Mr. Speaker, I rise at this time to comment on Bill C-567, an act to amend the Access to Information Act, transparency and duty to document. This private member's bill by the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre would make a number of amendments to the Access to Information Act.
I do not know if members of this House are aware that the NDP member for Winnipeg Centre introduced his first private member's bill to amend the Access to Information Act in May 2008. Bill C-554 was at the time entitled “An Act to amend the Access to Information Act (open government)”.
I will say that the proposals contained in that bill were not new. The member of Parliament was essentially introducing proposals developed by Information Commissioner John Reid in 2005. Some of these proposals were even endorsed by Justice John Gomery in his 2006 report for the commission of inquiry into the sponsorship program. The proposals are overall the same: expanded coverage of the act, duty to create records, repealing the exclusion for cabinet confidences, et cetera. Bill C-554 died on the order paper with the dissolution of Parliament in 2008.
The member for Winnipeg Centre reintroduced his bill in the 40th Parliament in February 2009. It was then numbered Bill C-326, and it was also called “open government”. The bill did not progress after first reading.
Here we are today with Bill C-567, an act to amend the Access to Information Act. Bill C-567 is subtitled “transparency and duty to document” instead of “open government”, but it is essentially the same as the previous bills.
We can all agree that strong access to information legislation is essential to a properly functioning democracy. It is true that an effective system of democracy requires the government to be accountable for its policies and their administration. We all recognize that access to information legislation acts as a check on government activity.
In one of its first judgments regarding the act, the Supreme Court of Canada clearly stated that for a country to have access to information legislation is an integral part of democracy. Our government wholeheartedly agreed with this view.
Let me turn now to all the steps our government has already taken to promote open government, transparency, and accountability.
In April 2006, our government introduced the Federal Accountability Act and action plan. Through the Federal Accountability Act and action plan, the Government of Canada brought forward specific measures to help strengthen accountability and increase transparency and oversight in government operations. The comprehensive action plan includes the Federal Accountability Act as well as supporting policy and other non-legislative measures.
The Federal Accountability Act amended the Access to Information Act in important areas. It focused on openness and accountability by expanding the coverage of the act to include a number of officers of Parliament and all Crown corporations, as well as various foundations created under federal statute. It also facilitated openness by creating a duty for government institutions to assist requesters without regard to their identity, and to make reasonable efforts to respond accurately and completely to their requests, in the format requested.
However, the federal accountability action plan did not just amend the Access to Information Act to improve transparency, openness, and accountability of government; it also amended other specific legislation and strengthened the policy framework to improve accountability.
I will give a short list of the main things that were achieved through the action plan, which all translate into more openness, transparency, and accountability of government.
We cleaned up the procurement process for government contracts by enshrining in a law a commitment to fairness, transparency, and openness in the process and by appointing an independent procurement auditor to provide additional oversight. That is a major achievement toward transparency.
We did more.
We strengthened the power of the Auditor General by expanding the reach and scope of the Auditor General's investigative powers to help Parliament hold the government to account.
We strengthened auditing and accountability requirements within departments by clarifying the managerial responsibilities of deputy heads within the framework of ministerial responsibility, and by bolstering the internal audit function within departments and Crown corporations. This translates into a requirement to document decisions and actions in a variety of areas.
I stress once more that our government has already done a lot in the area of transparency, openness, and accountability, and we continue to find ways to do more.
For example, my hon. colleague, the President of the Treasury Board, who shares with the Minister of Justice the responsibility for the Access to Information Act, is currently modernizing the policies regarding the act and examining ways to simplify the process for access requesters.
Last June, the President of the Treasury Board launched the Government of Canada's next generation open data portal, providing unprecedented access to government data and information, and demonstrating Canada's international commitment to transparency and open government. The open data portal contains datasets compiled by over 20 departments and agencies, covering a broad range of topics, from housing to health and environmental data. By accessing the portal, people have the opportunity to explore local census or crime statistics, immigration data, air quality data, coast-to-coast mapping data, and much more.
In January of this year, the President of the Treasury Board launched an initiative where access requesters can make their demands online via the access to information and privacy online request tool. More federal organizations are now a part of this initiative. In the first 10 months since the tool was launched, almost 21,000 requests have been submitted using this option.
Let us not forget the open government initiative, which Canada is a part of. This international movement has translated into key achievements for Canadians, such as their capacity now to browse online through summaries of completed access to information requests from key federal institutions, their capacity to search the Government of Canada's expenditure database for detailed departmental spending information, and the proactive disclosure of financial and human resources related information of federal government departments.
What our government has realized is that there is no one single vehicle to improve transparency and accountability and to achieve openness of government. Transparency and accountability can and must be achieved through a variety of measures and instruments. The Access to Information Act is not the only vehicle by which to achieve transparency.
The purpose of the Access to Information Act is quite clear. It 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, in accordance with the principles that government information should be made available to the public and that necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited.
Thirty-one years ago, when it enacted the Access to Information Act after many studies, Parliament recognized that a balance was needed between transparency and secrecy, that not every government document should be made available to the public and that certain interests deserved to be protected.
The Access to Information Act is, by its nature, all about a complex balancing of openness, transparency, and accessibility to Canadians, and accountability. The Access to Information Act is a powerful piece of legislation that works. It works because it reveals what needs to be revealed, and equally importantly, through its exemptions, it protects information that must be protected for a properly functioning democracy.
Although we are prepared to examine the proposals in the bill, we also need to keep in mind everything that we have done to achieve transparency and accountability in this government.