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NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre (Manitoba)
Won his last election, in 2011, with 53.70% of the vote.
Statements in the House
Mr. Speaker, there was great hope and optimism that the Conservatives were going to be different. In fact, John Bryden, the Liberal MP I made reference to, crossed the floor. He was so frustrated with his own party for failing to introduce the measures he thought were the single most important thing one could do, that he crossed the floor to the Conservatives and ran as a Conservative when he lost his election.
The campaign promise was that the Conservatives would introduce all of the Information Commissioner's recommendations in his open government act and, in fact, it was part of the Federal Accountability Act until it was pulled out. I was instrumental in passing the Conservatives' Federal Accountability Act as the swing vote on the parliamentary committee that passed it. Every motion needed my support. We were shocked when the freedom of information chapter was lifted out of the Federal Accountability Act.
I think I can only quote the former minister of justice, the member for Mount Royal. He underestimated that the opposition to freedom of information is legion and, when the powers that be got to the Conservatives and asked what they could possibly be thinking and why they would stipulate themselves to that level of scrutiny voluntarily, they chickened out, backed out, and broke their promises. We are asking them to fulfill their commitment to Canadians today with these six simple measures.
Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have the opportunity to remind my colleague of the Conservative Party platform, “Stand up for Canada”. A lot of members will recognize it and remember it well. My colleague even says he sleeps with a copy of it under his pillow. That is how committed he is to these promises.
I could direct my colleague, as he is relatively new to the House, having been elected in a byelection, I believe, after the Conservative member of Parliament in his area had to resign in disgrace. He should be aware of page 12 of the very Conservative campaign platform that I am referring to, which has the six points that comprise the six points in my bill. It says the Conservative government would “give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information”.
This is a common theme throughout the access to information community. Instead of the Information Commissioner having to seek satisfaction in the courts when government departments refuse to disclose information that she, after investigation, has deemed should be released, she can order and direct the release of those documents.
The other five points I will leave to my colleague to read. Perhaps he could ask his colleague, the Minister of Industry, for his copy that he keeps under his pillow and they could study it together.
Mr. Speaker, being forced to operate in the light of day lifts the performance and raises the bar of good public administration. Openness and transparency lead to greater care, frugality, integrity, and honesty. Secrecy diminishes performance in all of those categories.
As former information commissioner John Reid put it, “...all the checks and balances designed to limit abuses of government power are dependent upon there being [free] access by outsiders to government's insider information”. That notion of government's insider information speaks to the very root of the problem. The information does not belong to the government or the bureaucracies or the public servants who created it. It belongs to the people. Government information belongs to the citizens whose tax dollars paid for it and whose votes gave the government permission to create it. It should not be like pulling teeth to get hold of it.
Surely parliamentarians who are trying to get information from the government so they can effectively do their jobs on behalf of the people who elected them should not be treated as outsiders trying to get our hands on insider information. Yet increasingly, that is the situation we find ourselves in.
Mr. Reid went on to say that a government and “[a] public service which holds tight to a culture of secrecy is a [government and] a public service ripe for abuse”. Yet too many of our senior public servants still subscribe to the views of Sir Humphrey, in the British TV series Yes, Minister, when he advised, “You can have good government, or you can have open government. But, prime minister, you can't have both”.
While successive Canadian governments have paid lip service to the notions of transparency and accountability to the point where they have become almost meaningless buzzwords in this country, very few have shown any real commitment to open government beyond the bare minimum required to maintain the illusion.
In the words of former auditor general Denis Desautels,
There is a reluctance to let Parliament and the public know how [public] programs are working, because...you may be giving your opponents the stick to beat you with. And even when a minister is not personally concerned with this, senior public servants assume this fear on the minister's behalf. [They]...try to [give out] as little as possible that would ever expose their department to [any] criticism” “.
In spite of Prime Minister Trudeau's lofty language that the new law would promote effective participation of citizens and organizations in the taking of public decisions, successive governments have failed to live up to those noble principles. In fact, the ink was hardly dry on the legislation on July 1, 1983 before senior officials began routinely hiding information that the drafters of the ATIA intended to remain public.
I think the hon. John Crosbie, the first justice minister to be responsible for the new access act, set the tone for all future administrations when he dismissed the new law as a tool for “mischief-makers” whose objective “[i]n the vast majority of instances” is simply to “embarrass political leaders and to titillate the public”.
That attitude certainly created the atmosphere we recognize today. Whether it was the tainted blood scandal, the polling on constitutional reform, the Somalia inquiry, or more recently, the conditions of Afghan detainees, successive governments have shown their unwillingness to live up to the letter or the spirit of the act. In fact, there has developed an increasingly elaborate and almost paranoid game of cat and mouse to keep important information from the prying eyes of the public.
It has been my experience that the amount of crowing about transparency and accountability is directly proportional to the increased devotion to secrecy, deliberate obfuscation, and hoarding of information for no defendable reason.
If inquiries and requests for information are viewed as a pesky nuisance, or worse yet, as a threat, there will continue to be a lack of co-operation, unreasonable delays, poor compliance, and hostility and antagonism toward requesters. A grudging, resentful adherence to the letter of the law will never be enough to meet the spirit of openness.
This private member's bill does not pretend to be a comprehensive rewrite of the access to information legislation, nor does it pretend to fix or correct all of its shortcomings. A comprehensive review of the act is long overdue, and successive information commissioners have called for such a review for almost 30 years.
Commissioner John Reid went as far as to table a whole package of legislative reform called the open government act, which I was proud to table as a private member's bill in 2006, 2008, and 2011. Instead, Bill C-567 is a modest effort and seeks to address only those aspects of reform on which there is a stated and documented consensus.
Colleagues on the government benches will recognize all six elements of Bill C-567, as they are taken chapter and verse directly out of the Conservative Party election platform. In fact, there is nothing in my bill that is not taken word for word from the election promises that the present Conservative government made to Canadians.
There are six simple points. The first would give the Information Commissioner of Canada order-making powers to compel the release of information that he or she determines should be released. Members will find this in clause 5 of my bill.
The second point would be to expand the coverage of the act to all crown corporations, officers of Parliament, and foundations and organizations that spend taxpayers' money or perform public functions. Members will find that in clause 9 of the bill.
The third point would subject the exclusions of cabinet confidences to the review of the Information Commissioner of Canada. That is in clause 4 of my bill.
The fourth point would oblige public officials to create documents and retain the records necessary to document their actions or decisions. That is in subclause 2(1).
The fifth point would provide a general public interest override for all exemptions so that the public interest is put before the secrecy of the government.
The final point, number six, would ensure that all exemptions from the disclosure of government information are justified only on the basis of harm or injury that would result from the disclosure, not blanket exemption rules.
As I said, all six of these points are directly from the Conservative Party's own election campaign platform.
In my final few minutes, I would like to recognize and pay tribute to some of those who have been champions over the years of the public's right to know, and who are therefore champions of democracy, in my view. First of all, I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gerald Baldwin, a nine-term Progressive Conservative MP, from Peace River, whose groundbreaking private member's bill from 1969 languished under the scrutiny of the regulations committee until 1978. That bill would serve as the foundation of the act that came about a few years later.
Next is Svend Robinson, a nine-term NDP MP, from Burnaby—Douglas, who was an early champion of access reform. He helped to develop the current legislation in 1982.
John Bryden, former Liberal MP and former editor of the Toronto Star, dedicated his entire career as a member of Parliament to freedom of information reform. John founded and chaired the ad hoc parliamentary committee on access to information, when his own government of the day would not put forward the amendments that he sought. I was proud to take over as sponsor of John Bryden's private member's bill on ATI reform in 2004, when he lost his seat.
The hon. Bill Blaikie, a 30-year veteran NDP MP, and former Dean of the House of Commons, was a tireless advocate of the people's right to know and better access reform.
Former information commissioner John Reid went as far as to table a total rewrite of the legislation as a result of his profound frustration in trying to administer a dysfunctional act. It was his open government act that formed the foundation of the Conservative Party campaign promises that created this bill.
Finally, I would like to recognize the sitting member for Mount Royal, who as the former Liberal minister of justice worked closely with me to try to introduce access to information reform measures. When he was unable to do so, he was honest enough to admit that the forces against such reform were legion, and they proved to be insurmountable. I respect him for trying, and I respect his honesty after failing.
Today's Access to Information Act is terribly outdated and dysfunctional. It is broken and in desperate need of repair. The current Information Commissioner of Canada, in her October 2013, report said, “there are unmistakable signs of significant deterioration in the federal Access to Information system”.
The Conservatives agreed, when they were running for office, that all of the changes suggested in Bill C-567 are desirable and necessary if we are to make manifest the lofty principles of freedom to information and the people's right to know. They promised the Canadian people that, if elected, they would implement the six specific changes to the Access to Information Act found in Bill C-567, and today I hold them at their word.
moved that Bill C-567, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act (transparency and duty to document), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand today to introduce Bill C-567.
Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, and freedom of information is the oxygen democracy breathes. The public has a right to know what their government is doing, and secrecy is the natural enemy of good public administration. These simple principles are the foundation of our access to information laws and the principles that this private member's bill seeks to strengthen and uphold.
I am honoured to have today as the seconder of Bill C-567 one of the country's leading authorities on the subject of access to information and the performance of the federal legislation from its inception to date, the member for Victoria. Parliament is fortunate to have such a learned and experienced fellow to contribute to our efforts to improve and strengthen the access to information regime.
It is the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish and for maladministration and abuse of power to occur in government. Indeed, the seeds of corruption are planted in the dark. While I agree with the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that one cannot legislate morality or enforce ethical conduct, there is no doubt in my mind that observation and scrutiny have the natural effect of elevating the standards of ethical behaviour and of curbing maladministration and abuse of power.
Again, sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. Being forced to operate in the light of day lifts the performance and raises the bar of good public administration.
Mr. Speaker, if there was less heckling and rattling over there, I could deliver my speech a lot more effectively.
Rail Transportation February 13th, 2014
Mr. Speaker, grain bins across the Prairies are bursting at the seams, because farmers cannot get their grain to market, and they are being forced to sell at fire-sale prices, as low as $4 a bushel. Now the grain companies tell the agriculture committee that they cannot ship grain because of the cold weather, as if cold weather is something new on the Canadian prairies, when the real problem is that they are shipping twice as many cars dedicated to oil as cars dedicated to grain, and there is no Canadian Wheat Board to negotiate reliable shipping.
Now, we have heard a lot about rail safety today. What is the Minister of Transport doing about rail service to ensure that Canadian farmers have the railcars they need to get their grain to market?
Public Works and Government Services February 11th, 2014
Mr. Speaker, with all the talk of high finances today, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services wants to balance the books by purging all public buildings of petunias and potted plants. So far, the deforestation project is going great. She just sold 650 plants from Place du Portage for $11.11, although I presume that was rounded down to $11.10.
We know that government procurement is not a strong point, but we did not really realize how bad it is at divesting itself of public assets. Can the minister for defoliating public places please explain her business plan, because there is a—
Committees of the House February 5th, 2014
Mr. Speaker, it is with some reluctance that I have the obligation to present, in both official languages, the first report of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. It is entitled “Statutory Review of the Conflict of Interest Act”.
Pursuant to Standing Order 109, the committee requests that the government table a comprehensive response to this report.
Petitions February 4th, 2014
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to present today a petition that has been signed by literally tens of thousands of Canadians, who call upon the House of Commons to take note that asbestos is the greatest industrial killer that the world has ever known. In fact, more Canadians now die from asbestos than all other industrial or occupational causes combined. They call upon Canada to ban asbestos in all of its forms, and to end all government subsidies of asbestos, both in Canada and abroad, and to stop blocking international health and safety conventions designed to protect workers from asbestos, such as the Rotterdam Convention.
Business of Supply February 3rd, 2014
Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Last Friday during question period, during some heated exchanges, some unparliamentary language was used by myself. I regret the language that I chose that day and I apologize to members across and to anyone who may have heard something unparliamentary coming from me. I wanted to take this first opportunity that I have had since I have been back in Ottawa to ask for time to extend that legitimate apology to my colleagues across the way.
Veterans January 31st, 2014
Mr. Speaker, members will know that Brandon, Manitoba, is a huge military town with thousands of veterans, yet they are going to lose their Veterans Affairs office. Veterans in Thunder Bay will have to drive to North Bay, a 13-hour drive, to get basic service.
The Conservatives love to trot out veterans for self-serving photo ops, but they turn their backs on them when it comes to meeting their basic needs.
It might be the 11th hour, but it is never too late to do the right thing.
For the sake of those who have served, will the Conservative government reconsider this appalling, disgraceful decision to close these Veterans Affairs offices?