An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other Acts

This bill was last introduced in the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session, which ended in May 2004.

This bill was previously introduced in the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session.

Sponsor

John Bryden  Conservative

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Not active, as of April 28, 2004
(This bill did not become law.)

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

SupplyGovernment Orders

May 13th, 2004 / 3:45 p.m.
See context

Conservative

John Bryden Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

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.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

April 28th, 2004 / 6:15 p.m.
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The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on the motion at second reading of Bill C-462.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

April 26th, 2004 / 11:35 a.m.
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Conservative

John Bryden Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

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.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

April 26th, 2004 / 11:25 a.m.
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Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to make a couple comments with regard to Bill C-462, a bill which has been worked on for a great deal of time by the member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot.

Certainly, one of the areas in which a lot of debate has occurred is with regard to the extension of the Access to Information Act to crown corporations. I would point out that we just tabled in the House, a couple weeks ago, the whistleblower act. The whistleblower act has been referred to committee and the minister will appear before the committee tomorrow. This bill will now also apply to crown corporations. This is the first indication that there is an opening here to consider whether or not crown corporations are in the family of the public service.

I was a member of an all party ad hoc committee that was chaired by the member who sponsored this bill. The committee worked diligently. It set up a website, which I think is still accessible. The witnesses that came before that committee were very instrumental in focusing our consideration with regard to the Access to Information Act, and at looking at opportunities to broaden the exposure and reach of it for the principles for which the act exists in the first place.

The act has not been amended since it was brought in, I believe in 1982. There are very few pieces of legislation in the laws of Canada that have not been reviewed substantively and amended from time to time to take into account the changes that occur within Canada, within the value system, and within the needs that have been demonstrated from time to time.

Therefore, it is very important to understand what has happened in Canada since 1982. There have been significant developments, not only in Canada, but globally, and of course, we are a global nation. With regard to access to information, this has a tremendous significance with regard to the evolution of Canada, its role, not only as a sovereign nation, but as a global nation that participates in matters which affect all Canadians, and in fact people from all around the world.

I simply wanted to raise this issue about the period of time over which we are talking. Clearly, there are some valid issues which should be addressed, not only with regard to whether or not the reach should extend to crown corporations. We had discussions even right down to something as fundamental as what is the relationship between the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the Office of the Information Commissioner. In most jurisdictions, those offices are combined as one office. The principles regarding privacy are somewhat the complement or mirror image of the Access to Information Act.

In terms of my involvement with the ad hoc committee that we had, reflecting on some of the work we did, there were questions of whether or not there was abuse within the system. I would think that from time to time, no matter what we look at, we will always find that some people are going to find ways to push the envelope a little bit. In fact, I remember one government official that came before us and told us of an information request that required the printing of some two million pages of documents. In that regard, clearly, there is a suggestion that somehow the act was being used maybe beyond the nature for which it was originally intended.

I believe it was Wesley Wark who came before us, who is an expert in these matters. He suggested to some extent that the Access to Information Act, the way it sits now, is being used by a number of people as basically a research tool. It is an opportunity to get others to do the work on our behalf and to look for opportunities to either support other work that is being done by researchers in a variety of fields. Canadians have to be assured that there are no levels of abuse that are occurring with the act.

Having said that, we must also look at whether or not there are restrictions on the application of the act for the purpose for which it was intended. It is very important obviously that members would agree. What is the purpose of the act? How far do we go here? What is public?

We have had cases where applications have been made for the daily agenda, the diary of meetings of the Prime Minister of our country. We ask the question, is it relevant and is it fair ball for someone to want to see exactly what we did every period of the day, who we met with for what purposes, et cetera? I am sure there are some good arguments that would be quite interesting.

However, I also saw examples of things where someone would write to a minister--I think it was the industry minister at the time--and asked for copies of every piece of correspondence he received from the public on this subject matter.

It was fair ball; it was there. However, it also put the government in an awkward situation, or at least the minister under the scope or the rules of the Access to Information Act as to what could done with regard to information that was not solicited but was given out. It theoretically would involve a ministry to go to each of those persons and ask permission to release documents, in some cases. The fact that someone has said something, maybe unsolicited, may be under the purview of a minister that the subject matter may be used for legislation purposes or other things like that. To the extent that Canadians would provide their opinions is kind of interesting.

I have another example. I recall receiving a letter from the justice ministry advising that a letter that I had sent to the justice minister with regard to a constituent's concern was being sought and would be released under the Access to Information Act.

It made me wonder all of a sudden, where does this stop? Where do we start pushing the envelope and where are we providing matters which are in the public good? I almost hesitate to use that phrase because it has been used in some other context which I find a little inappropriate. It has to do with possession of child pornography.

In regard to communications, there must be some comfort level to the extent that there are matters going on in the normal course of business. That is one matter. However, what is happening that may provide influence, or maybe even undue influence, on legislators as they conduct their work? Is the act being used for the purpose for which it was intended and, does it have the scope or the latitude to be able to achieve the goals for which it was intended?

I also recall from our ad hoc committee that we had representations that there was not a significant abuse of the system with regard to people using the system as a research instrument. I also believe that there were some representations for departmental officials that the work involved in providing that information was not significantly onerous on the department that in the normal course of its operations those matters could be handled.

It is important to have that assessment from a broader representation. The ad hoc committee covered a great deal of information. I think what it demonstrated, if nothing else, is that there were a number of questions with regard to the Access to Information Act which legitimately and properly should be addressed by Parliament. As a consequence, I think the bill has given the opportunity, once again, for the Parliament of Canada to look at the bill from that context, to raise these important questions, and to have a committee consider them.

I thank the hon. member for his honourable work.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

April 26th, 2004 / 11:15 a.m.
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London West Ontario

Liberal

Sue Barnes LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-462, which is a lengthy private member's bill that would make a considerable number of amendments to the Access to Information Act. Indeed, I do not think it is going too far to say that Bill C-462 constitutes a major effort to overhaul the Access to Information Act.

Clearly, the member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot once again has focused our attention on the Access to Information Act by bringing forward his extensive bill. Accordingly, my purpose today is to comment on the member's bill, which I intend to do from more than one perspective. Before doing that, I want to take a moment or two to make some introductory and background comments.

I do not know if all the members of the House are aware of how long the member has been working on reforming the Access to Information Act. I believe I am right when I say that he first introduced a private member's bill to amend the act in the fall of 1997. The bill was then numbered as Bill C-264. The member made certain improvements to Bill C-264 and reintroduced it in 1998 as Bill C-206. In the summer of 2000, Bill C-206 was defeated. Prior to this, the member had twice obtained more than 100 signatures in support of his bill.

I want to elaborate on a point to which I alluded a moment ago, which is the importance of access to information legislation. Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have had such legislation in place at the federal level since Canada Day 1983. As so often happens, we have a tendency to take this for granted because we have benefited from the Access to Information Act for more than 20 years.

The Supreme Court of Canada has said that one of the pillars or cornerstones of a democracy is a law that gives citizens a right to gain access to government information. Of course, this right to government information is not absolute or unfettered, and certain government information must still be kept confidential. Some good examples of this are taxpayer information, sensitive and confidential business information that a company provides to the government, sensitive government information such as the contents of an upcoming budget, and information relating to the defence of Canada.

These examples do not detract from the general principle that most government information should be accessible so that Canadians can, if they wish, find out what the government is doing. Put simply, allowing Canadians to check up on the government is an important part of our democracy.

Although many may not realize this, Canada is viewed as somewhat of a pioneer in the field of access to information legislation. Various countries in the world are developing democratic principles for themselves and some of these countries seek Canada's advice on how to create access to information legislation for themselves. In some of these countries, the government can, based on whimsy or whatever good or bad reason it chooses, completely ignore a citizen's request for government information or untruthfully tell the citizen that the information does not exist. Regardless of whether our Access to Information Act is out of date and in need of some modernization, the fact remains that, fortunately for us, the situations I just mentioned are contrary to our federal law.

So far I have attempted to make the general point that we are fortunate to have access to information legislation. I wish now to turn to Bill C-462 itself. What I intend to do in the next few minutes is mention a number of proposed amendments in the bill that are worthwhile and then draw the House's attention to a few proposals that I think require some additional thinking, examination and refinement.

Before doing this, let me say that, as we know, the Minister of Justice is responsible for any reform of the Access to Information Act. The minister does not oppose the general direction of this bill. However, certain concerns needs to be addressed.

In the category of worthwhile amendments that are proposed in Bill C-462, I want to begin with one in particular. As everyone in the House knows, the repercussions of the horrifying attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, are still with us. In this regard, this bill proposes a seemingly small but, in my view, quite important addition to the Access to Information Act.

Currently, section 20 of the act essentially protects trade secrets and other confidential commercial information that a government institution receives from a third party, usually a company. The proposal in this bill is that this exemption be amended to add a specific protection for information relating to critical infrastructure. As I mentioned earlier, the right to gain access to government information is not absolute. Certain information must be kept confidential, and I think that for security reasons information on critical infrastructure falls neatly into this category.

Sometimes an issue arises when a request is made under the act for records subject to solicitor and client privilege. Certainly, the act currently contains an exemption that can be used to protect records covered by this privilege. However, when the government is willing to discuss part of a record covered by solicitor and client privilege, there is concern that the privilege in relationship to the remainder of the material might be endangered. Bill C-462 tries to address this concern by specifying that the disclosure of part of such a record does not constitute a waiver of the privilege in relationship to the remainder of the record. This proposal is worth examining further.

I have one further comment to make in the positive category before moving to some of my concerns. At present, the act states that if a requester is unhappy with how her or his request has been handled, or with the records that she or he has been given, the requester can complain to the information commissioner within one year from the date on which the request was made.

The difficulty that requesters can encounter with this section is that sometimes, legitimately or not, government institutions do not respond to requests until later than one year after the date on which the request was made. The proposal in the bill, which I view as entirely sensible, is to amend this section to say that a requester can complain within 12 months from the date of the request or such other time as the information commissioner may allow.

Turning now to my concerns, the following two proposals concern me because I believe they go further than necessary to accomplish the policy goal. Therefore, at the very least, they need to be very carefully scrutinized. First, the bill is proposing the outright repeal of section 24 of the act. Let me take a moment to described what that section does.

As I mentioned earlier in this speech, the Access to Information Act contains several specific exemptions that serve to protect from disclosure certain types of confidential information. One exemption, section 24, is slightly different. It requires the protection of information that is described as confidential in other statutes.

Attached to section 24 is a schedule that lists the confidentiality provisions in the other statutes of Parliament. Included in the list are, for example, a section of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the Defence Production Act, the Income Tax Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act, the Statistics Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992, and sections of the Criminal Code and the Patent Act. In addition to these, the list in the schedule contains about 50 other statutes. I do not believe the complete repeal of section 24 is the correct approach.

No conclusion regarding section 24 should be reached until after each and every confidentiality clause listed in the schedule has been examined and evaluated, and every entity that could be affected, for example, CSIS, Statistics Canada and the anti-money-laundering agency, Fintrac, has been thoroughly consulted. We simply cannot afford to not get this right.

The second proposal that causes me considerable concern again does so because I think the proposal in its current form may well go too far. I am referring to the proposal in the bill that the definition in the act of a government institution be expanded to include not only parent crown corporations but also their wholly owned subsidiaries and “any incorporated not for profit organization which receives at least two-thirds of its financing through federal government appropriations”.

I am not entirely sure what this proposal would mean in practice. It seems to mean that any charity that receives most of its money from the government would be subject to the Access to Information Act. This might require charities to expend time and money on creating the necessary infrastructure to deal with requests under the act. If I am right, is this result desirable? It is a question.

Regarding the wholly owned subsidiaries of crown corporations, we need to have a complete and up to date list of these so we know exactly which entities we are talking about.

Furthermore, a related proposal in Bill C-462 makes it clear that the CBC would be covered by the Access to Information Act. Would this mean that people could send Access to Information Act requests to the CBC in the hope of discovering information about confidential sources or investigative reports? Again, if I am right, is it appropriate and desirable?

I wish to move now to certain points that concern me less but to which I still want to draw the House's attention. We are puzzled with one proposal in Bill C-462. A few years ago, as a result of another private member's bill, C-208, a criminal offence was added to the Access to Information Act to cover essentially the intentional destruction, alteration or concealment of a record in order to thwart the Access to Information Act. Accordingly, I do not understand why the member sponsoring this bill is proposing to add another quite similar criminal offence to the act.

The final concern is related to an issue I mentioned a moment ago, and that is the coverage of crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries.

The Minister of Justice does not oppose the general direction of the bill, nor does he oppose this bill going to committee. However, he strongly believes that certain concerns need to be addressed. I mentioned a few. It remains an open question whether this bill could in fact be repaired at the committee stage. That is the position of the justice department.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

April 26th, 2004 / 11:05 a.m.
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Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Canadian Alliance Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to support my colleague's bill, Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts.

I would like to begin by posing a question. Has there ever been a time in our history since Confederation in 1867 that we needed more timely and quicker access to information than we presently have today? If we were to put that question out there, not only to the House but to the public in general, I think they would say that we need this act very badly.

That is why we in this party will be supporting the bill in principle. When we take a look at the amount of information and what a government does today and compare it to even one generation ago, the business, the budget and everything else, we need that information and Canadians need that information. I am saying that the bill is very important mainly because of the democratic deficit that we are facing in this country.

I want to tell a little story about accountability and access to information. It goes back many years ago when I was principal of a school. My office was at one end of the building and my youngest daughter was in a classroom at the extreme other end of the building. When she would drop into my office to say hello I would ask her what she was doing at this end of the building. She would say that she had come to use the washroom. I would tell her to go back and use her own washroom and back she would go.

I received some information about six or seven years later concerning my daughter. She told me that during those times she had been sent down by her teacher to see the principal and to tell him that she had been misbehaving in class. When she went back to her classroom the teacher would ask if she had spoken to her father and she would say “yes”.

I tell that story because it compares very much to what happens when someone puts in a request for access to information. They want the story. They want everything. Sometimes we get asked, if nothing else, to rewrite the question. The questions in many cases do not need rewriting. It is the answers that are rewritten so as we and Canadians do not get the total information.

For instance, suppose I were to ask questions through access to information about the Saskatchewan junior hockey league at the present time, which receives no salaries, and asked why the only pure amateur hockey league in Canada was subjected to an audit when no other pure junior hockey league in Canada was. Would I get an answer? No, I would not get an answer because there is no excuse for that happening. We need to correct problems like that and I believe Bill C-462 would correct a great deal of that.

The bill proposes 37 different amendments. What we find in those amendments is that Canadians, through their members of Parliament, would be able to get information that otherwise they would not be able to get as individuals.

I will give a case in point. At one of my border crossings, a huge building has been constructed, apparently by the government. The building has now been sold. Was it legally tendered? Nobody out there knows. How many private offers were received? Nobody knows. What did the building sell for? Nobody knows. How much was paid for the building? Nobody knows. That type of information is not doing anything to knock down the democratic deficit, not one little bit.

This bill reflects the work of an all party committee formed two years ago. For two years they have worked on this bill and I think that the two years' work done by this committee deserves the proper attention of this House. I think it deserves the support of every member of this House. Albeit it is a private member's bill, but every member should support this bill so that we can go to the people--it is much more timely now, with an election coming up--and say that we now have an access to information bill through which they can, through their member of Parliament, get the information they want and should have.

I know, and every member of this House knows, that there are certain bits of information that are private. There are certain bits of information that should not be divulged, such as when courts are in session and all the rest of it, but at the same time, the government can manufacture more excuses for not providing Canadians with the information they need.

As I said at the outset, and I will repeat it again, there has never been a time in the history of this country like this, when Canadians need to get that information and they need to get it quickly. Canadians have a right to know what is going on in government.

At the present time, the committee on public accounts cannot even get the information it wants from the people who could and should be giving them that information. This is what is upsetting Canadians today. This information is guarded, it is secret and it is locked away. That has created in this country a democratic deficiency like we have never had before. These 37 amendments would do a whole lot to prevent the government from acting and working in secrecy.

For instance, back in the 1930s, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act was passed to help rejuvenate the three prairie provinces, mainly with pastures, water, dugouts, dams and so on. Do members know that if a farmer puts in a requisition for a deep well, a dugout or a dam at the present time, there is a two year waiting list? In other words, this portion of that act simply does not exist.

We need to know and they need to know why there is such a long waiting list. Is it the funding? What is wrong with this? Why is it not working? The simple answer from a minister that government is putting its money in other places does not really tell the whole story. And this is just one area.

As I said at the beginning, never in the history of this country have we needed information more than we do right now. I want to close by asking a question, not only of the House but of this country. Can any nation that declares itself a democratic nation ever have too much accountability in regard to the operation of government? I do not believe it can.

That is why I am asking all members of this House to take a look at my colleague's bill. It will do a whole lot for democracy in Canada. Let us not turn it down. There is too much good in this bill.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

February 24th, 2004 / 7:20 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Jean-Yves Roy Bloc Matapédia—Matane, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak on Bill C-462 introduced by my colleague from Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot. I think he was a journalist, if my memory serves me. I was too.

We have questions about the Access to Information Act, which under today's bill would become the Open Government Act. As a journalist, I have often tried in the past to obtain information under the existing legislation, and it was extremely complicated and difficult. One need only mention having been a journalist for the request to be denied.

I just listened to the speech given by my government colleague. He reminded us of the events of September 11. He said that, since September 11, we have realized how vulnerable we were and that the information provided was perhaps too specific; that perhaps we gave out too much information. Ultimately, that is what he is telling us.

This means that the government wants to maintain its bubble culture—not a glass bubble, unless it is an extremely dark glass bubble—to prevent people from having access to information. However, a government is a public institution. It is an institution funded and created by taxpayers and not the other way around.

This kind of culture seems to run counter to how things should normally work in a democracy. Normally, in a democracy, the citizens create a system and a government that is accountable to them.

As my colleague from Saint-Jean mentioned, certain aspects of national security, which in any case must be extremely well defined and clarified, can be excluded. There are also aspects relating to personal and corporate information. In the latter's case, this ensures that companies can avoid getting ripped off literally by their competitors. Otherwise, there is no valid reason for preventing people from having access to information that the government should provide.

I was reading the committee's report, which my colleague from Saint-Jean referred to. It should be noted that this is the final report, which was tabled in November 2001. SInce then, despite the many problems identified with the Access to Information Act, the government has not budged.

I understand why my colleague introduced a bill that is as detailed as it is important. Earlier, he said that agencies, for one, did not have real access to information and that crown corporations, government agencies with increasing authority, were included in this bill.

I want to give an example from the past few years. This government has used taxpayers' money to create a number of foundations. Obviously, we do not know how these foundations are managing these funds. What will we get? There will be an annual report that only a few people, such as specialized accountants, will be able to understand. Previously, we were unable to obtain any information.

Consider the example of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Obviously a number of foundations were created, including ones in health, and the government put hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars into these foundations. Consequently, this government was not accountable. No one was truly able to obtain access to information about how the funds allocated to these foundations were being managed and spent, in other words, how the funds had been used.

Since September 11, 2001, there has been a kind of almost panic at this level. We are seeing a tendency to restrict all information, manage things in secret and inform the fewest possible people about what is really going on.

The bigger the government, the more difficult it is for the public to understand how it operates and to obtain information. The bigger the government, the more it should seek to be transparent so as to be accessible and provide the public with real information.

In the report, I also read that my Bloc Quebecois colleagues, including the members for Saint-Jean and Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, had made recommendations with important components.

One of the recommendations was for anyone whose request for information had been denied to be provided more information about the reason why. In fact, these days, public servants make a lot of decisions about what people should be told and what not. It is very difficult to say who has the authority to decide what people should be told and what not when it concerns routine, normal and common information.

The documents we receive in response to access to information requests are literally impossible to read. All that remains are “ands” and commas or just about, as we have seen for ourselves. Such documents are very discouraging for individuals. They provide no information, so results have to be almost invented or guessed at. The meeting or gathering has be almost reconstructed in order to find out what happened and learn anything.

The other factor that seems important is requiring the federal institutions involved to be accountable to citizens. When we talk about being accountable, we mean knowing how many requests for access to information the government has received, how many of those it responded to and in what length of time and in what manner. This is very important. It is a type of quality control that is needed under the law. We need to verify whether the law has truly been enforced properly and whether the bureaucracy has truly responded to citizens.

Changes are proposed in the bill, specifically with respect to time frames. That is another thing. Time frames must be respected when there is a request for access to information. People should be able to obtain a response within the time frame set out by law, not six months later. Sometimes people have to keep returning to the charge. It is extremely frustrating for someone to make such a request and almost never get a response.

Earlier my colleague also talked about opinion polls. We have seen this recently. A poll was bought 10 times, I think, at a cost of $27,000 each time. If the Auditor General had not investigated we might never have known. We have just found out which departments purchased the polls.

How can these things happen? It happens because there is no transparency in the government. The culture in the federal government needs to change on this score. We need to get to the point where those who are elected and those who work within the bureaucracy understand that they are there to serve the public, not the reverse. When, in a democracy, people think that the public is there to serve them, then the democracy has a problem.

Since we heard our colleague speak about this earlier, I will close with a look at how the federal government uses the information provided to it. Every citizen has provided an enormous amount of information to governments at all levels—federal, provincial and municipal. In general, this information is shared with the senior levels. The registration of information about citizens begins at birth. September 11 was mentioned. Governments have given themselves more and more power to cross-check this information in order to get to know every citizen almost intimately, knowing almost everything about them, as soon as an individual is born.

This is extremely dangerous when a government has a non-transparent culture, because it may use this information for other purposes than those for which it was gathered. This was seen in the case of HRDC, when information was sent by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. Ordinary citizens were penalized as a result.

I will conclude by saying that the act must be amended. This is an excellent bill, despite the fact that it contains a few elements we disagree with. Nonetheless, I am pleased to have spoken on this bill.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

February 24th, 2004 / 7:10 p.m.
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Liberal

Alan Tonks Liberal York South—Weston, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise at this time to comment on private member's Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts, introduced by the hon. member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot.

We are most fortunate in Canada to have the Access to Information Act. In its only judgment so far on the act, the Supreme Court of Canada clearly stated that access to information legislation is an integral part of a democratic country. We can be proud that Canada was among the first countries to enact access to information legislation.

The Access to Information Act does not just allow people to get information from the government; it gives citizens a statutory right to avail themselves of certain government documents and governmental proceedings. Having a properly functioning Access to Information Act is, in my opinion, the most eloquent statement a country can make about its belief in government transparency.

While the act provides a right to access information, the act also provides certain exceptions to this right. Such exceptions to providing access to information held by a government institution are limited and specific, and the decision to withhold government information is reviewable independent of government by the office of the information commissioner and, in certain cases, by the judiciary.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have made us more aware of our vulnerability and the need for a careful balancing of public interests on the one hand when deciding to release government information. At the same time, on the other hand, the tragedy has also made us more aware than ever that democracy and openness are fundamental values of the society in which we all want to live.

Indeed, the Access to Information Act is not perfect and reform of the way the act is administered and reform of the act itself is probably needed.

A number of things have changed since the act came into force in 1983. The virtual revolution in information technology has changed the way Canadians gather and the way Canadians share information on how we communicate with each other. For a great number of Canadians, the computer is an essential tool of their work today, much as the telephone was more than 20 years ago. Many of our constituents use e-mail to correspond with each other and with us. Our children and grandchildren are accustomed to researching essays on the Internet.

In a knowledge based society, information is a public resource and essential for collective learning. Government information is available through a variety of channels, including hard copy publications, brochures, videos, as well as through government websites.

Over this 21 year period of change, it is not surprising that the number of requests under the Access to Information Act has grown and so has their focus. More than 20,000 requests for government information have been received annually since fiscal year 2000-01, and the requests are now more focused, more detailed and more complex.

There have been four amendments to the act over the past 21 years but none of them constitute the comprehensive reform required to adequately respond to the current environment.

In 1992 the act was amended to ensure that individuals with sensory disabilities could receive requested documents in an alternate format. Later, in 1999, an amendment made it a criminal offence to intentionally obstruct the right to access information by destroying, altering, hiding or falsifying a record or directing anyone else to do so. I credit the hon. member for Brampton West—Mississauga for spearheading that legislative amendment.

A third amendment to the act in 2000 gave effect to the expression “aboriginal government” and included the Nisga'a government under that exemption provision.

Most recently, in December 2001, the act was amended by the Anti-terrorism Act to prohibit disclosure of information for the purpose of protecting national defence or national security.

Bill C-462 contains 37 sections and proposes a major overhaul of the Access to Information Act, including a name change. As well, Bill C-462 proposes to make consequential changes to a number of other statutes, principally the Privacy Act, the Library and Archives of Canada Act, the Parliament of Canada Act and the Canada Evidence Act.

My position, in the face of the bill's proposed amendments, is that there are certain concepts expressed in the Access to Information Act that should be handled with extreme care in the context of legislative reform.

The first concept relates to personal information. The residents of Canada are obliged to give the government all kinds of personal information about themselves. This is referred to as the collection of personal information.

The next important aspect of dealing with personal information is use. The government uses the personal information of Canadians in many ways. What I wish to focus on is disclosure.

Disclosure is probably one of the most controversial aspects of dealing with personal information. I think most people would agree with me that the government should take great care with its rules governing the disclosure of personal information. To do otherwise would shake Canadians' confidence in their government and make them unwilling to provide their personal information. For this reason I encourage the members of the House to give careful consideration to the appropriate circumstances under which the Access to Information Act should authorize the disclosure of personal information.

A second concept relates to information that our government receives in confidence from another government. Not surprisingly, when another government considers whether or not to share its confidential information with us, security of that information is paramount. I think it would be regrettably short-sighted of us not to be careful on this particular issue. We must strike the right balance between striving for increased government openness on the one hand and properly protecting confidential information on the other. If we do not do this, I am quite concerned that other governments will become increasingly reluctant to share their confidential information with us.

The third issue of importance is confidential commercial information. Businesses in Canada are obliged to give the government highly confidential commercial information and the Access to Information Act currently offers a good level of protection for this information. Businesses need to know that their competitors will not have access to their confidential information, and we must exercise caution when amending our current approach.

I would be remiss if I did not point out an interesting feature in the current bill, Bill C-462. It recommends considerably expanding the coverage of the act to include ministers and their exempt staff, parliamentary secretaries, parliamentary officers, crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries, as well as incorporated not for profit organizations that receive at least two-thirds of their funding through federal government appropriations.

As the House is aware, on February 10 of this year the President of the Treasury Board, the hon. member for Winnipeg South, announced a general review of crown corporations with a specific examination of extending the Access to Information Act to all crown corporations. In light of this, the clause in Bill C-462 proposing to make all crown corporations subject to the Access to Information Act is deserving of consideration.

My final comment is of a general nature. We should bear in mind that there is more than one solution for dealing with legislation that may be less suitable now to the needs of Canadians. I am entirely in favour of improving government openness. At the same time I think we should remember that balance must be found between openness on the one hand and releasing people's personal information or business confidential information in an unreasonable or careless fashion on the other.

The government is supportive of the general direction of the bill but maintains that there are some significant concerns, as I have tried to outline, that must be addressed before proceeding further with this reform.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

February 24th, 2004 / 7 p.m.
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Bloc

Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise this evening to address Bill C-462 introduced by my colleague.

While I have the floor, I would like to thank the hon. member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot once again for all his work. I was on this committee, along with the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques. We have worked on this for over a year. We also need to look at my colleague's intention.

A task force was set up by the Department of Justice and the Treasury Board, because the government was beginning to have a few twinges of conscience. Since 1982, there had been no changes to the act. When we look at the evolution of society and the current importance of transparency, it is important for people to know what the government is doing. We all thought it was important to get this act updated.

The government saw it coming, a little, and set up a task force that submitted a report. Following that report we waited—and we were still waiting. That was when my colleague decided to set up a committee of members, acting independently, representing various parties, to move the issue forward.

One thing remains, and that is the huge tradition of secrecy at the heart of this government. We have had more flagrant proof again today. It is as if there were a state of panic every time an access to information request is sent in to the government. They try to find out how they can block it or slow it down, give the least information possible, apply as much censorship as possible, so that the thread is lost and the citizen, the member of Parliament, or anyone at all in Canada cannot get all the information or gets incomplete information.

There was a huge amount of work done. This government's tradition of secrecy is so strong that at one moment, it panicked, when it saw that our work was serious and that we were making progress. When we asked senior officials to come and testify, the House leader at that time sent a letter to all civil servants forbidding them to appear before us. Of course, the reason they gave was that it did not meet House of Commons standards and was not a recognized committee. The government's true intention, however, was to prevent this committee from doing what it set out to do.

Nonetheless, we managed to move things forward. Today, we have clear proof that we were right. This government has a tradition of keeping secrets. There is no way of knowing anything. The questions always need to be raised in the House. This government will never take the lead and disclose all the details needed to clearly understand all of these issues.

There are certain things about the bill that we like. However, we have reservations about other things. If this bill goes to committee stage, we could make eventually propose amendments to it. We like the title, for example. It is no longer the Access to Information Act, it is the Open Government Act. That is precisely what we have been condemning during the past few weeks with the sponsorship scandal and during this government's mandate. I have been here since 1993, and we always have to dig deep. We always have to endlessly interrogate this government to find out anything at all.

This bill is no longer just about access to information, it is about government transparency. This is a very interesting shift.

Also, what is currently happening with the crown corporations would be covered by an open government act. So, if we request to have access to information about the board of a crown corporation, we could obtain answers and not be told, as is currently the case, that they are sorry but they are not covered under access to information legislation.There is a major problem. This legislation would give us access. We could find out what is going on. We could ask if contributions had been given to the Liberal Party, and the crown corporation would have to answer.

As for the issue of crown corporations, the culture of secrecy is still the same. It exists there too. Unfortunately, tough measures are always necessary to obtain information from crown corporations. I find this should be simplified a little more.

There is also the whole issue of accountability. When we ask ministers questions, they often answer, “It is a crown corporation”. And they slip in the expression at arm's length from government. This issue of government accountability is at play too. I think that, with this bill on crown corporations, we will know a lot more from now on.

The same is true for closed door cabinet meetings. It is understandable that sometimes we have to wait a long time to find out what really happened. Moreover, in time, after 20 or 25 years, we find out the cabinet secrets. As we speak, these are still secrets of the Trudeau cabinet.

It might be important to have more information on a more recent period. Not too many problems going far back in time. Our problems are related to the present or to recent history. A typical example occurred just this week or last week.

And in fact the Prime Minister said, “the government is quite prepared to have those cabinet documents pertinent to this matter released”. Someone in opposition asked, “Can we also have the documents from the previous Cabinet, that of Mr. Chrétien?” To that, the Prime Minister replied, “I will have to ask his permission. I may not get it”.

Thus, we see that this bill could eventually reward us with important things for the improved public knowledge and information.

They continue to protect certain things at any cost, as my colleague mentioned. In my opinion, with regard to the critical infrastructure program under the defence department, a file I am very familiar with, we should not be able to say, “Here is where you will find the weak point in the Pickering atomic plant”. I understand that, and my colleague's bill has a provision for that. We worked for a year on this bill. We got it all together and then released it to the media.

As for ease of access to documents in federal institutions, it is the same thing. There are not only the crown corporations but also the agencies that receive two-thirds of their funding from the federal government. This would also enable us to get access to these institutions and get a little more information.

Access to polls and third party contracts is almost impossible to get today. When it is possible, we end up with a few pages that definitely will have been censored with correction fluid. It used to be done that way; now we see blanks. You start to read a sentence and, all of a sudden, there is a blank; you continue reading and happen upon another blank. What could be hidden under this correction fluid? We have an Access to Information Act, but the access provided is very limited.

All that to say that this is a good bill. Naturally, there are things we would like to see changed a little. Nonetheless, we will certainly support this bill. I feel we must acknowledge the work done by the committee and its spokesperson.

The time has come for the government to open its books a little more, to tell taxpayers, who pay for the government's entire infrastructure, where their money is going. Taxpayers should no longer be provided with censored documents. Things should be made easier for them. It should not be perceived as an obstacle. Someone requesting information under the Access to Information Act should not feel like they have to climb a mountain or pay a small fortune to get it.

Access to information should be easier for people, and that is what Bill C-462 promotes. That is why we will support it, but with the concerns raised at committee stage.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

February 24th, 2004 / 6:50 p.m.
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Canadian Alliance

Grant McNally Canadian Alliance Dewdney—Alouette, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-462 and I commend my colleague from Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot for it. I had the great opportunity to sit on this ad hoc committee that he and many others have referred to. That was an enjoyable experience.

It was a committee struck at the initiative of the member. He put out a call to backbenchers from all parties. The committee did not have standing as a parliamentary committee, but it operated very much like a parliamentary committee and came up with a very good report. The committee was very non-partisan, as members can imagine, and was on top of all of our regular parliamentary duties.

Many of the proposals that came from the committee's report are included in my colleague's private member's bill and I want to commend him for that. I want to commend him in particular for including the overriding notion that releasing more information, rather than concealing information, is the way to go. If a government wants to elicit support from people and claims to be transparent but does not put mechanisms into place to allow transparency, then those really are hollow words. Bill C-462 goes a long way toward putting in place specific mechanisms that would allow greater access to information.

Something that came up during committee testimony was the idea that if government were ahead of the curve it would be more open to releasing information, and if it were more open in releasing information, then there would not be such a need for reform to the Access to Information Act.

At the same time, a government that chooses to be more open and chooses to release more information, rather than to manage it in such a way that it is like pulling teeth to get any information, would be seen as a positive by people. There would be more transparency and more availability of information. This would be a good thing not only for the government but for all Canadians.

Bill C-462, my colleague's bill, goes a long way toward improving the current act. The member is to be commended for his hard work. He is known in this place as an independent minded member, one who knows his information very well. He is a knowledgeable member of the House. We commend him for that. As chair of the ad hoc committee, he was fair and open and he really wanted to get to the bottom of concrete changes to improve access to information for all Canadians, to improve the way that we do business here in the capital and in the country, to provide information to Canadians.

One of the important pieces of his bill is the inclusion of crown corporations and, in fact, many institutions that receive government funding. This is something that we in the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance and now the Conservative Party have been saying for a long time. We need more openness and more transparency. If taxpayers are paying the bill, they should have the ability to see where their dollars are going.

That is where the bill leads us and that is a good thing, particularly given the climate that my colleague from Fraser Valley just mentioned, with the questionable spending and the missing $100 million in the sponsorship scandal and the fact that five crown corporations have been involved in this current debacle.

If we had this legislation in place, we would have the ability to get that information right away and it could be done without going to a special commission or a special committee. There would be more accountability. We would be able to see where the dollars went--

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

February 24th, 2004 / 6:45 p.m.
See context

Independent

John Bryden Independent Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

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 ActPrivate Members' Business

February 24th, 2004 / 6:30 p.m.
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Independent

John Bryden Independent Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

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.

Yours sincerely,

André Ouellet.

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.

Criminal CodePrivate Members' Business

November 5th, 2003 / 6:30 p.m.
See context

Liberal

John Bryden Liberal Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I would like to move a motion seeking unanimous consent to move Bill C-462, a bill to amend the Access to Information Act, to committee forthwith.

Open Government ActRoutine Proceedings

October 28th, 2003 / 10:05 a.m.
See context

Liberal

John Bryden Liberal Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other Acts.

Mr. Speaker, this is a private member's bill that is the result of all party cooperation from backbench MPs extending over several years it will dramatically overhaul the current Access to Information Act and extend its reach to include all crown corporations and government agencies, government funded non-profit organizations, the Senate, the House of Commons, the Library of Parliament, ministers and their exempt staffs, officers of Parliament, cabinet confidences and government opinion polling, among other things.

This bill I think is very much in order in the temper of the times and I think, Mr. Speaker, you will find that most members will support it.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)