Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this motion by the Conservative Party. A little background is needed to understand how, among other things, the Conservative Party came to table this motion today.
It is my pleasure to provide this background. It all began with the creation of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in this Parliament. Why was it established? Following the revelation of the sponsorship scandal, which I will address in part during my remarks, the Liberal government decided in the latest election to establish an independent committee to question officers who are supposed to be independent officers. The Information Commissioner is supposed to be one. No decision has been reached on the manner of their appointment, but it is hoped that the transparency of the Liberal Party will result in all parties being invited to appoint the Information Commissioner so as to guarantee his independence.
The background means that the access to information file is not new. I was surprised by my Liberal colleague's presentation. He is right. The act has not been amended for 23 years. Still, some Liberal members of this House have introduced bills. They include hon. member Bryden, who introduced Bill C-201 in the preceding Parliament, before the sponsorship scandal was revealed. At the time, there was already a certain Liberal intent in this Parliament, since the MP introducing C-201 was a Liberal.
Then, at the start of the present Parliament, the member for Winnipeg Centre, who had the privilege of introducing the first piece of legislation, had the unfortunate idea of negotiating with the Minister of Justice. A number of other bills could have been introduced, but his first thought was to introduce a bill to amend the Access to Information Act, which was practically identical to the bill tabled in the previous Parliament by MP Bryden. So he had the unfortunate idea of negotiating with the Minister of Justice, who told him not to table a private member's bill, since the government was going to table a bill to amend the Access to Information Act and especially to make it more transparent.
I agree with my committee colleagues. In order for there to be transparency, all government agencies, corporations and foundations needed to be subject to the Access to Information Act. We had just gone through the sponsorship scandal, which we are still going through. We are well aware that Canada Post and Via Rail are not subject to the act. I will spare you the indiscretions of their presidents, the money they spent to promote Canada and the commissions paid to the agencies, which were in turn handed over to the Liberal Party. That is what happened. Those who elected a large majority of Bloc Québécois members in Quebec and Liberal members in the rest of Canada expected more transparency, especially since the Prime Minister said he wanted to champion transparency.
The reality is that we, the newly formed committee, called the Minister of Justice as a witness. We asked him, since he had reached an agreement with the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, to introduce a bill. But what he brought forward was a framework for action. We realized that this framework addressed what the minister wanted and was not a bill. As my colleague was saying, after the presentation by the Information Commissioner, who said he was prepared to introduce a bill, the unanimous reaction in committee was to ask him to go ahead. We asked him whether he was prepared to introduce a bill that reflected his view of ideal access to information legislation. At the request of the committee and despite the fact that the minister did not want a bill, the commissioner went ahead with it. The minister instead wanted us to discuss a framework. Former MP Mr. Bryden gave a presentation in committee and shared his thoughts, as did our colleague from Winnipeg Centre, who was prepared to introduce a private members' bill. We welcomed the minister, who told all those people he would introduce a bill, but in the end submitted a framework for action. Accordingly, we asked the commissioner to introduce a bill.
This is what the Conservative Party is basing itself on today in its opposition day. I will use this document, which was produced by the Information Commissioner.
It is a bill in due form with explanations and everything that is needed and which was prepared by the Information Commissioner. So I am surprised today to hear my Liberal colleague tell us that, ultimately, this is not what was requested. And yet we were unanimous.
We asked the Information Commissioner to introduce this bill, which is not a framework and which we are using today for discussion purposes. It is what we are relying on as we make our interventions and hear from witnesses in committee. All that is done when we have a bill. When we have a framework for action or frame of reference, there is a discussion before the bill is introduced. So the committee was not fooled. Even the Liberal members followed us in committee.
We do not want any more procrastination now. We want a bill that we could discuss, that we could call witnesses on in order to finish with the access to information file. We think that the Minister of Justice just wants to gain time so that people cannot ask any questions of crown corporations, including Canada Post and VIA Rail, all the foundations and all these agencies that manage the assets and much of the money of Quebeckers and Canadians. People might ask them questions about how they spend this money.
We certainly would have liked the presidents of VIA Rail and Canada Post to account to all the people who had questions for them, but that was impossible. It is still impossible today. And in view of the Liberal position, it will continue to be impossible because the Liberals do not want to act. They want to gain time before amending the Access to Information Act. Why? Because of the sponsorship scandal, because if people start asking questions, they will find other things and because, ultimately, the senior executives of crown corporations are all government political appointees.
So they had better not try to tell us that the government, in an effort to be transparent, intends to resolve the democratic deficit. Forget it. We saw this recently: the current Prime Minister appointed Dennis Dawson—his political organizer in the Quebec City region—to the Senate. It has not stopped and never will. This Liberal Party is using public funds to win elections and it will never stop. We saw this yesterday. It is using money belonging to all Quebeckers and all Canadians in order to win elections.
This is a perfect example of this Liberal political corruption. It is even worse to make indirect use of something no one else would dare say or do and to make it systemic: the Liberals created a system. We see it today in the Liberal Party's answer with regard to access to information and transparency. Ultimately, all the Information Commissioner wanted to provide—I will read the text—is a bill that was supposed to be transparent. He has called it the “Open Government Act”. The Information Commissioner no longer wants to call it the “Access to Information Act” but rather the “Open Government Act”.
In theory, the government, which wants to be the government of transparency, should be applauding but it is not. Today, we are being told that we have not examined it enough, subjected it to enough questions or called enough witnesses. The problem is that we cannot even begin to call witnesses because the bill has not yet been introduced. That is how the Liberal Party works.
The commissioner presented his position, when he appeared before our committee on October 25, 2005. So it is public and in no way secret. Here are a few excerpts from his speech:
This committee asked me, before the summer break, to provide a proposed reform bill and I commend the committee for its determination to ensure that we have, in Canada, the strongest possible right of access to government-held information. Members from all parties understand that transparency of government is essential to accountable government.
Obviously, we unanimously asked the commissioner to provide what he considered to be the most appropriate bill possible. Thus, he has proposed a bill entitled the Open Government Act.
The following extract pertains to C-201. This was MP Bryden's bill. Members will recall what I said earlier. A Liberal MP introduced a bill before the sponsorship scandal. So, at the time, there was an incipient desire among the Liberals to really resolve the access to information problem.
The commissioner continued as follows:
My proposal, like Bill C-201, expands the number of institutions to be covered by the act; it reduces the scope of secrecy permitted by the act, it expands the powers of oversight by the commissioner in the courts, and it increases incentives for compliance and penalties for non-compliance.
The intent is to strengthen the Access to Information Act and in particular to have it apply to all the corporations not covered by it, including VIA Rail, the National Arts Centre, the CBC, Export Development Canada, the Canada Post Corporation, Atomic Energy Canada Limited, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and all foundations. As this money belongs to the public, the aim of the commissioner is to give the public the right to question those who manage it. In my opinion, this needs to be done especially when the managers are Liberal agents. And this has been the case for the past 13 years.
The commissioner continued in his presentation with the following statement, “None of these improvements can ensure accountability through transparency unless there is a foundation of professional record-keeping by public officials”. One of the important parts found as well in today's motion by the Conservative Party, is for officials to keep records. He went on to say, “The most fundamental, pivotal proposal I am making is that it be a legal duty to create appropriate records to be imposed and that an offence be created for failure to fulfil that duty”.
He then talked about Bill C-201. As I was saying, Mr. Bryden's bill was introduced before the sponsorship scandal. This scandal has also revealed that documents vanished and that it was impossible to find them. The commissioner said so, “Although this latter provision did not appear in Bill C-201, there is universal acknowledgement of the reality that the right of access is being rendered meaningless by a growing oral culture in government”. In other words, we no longer write anything down, we just talk. That is how it works. We no longer write to each other for fear of getting caught. That is how the Liberal Party of Canada operates and manages public funds. These are the very words of the Information Commissioner, an independent officer appointed by the Liberals by the way.
He continued by saying:
The failure by public officials to be professional in creating records is also undermining the work of Parliament, the Auditor General, the National Archivist, the police and judicial inquiries. Conducting governance by winks and nods simply leads to poor decision-making, inept administration and corruption.
In other words, the Liberals' paperless mode of government can lend itself to corruption. It is not surprising that we had the sponsorship scandal. The decision had already been made to no longer keep documents but instead to just talk about things and make decisions based on that.
The Information Commissioner is the one who carries out investigations when questions arise. He noted what was going on only in the departments he needs to oversee, not the crown corporations headed by appointed Liberal Party cronies.
Further on in his annual report, he grades the departments, including the Privy Council Office. Hon. members need to understand that this is the body that gives all departments access to information, and supervises them. It got an F. This means that it no longer responds to over 30% of access to information requests. It is all very well for PCO spokespersons to say that they are short of staff and pressed for time, but the result is the same: they are not responding to requests.
As for delays and denials, the commissioner wrote the following on page 10 of his annual report:
The main causes of delay appear to be:
Inadequate resources in ATIP offices;
Chronic tardiness in the retrieval of records due to poor records management and staff shortages in offices—;
Difficulties encountered during the consultation process with third parties and other government institutions;
Top-heavy approval processes, including too much "hand-wringing" over politically sensitive requests and too frequent hold-ups in ministers’ offices; and
Poor communication with requesters to clarify access requests.
I repeat, one of the five reasons is “top-heavy approval processes, including too much 'hand-wringing' over politically sensitive requests and too frequent hold-ups in ministers’ offices”. In addition to documents not being available to the commissioner when he comes to do his job—because there are oral discussions rather than written documents—ministers and deputy ministers intercept requests in advance, hold on to them and examine whether they might pose a risk. When they see that they may be dangerous, they are not processed.
It is as simple as that. They interfere and provide no answers. It happens only in departments that fall within the purview of the Information Commissioner. There was no talk of new corporations that should be subject to it.
A certain regime has thus become entrenched in Liberal governance. It has existed for decades now, with the result that this entire oral system leads to corruption, as the Commission so aptly put it. This is what happens. We should not be surprised at these realizations, nor at the answers that the Liberals give us today, nor the fact that they are not prepared to review the Access to Information Act expeditiously. They simply do not want to.
The Minister of Justice has decided that we would have a framework that would allow us to have discussions and call witnesses before we have a bill, which would also be subject to debate and would be referred back to committee where witnesses could still be heard. That is the Liberal culture: it does not stop, it is the same thing day after day.
Once again, in our view, as far as transparency is concerned, the Liberals did not display it prior to the sponsorship scandal, nor during that scandal, and they are still not doing so after it. All this means is that, whether we are talking about Chrétien or the new Prime Minister, it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. That will not change and will never change as long as the Liberals are in power.
I will list the problems with access to information that even Judge Gomery had to deal with. We must not forget that the government sent a number of censored documents to the Gomery commission on the sponsorship scandal and refused to forward a number of crucial documents to the commission charged with investigating the case of Maher Arar.
How have we come to be defending an amendment to the Access to Information Act today? It is because we have examples, which we will list. The government misled Parliament in its answer to a written question on the order paper. In its initial response in February 2003, the government estimated at $137,500 the amount paid to the Prime Minister’s family business over 10 years. Following protests from the opposition, the government revised its answer in January 2004, bringing the total amount of federal grants to Canada Steamship Lines to $161 million.
These things are happening in Parliament. The culture that is entrenched in this government is an oral and figures-based culture. Obviously, figures talk. Since I am being told I have two minutes left, I will make full use of them.
We asked Parliament, the government and the then Minister of Finance who was in charge of the assistance programs to tell us how much Canada Steamship Lines had received in government grants. The answer to this question on the order paper was $137,500. Finally, after much research, the opposition said that this was not possible, that it had found other amounts in other areas. The government changed its position and came back in January 2004 to answer the question from February 2003—11 months earlier—and indicated that $161 million had been paid to the Prime Minister's company. This is how things work.
Clearly, the antics of André Ouellet, president of Canada Post, Michel Vennat of the Business Development Bank of Canada, Marc LeFrançois and VIA Rail were not enough. These people appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and before the Gomery commission. Following their testimony, it became obvious that they had wasted public funds, on sponsorships and commissions paid to firms that are all named in the Gomery report, that were part of the sponsorship scandal and that lined their pockets. Now, after all that, these firms, VIA Rail, Canada Post and the Business Development Bank of Canada are not subject to the Access to Information Act.
As a result, the public, which wants to know whether these executives may have skimmed a little off the top or what expenditures they did make, cannot find out. It is out of the question. The government is saying no. It is rejecting something a Liberal member had proposed in Bill C-201 even before the sponsorship scandal. It is rejecting what the member for Winnipeg Centre wanted to do, which was introduce a private member's bill, in view of the promise that the minister was about to introduce a bill.
The government has merely created a basic framework, with the emphasis on the word “framework". In other words, you were supposed to stay within the “framework”.
It had already anticipated what we could not do.
Today, the Bloc Québécois will support the Conservative Party motion. It is a motion about transparency, and we want real transparency legislation when it comes to access to information. The public must be able to ask questions and obtain answers. We no longer have faith in this Liberal government, which has been in power for too long and has filled one too many pockets.