with prudence and probity.
Why not have all agencies under the Access to Information Act? Why have, for example, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority under the Access to Information Act or the Bank of Canada and not Canada Post and VIA Rail?
So it is, with literally hundreds and hundreds of crown agencies and corporations and other bodies that are not under the Access to Information Act. The Canadian public knows there is no justifiable reason for not bringing them under the Access to Information. I proposed that 10 years ago and I repeated that proposal in legislation and private member's motions before the House, and still it has been rejected.
Bill C-462 that is now before the House does much more than simply address the question of whether crown corporations and other government agencies should be under the Access the Information Act. It does something that is really elementary. As its first amendment, it changes the name of the Access to Information Act to the open government act. The idea is very simple.
The legislation states:
The purpose of this Act is to extend the present laws of Canada to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution because it is the Government of Canada’s obligation to release information that will assist Canadians in assessing the Government’s management of the country and in monitoring the Government’s compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
If the government is committed to open government, then it should be prepared to pass legislation that makes it the fundamental mandate of the government to be open and transparent.
There are other amendments that are very important to reforming the Access to Information Act. It addresses a problem that caused a scandal in the past involving the government. It brings ministers and their exempt political staff under the Access to Information Act. That amendment was put in this legislation by myself to answer the problem that occurred a couple of years ago pertaining to the expense accounts of ministers and their political staffs.
This legislation would bring the access to information and privacy commissioners under the Access to Information Act which, as the House knows, is one of the reasons why we had the Radwanski scandal. Mr. Radwanski was able to submit expense accounts that he signed himself. By bringing the Office of the Privacy Commissioner under the act, the likes of Mr. Radwanski would no longer be able to do such a thing.
There are other very important amendments that I would have thought the government would be quick to support. One of them is to bring cabinet confidences under the act. Presently, the deliberations in cabinet are excluded from the act. That means that it is possible to never know what occurred in cabinet. There is a 20 year rule in which some things are disclosed, but there is nothing in legislation that ensures that the cabinet confidences are covered by the Access to Information Act because right now they are outside the act entirely.
There are other amendments that extend secrecy to areas in which we need secrecy. Two of those vital areas deal with protecting information pertaining to ecological and archaeological sites. The reason for that is to prevent individuals from discovering that the government has access to plans and reports involving archaeological sites that could have treasures in them that could be sold on the open marketplace, or ecological sites where property owners might wish to destroy the animals in order to ensure that they can sell the land as they see fit. Those instances would be protected under the legislation.
Also, and very pertinent to this day and age, post September 11, is the provision to protect information pertaining to critical infrastructure. We must do that because right now we have no means in law to ensure that terrorists cannot get pertinent information about facilities that could become the target of an attack.
Ultimately, the issue today is the whole question of the transparency of crown corporations. The bill has gone through many vicissitudes. It was a private member's bill in 1999 and the government voted it down. Then a task force on access to information reform was struck in the year 2000. It was a task force that was sponsored by the justice department and Treasury Board. That task force reported and many of the amendments in my bill reflect the amendments proposed by that task force.
The legislation itself is very sophisticated, I like to say, because both former and present access to information and privacy commissioners were involved in making recommendations to it.
Finally, it is certainly true that there is resistance to this type of legislation. It is quasi-constitutional. It always gives a sense of unease to those organizations that have operated for a very long time without transparency and are reluctant to come under a new regime in which they have to be conscious that the public is looking in constantly on what they do.
I talked to a number of crown corporations and various individuals. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I set up a committee of backbench MPs, an ad hoc committee, to review the Treasury Board's task force on access to information reform. It was a committee that did not have standing, but we met and we invited witnesses. One of those persons I sent a letter to, asking them to appear before the committee and react to the proposals to bring crown corporations under the Access to Information Act, was none other than the president and chief executive officer of Canada Post.
He replied to my letter saying:
Dear Mr. Bryden:
I am writing in reply to your letter of March 21, 2002, regarding your request that an official of Canada Post appear before your Committee studying the Access to Information Act.
I am pleased to accept your offer to appear before your Committee. I have reviewed my schedule, and I would be available sometime near the end of May and the beginning of June.
Thank you for writing, and I look forward to meeting with you shortly.
What happened in fact was that the message went out from government ordering that bureaucrats and officials not appear before my committee because my committee was not a committee of standing. I think there was some fear that it would set an unwanted precedent if officials testified before a committee that was composed of backbench MPs trying to get to the truth of an issue. So Mr. Ouellet never appeared before our ad hoc committee on access to information reform.
It is a pity because had the government got behind the initiative that was its own initiative with its review of the Access to Information Act that reported in 2002, we would have this reform, this transparency, and this accountability in government operations that the public cries out for and the government talks about.
I wish to point out that in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, the government is proposing to again review the Access to Information Act, again using Treasury Board, and again with the prospect in mind that crown corporations should come under the Access to Information Act.
I suggest that no new review needs to be done. It is established. I think the consensus out there among professionals and the ordinary citizen, among MPs, is overwhelming. All crown agencies and organizations that spend a substantial amount of taxpayer money should come under the Access to Information Act.
I would dearly hope that this piece of legislation, which has been worked on by so many backbench MPs, would get the support not only of the opposition side of the House, which I know it has, not only of the government backbench, which I know it has, but also of the government itself.