Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to add my voice to this private member's bill that would amend the Access to Information Act. The Access to Information Act is a piece of legislation that keeps governments to account. No matter what government is in power, giving people the right to access information keeps everybody on their toes. When we are governing this country, we have to ensure that Canadians have a right to information that the government collects on them, and a right to the information on the actions of a particular government. If we were not to participate in active and proactive access to information, it would create a lot of secrecy. We would not be able to keep a government to account.
Our access to information laws have been there for many years now, but there comes a time to review our legislation and update it with the times. This piece of legislation would help access to information commissioners do their jobs in getting information, compel governments to provide the information, and ensure there is recourse for individuals who do not get the information they are seeking to go to an information commissioner and put out a case.
Also, there is a need for timely disclosure of information. Quite often information is not disclosed in a timely manner. Some of these requests are legitimate. If there are many documents that the various departments have to go through, that is important to know.
However, over the years, governments have more and more not been compelled to disclose information. In an article, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression reported that from 1999 to 2000 the federal government disclosed information from requests under the act about 40% of the time. It is not acceptable that only 40% of the time it is disclosing information. However, by 2011-12, under the current government, that number dropped to 21%.
A recent study for the Centre for Law and Democracy reported that Canada ranked 56 out of 96 countries for the quality of its information laws. It clearly identifies a need to change our information laws. Whether it is by design that this information has been made available less and less, it is something that needs to be addressed.
As stated in its summary, the bill would do the following, among other things:
(a) give the Information Commissioner of Canada the power to order government institutions to release documents;
(b) require government institutions to create records to document their decisions, recommendations and actions;
(c) establish an explicit duty to comply with orders of the Information Commissioner; and
(d) provide that those orders may be filed with the Federal Court and enforced as if they were judgments of that Court.
Time and again, we see the Information Commissioner having to go to the court to compel the government to release information. This is a long and drawn-out process, and it needs to be updated.
With regard to order-making powers, we recently saw an example with our fair elections act bill, where the current Conservative government does not want to make order-making powers that would compel different commissioners of the House of Commons to provide information. This is something we have been calling for on that piece of legislation, but also on this one. It would give order-making powers to compel the release of documents to the Information Commissioner. We are not talking about just releasing it to anyone, but to allow the Information Commissioner to have the tools to do her job and to release the information to that office. That is the office that would make the decision on what information should be released.
Of course, there are always good reasons for information not to be released, such as to protect public safety, public security, the armed forces, individuals' rights of information, and commercial confidence. There is always a good set of reasons why information should not be released, but we should allow the Information Commissioner to have the ability to see that information, compel the government to provide the information to that office, and for that office to make the decision on whether the information is to be released. It should not be the government department in question.
Bill C-567 contains commitments made by the Conservative Party in its 2006 election campaign platform, “Stand up For Canada”. In 2006, after the Conservatives were in opposition for a number of years, they saw a need to update our access to information laws and thought enough of it that they put it in their platform. However, since they have become government, they have not done a whole lot on that. A lot of these commitments should be supported by all members of the House, including the government. The Conservatives are the ones who made these commitments in their platform, and it is important.
It would give the Information Commissioner the power to order departments to release information to her. A freedom of information request goes to a particular department, and each department has an individual or individuals who review that information and release the information to the person who made the request. Then, if the person who requested the information is not satisfied that all the information was received, he or she can ask the Information Commissioner to review the request to see what was and was not given. The only way to do that is if the Information Commissioner can obtain all of the documents and review them for herself. That is essential to freedom of information legislation.
Currently, if a department fails to release documents, the Information Commissioner may have to go to court to challenge the release. A lot of time and effort goes into making sure that people's information is released. When the Information Commissioner has to go to court, lawyers and the applicable department are involved, and it could take a long time. This is something we are trying to avoid. We should allow the Information Commission to be the one to look at the information and decide what information is to be released.
The commissioner has no authority to review information that the government has failed to release claiming cabinet confidence. Cabinet confidence is a very important part of our system, but at any time the government could say that everything is a cabinet confidence. If a piece of information is being requested, it is easy for the government to say it falls under cabinet confidence and it cannot release it. There needs to be a backstop. There needs to be an individual or a department, which is the Information Commissioner, to confirm whether it is cabinet confidence or not. The Information Commissioner is appointed to work on everyone's behalf, and that is the in between on that. Of course, cabinet confidences cannot be disclosed, but to have everything put into that broad window really does not give access to information any teeth in our country.
The current Information Commissioner has indicated her support for this particular reform. It has been on the table for several years now, and it is important. I am hopeful that we can move this piece of legislation through this place to committee to review it. It is a very important piece of legislation to keeping government to account on the governing of our country. My party will be pleased to support this piece of legislation, and I hope that all parties do.