An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Access to Information Act (transparency)

This bill was last introduced in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in August 2015.

Sponsor

Justin Trudeau  Liberal

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

Status

Defeated, as of April 1, 2015
(This bill did not become law.)

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment amends the Parliament of Canada Act to require the Board of Internal Economy of the House of Commons to open its meetings, with certain exceptions, to the public. It also amends the Access to Information Act to modernize and clarify the purpose of the Act and to give the Information Commissioner the power to make compliance orders.

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.

Votes

April 1, 2015 Failed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

Parliament of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

March 31st, 2015 / 5:35 p.m.
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NDP

Murray Rankin NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is hard to say a lot in six minutes on an area as important as access to information, but let me do my best.

Today, was a historic day. After two hard years of deliberation, our Information Commissioner, Madame Legault, brought forth a whole variety of recommendations to improve the Access to Information Act. I say that in the context of the debate on Bill C-613 that is before us, because this bill would not go nearly as far as even a tiny way toward what the commissioner said is necessary to fix our broken open government system.

A bill that would have gone much further than that was introduced by my hon. friend, the member for Winnipeg North, under the title Bill C-567, which I had—

Parliament of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

March 31st, 2015 / 5:35 p.m.
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Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to be here to talk about this very important private member's bill. It is one we have looked at before. We are now into our second hour, and the mover of the bill will be up shortly to address some of the questions being raised here.

I want to start by directly answering one of the comments made about the fact that it does not go far enough. It almost seemed that the Conservatives wanted to have a little more proactivity involved in the sense of what we are doing here with the Liberal Party of Canada, when in fact, we were the ones who brought forward far greater measures on proactive disclosure than this House has ever seen. Yet some members, including the one who just spoke, seemed to think that we were in a position of dragging people in, kicking and screaming, on proactive disclosure, which Canadians demanded and now have. We are all doing it now.

The person behind that is the person bringing forward this bill, so the theme continues. We think this is a substantial step in making this House far more accountable and far more transparent than it ever has been.

I want to go back to what happened earlier today, when the report came out from Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner. She brought forward the concept, which we recognize, of “open by default”. Canadians watching this, from coast to coast to coast, might assume that it is happening already, but it is not. We have run into problems on committee.

Many journalists I have talked to talk about the redaction of information that is out there that is really unnecessary and how the power of this particular office needs to be restored. Right now, I would even go so far as to say that it has become an empty shell, by way of title only.

Let me bring forward some of the messages the Information Commissioner brought forward today. She talked about recommendations. She had 85 recommendations, which is substantial. She said that the recommendations would address ways to modernize the act “[t]o deal with current realities and the expectations of Canadians”, some not being fulfilled when it comes to transparency, plus we are now in the digital age, which I will talk about in just a moment; “[t]o simplify the administration and the application of the Act by focussing only on the interests that legitimately require protection”, and I mentioned redaction earlier; “[t]o increase timeliness in the processing of access requests”, which is long overdue; “[t]o permanently resolve recurring issues; [t]o align the Act with the most progressive and strongest laws in Canada and abroad; and [t]o maximize disclosure in line with a culture of openness 'by default'”.

In light of the developments, the commissioner recommended modernizing the Access to Information Act. These are some of the major highlights:

extending coverage to all branches of government;

improving procedures for making access requests;

setting tighter timelines;

maximizing disclosure;

strengthening oversight;

disclosing more information proactively;

adding consequences for non-compliance; and,

ensuring periodic review of the Act.

That brings us to where we are now on Bill C-613, brought forward by the hon. member for Papineau. There are several measures we talked about, messages we want to put out there to Canadians about what this bill will provide. Transparency is another goal in what we call open parliament. Obviously, this is a step in the right direction. It is a private member's bill. Beyond this, more legislation will follow so that we can follow through on an open parliament concept.

With its enormous power and responsibility, it is simply not acceptable in modern society for the Board of Internal Economy to meet in secret. Canadians deserve greater accountability. We have been saying this now for the past little while, and we continue to say this. The Board of Internal Economy provides a very specific function and a vital function in the heart of our democracy. It is certainly a vital operation within this House of Commons. We have seen it all over the news lately, for reasons I will not get into.

As secretive as it may be, in some cases we can understand why, when it comes to personal information, but for all the issues it deals with, there is no really grand or true reason it should be secret.

The transparency act would raise the bar on openness and transparency in government by significantly strengthening Canada's access to information laws, as was pointed out earlier. Again, that is open by default.

Canadians deserve a strong access to information regime that ensures true transparency and accountability.

The Access to Information Act has not changed in any significant way since it was passed and now it is time to act. We are proud to say that the member for Papineau, the leader of our party, has decided to act on this with his private member's bill, Bill C-613.

Let me go back to the Board of Internal Economy and the reform that is being proposed with the bill. The transparency act makes the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy open by default. Today MPs are making decisions about the regulations that govern their own spending with insufficient public scrutiny. Public scrutiny is the concept we have been using here for quite some time. It is bandied about within the media, not only the media here on the Hill but media throughout the country. That is why it is very important to make sure that this secretive committee is far more open than it used to be, to have this in the public realm. Discussions there are secret by law. It is time to change that law. By bringing openness to the board's conversations we could better serve Canadians. They have demanded more accountability and they would get more accountability upon passage of the bill.

Earlier speakers talked about it not going far enough, but we think this is a very substantial step.

We just spoke about access to information. The report came out today so let me expand on that and relate it to Bill C-613.

Achieving more open government makes sense for Canada. Governments around the world that embrace this concept have demonstrated new ways to reduce costs, spark entrepreneurial initiatives and help the public and private sectors to better serve citizens. A country's access to information system is the heart of open government.

We were in committee and spoke to the commissioner at that time. She talked about examples around the world and how it was a low-cost mechanism, very open, very accountable and very efficient in many ways. The problem she cited was that the office here was not given the resources to bring it up to an international standard that was acceptable, not just acceptable in the eyes of other countries and what they are doing administratively, but acceptable to all Canadians across the country who expect open government from us. Several of the measures we have taken earlier show that and this particular bill is that substantial step.

The information commissioner said:

Real improvement in the access system will only come from modernizing the act—a long-overdue step that is crucial to advancing the cause of transparency and accountability in Canada.

Therefore, it is not just from those of us who are supporting the bill, but it is also from the commissioner herself who is mirroring these comments about why it is so necessary to make these changes so that we can be open by default.

We are open to amendments, suggestions and improvements on the bill. We look forward to that in time.

The other thing the information commissioner spoke about, and she spoke very well, is the efficiency of the system and the cost. She told us that she did not want the cost of the system to rise. That is why we use the $5 fee in the bill, to talk about that and how it is refundable after someone does not get the information in a specific period of time.

When we were in committee, the Conservatives talked about having another tier of fees for private individuals. In the case of businesses where they wanted certain information from the government and it was not coming quickly enough, they said that maybe we should charge them more. If I had a small business, I do not think I would have liked to hear that. I do not know if they thought that through fully, but if we think about it, if we are going to start escalating two-tier costs and also in talking about privacy they want more redaction within this, who is it really serving in this particular case? Now we have legislation, an act that is servicing the government by putting on the false show of saying that we are open by default when in fact that is not the case in practice. There are two things here, the costs are down but if something is going to be redacted, in this particular legislation it should be justified to the hilt. It should be justified to the point that we are open by default. Therefore, it is not up to the government to just say that something is politically insensitive, so it will redact that part of the information and therefore Canadians cannot see it.

This may not come as a big surprise to many people in the House, but I do support this piece of legislation. I urge all members in the House to support it because this is a very significant step toward open government, open by default, as certainly was put forward by the information commissioner today.

March 31st, 2015 / 5:45 p.m.
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Conservative

John Carmichael Conservative Don Valley West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to voice my concerns about Bill C-613, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Access to Information Act, on transparency. I would like to focus specifically on the part of the bill that deals with the Access to Information Act.

As members know, this part of the bill proposes to change some of the wording in the “Purpose” section of the act to state that:

(a) government information must be made openly available to the public and accessible in machine readable formats;

(b) necessary exceptions to the right of access should be rare, limited and specific; and

(c) decisions on the disclosure of government information should be reviewed and enforced independently of government.

These amendments may seem to be only a few words on the page but their effect on the access to information system, and the infrastructure and resources set up to administer it, are far-reaching and costly.

Further, we object to the bill because these changes that it proposes are not necessary in light of existing practices under the act. In fact, they would overburden the administration of Canada's access to information regime. Indeed, they would lead to increased cost pressures and delays in responding to information requesters.

The bill would also give the Information Commissioner order-making powers under the act. Once again, this is unnecessary. The Information Commissioner already has the strong mandate needed to investigate and resolve disputes concerning access to information requests.

However, while we do not support this bill, let there be no mistake about this government's commitment to transparency, accountability and getting government information into the hands of Canadians. Indeed, Canadians are accessing more government information now than ever before, and the government is more open and transparent today than it has ever been. We understand that government information and data can enhance the transparency and accountability of our public institutions, and spur economic activity. We are committed to strengthening and modernizing our access to information and privacy program. We have already accomplished a great deal in this respect.

We have created online tools. These include a dedicated website that allows users to make and pay for access to information and privacy requests online. This website provides better service to information requesters by making it simpler and more convenient to request government records. It started as a pilot project in April 2012, but its use has expanded to include 21 government organizations.

We have also posted summaries of completed access to information and privacy requests online on our open data portal. More than 100 government organizations are currently doing this. Canadians can search out completed requests on our open data portal at data.gc.ca. In fact, in 2012-13, we provided Canadians with more government information than ever before, nearly six million pages. We have also posted three million pages of archived government records online.

We are committed to modernizing our access to information and privacy program, and we are taking concrete action in compliance with the acts as they are.

Another important part of the government's commitment to transparency is the work we have been doing on open data, including the creation of the open data portal, which I just mentioned. As members know, open data is a growing worldwide phenomenon. Open data is about making raw data available in machine-readable formats to citizens, governments, and not-for-profit and private sector organizations. It has the potential to spur innovation, and drive social, political and economic change here in Canada and around the world.

In fact, the U.S. global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company estimates open data could unlock trillions of dollars in the global economy. However, the full potential of open data will be realized only when it is available to as many people as possible.

That is why we are making it as easy as possible for people to find, access and reuse government data. One way we have done is through our open data portal at data.gc.ca. This portal is a one-stop shop for nearly 200,000 data sets from over 40 government departments that can be downloaded free of charge by anyone in Canada or around the world. A key feature of this portal is the open government licence, which gives users unrestricted use of government data and information.

We are also supporting open data by putting as much government data as possible into the hands of users. Let me give an example.

We are working on an initiative called open data Canada, a collaborative project with provincial and territorial governments, to create a seamless pan-Canadian open data community. When this is in place, Canadians from across the country will be able to search for and have unrestricted access to data from multiple governments. We are working hard to leverage open data as a public asset.

By making more and better data available, we will have a pan-Canadian platform for better decision making in business, research and social programs in the day-to-day lives of Canadians.

Our objective is to get government data into the hands of inventive users. One way we are doing this is by tapping into the creativity of Canadians. We have just concluded public consultations during which we heard from Canadians on how we could do even more. The result of these consultations will be Canada's second action plan on open government. This plan will be released in the fall and will build on the steps we have already taken to improve transparency and accountability, steps like ATIP Online, the Open Government Licence and Open Data portal.

Let me add that Canada has been at the forefront of the international open government movement.

In April 2012, we announced our membership in the global Open Government Partnership. As part of this, we pledged to support and promote open government both in Canada and around the world. Since then, more than 60 countries have signed on to Open Government Partnership, with each country committing to promote transparency, empower its citizens and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

I should also mention that Canada is the co-chair of the Open Government Partnership working group on open data, with over 30 countries and 75 civil society organizations represented.

In closing, open government is something our government is firmly committed to, in all its aspects. A strong, modern access to information system is part of our commitment.

Our goals are to improve the transparency and accountability of government organizations and strengthen Canadian democracy and spur economic innovation.

While these are our noble goals, I question the motives of the Liberal leader on transparency, and here is why. First, he and his party are committed to repealing the First Nations Financial Accountability Act. Second, he accepted speaking fees from unions and then voted against the union financial transparency legislation. Third, he committed to running open and transparent nomination contests and turned his back on that.

With these points in mind, I would ask hon. members to see Bill C-613 for what it is, an unnecessary and costly waste of taxpayer money.

March 31st, 2015 / 5:55 p.m.
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NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Mr. Speaker, the speech of my hon. colleague who just preceded me is a good example as to how the Conservatives have kind of convinced themselves that they are still the champions of transparency and accountability in this country. The reality is that they are not.

If they were listening, they would be hearing from the hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of Canadians who are concerned with the secrecy and lack of accountability of the government. As the Treasury Board critic for the official opposition, I hear from a lot of Canadians who are worried that the democratic institutions of this country are being eroded by the need of a government to remain secret, to do things behind closed doors or in camera. In fact, the use of in camera meetings in committee is a great visible example of the government's commitment to transparency. I can imagine Canadians turning on their televisions at home, tuning into a committee that is dealing with a subject that is important to them, and seeing a blank screen. That is a great symbol of the approach the government has to open government.

The reality is that it did start with quite a broad vision of what an open government can be. The problem is that it got whittled down and whittled down, and whittled down again, as the government got used to power. It went from open government, to open data, to an open website. The committee studied that website and experts were not impressed. They were not impressed with the quality of information available on the website, the website's searchability, or its format.

The Conservative government must recognize that delays under the ATIP system, the number of complaints, and the level of public frustration have reached unacceptable levels. In wilfully abandoning the ATIP system through degradation and delay, the Conservatives have broken their own electoral promises. The Conservatives' growing blanket of secrecy endangers the very foundations of our parliamentary democracy.

I would like to remind Canadians that the Conservatives voted against Bill C-567, but I ask them to at least consider supporting Bill C-613, which is really just a weaker version of the NDP's bill, instead of voting another time against their electoral promises. Let me remind the House of those promises.

In 2006, the Conservatives promised to give the information commissioner the power to order the release of information, to expand the coverage of the act to all crown corporations, officers of Parliament, foundations and organizations that spend taxpayers' money or perform public functions, to subject the exclusion of cabinet confidences to review by the information commissioner. I would like to add that the government has used a record number of cabinet confidentiality excuses to totally bar information from Canadians, blacking it out. It is used in increasing ways and it is worrying.

The Conservatives further promised to provide a general public interest override for all exemptions so that the public interest is put before the secrecy of the government. They are beautiful words, but that is all they are. They further promised to ensure that all exemptions from the disclosure of government information are justified only on the basis of the harm or injury that would result from disclosure, not blanket exemption rules which is in fact the practice that is going on today.

Let us also remind ourselves of the Liberals' record on transparency. In 1994, the then justice minister Allan Rock pledged to strengthen the federal Access to Information Act, but it was not until early 2001 that then prime minister Jean Chrétien set up a government task force to examine the flaws. The Liberal access committee task force was just a delay tactic, as the federal government failed to act on the task force report. In fact, in late 2001, the Liberal government instead proposed new so-called anti-terrorism laws to keep more information secret from the public.

At their February 2014 convention, the Liberals passed a motion to promote “A more effective Access-to-Information regime with stronger safeguards against political interference”, but this bill does little to fulfill that motion.

By recommending that the Board of Internal Economy consider conducting internal exploratory consultations to help increase transparency, the Conservative-dominated PROC report essentially advocated the status quo on the Board of Internal Economy.

In their supplementary opinion, the Liberals recognized that transparency can be enhanced by mandating that the Board of Internal Economy hold its meetings in public and that these meetings would only go in camera if the board was discussing matters related to “security, employment, staff relations, or tenders, or...if unanimous consent of all members of the Board present...is obtained”. This exact phrase, which is also found in clause 1 of Bill C-613, provides the government of the day with huge elbow room and a grey area to act and to keep things silent from Canadians.

The Liberals are also silent on the issue of replacing the Board of Internal Economy with independent oversight. Let me remind the House of a motion passed by the NDP, with unanimous consent, on June 18, 2013. It sets out our vision for transparency and accountability by the government and at the Board of Internal Economy:

That, notwithstanding any Standing or Special Order or usual practice of the House: in order to bring full transparency and accountability to House of Commons spending, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to:

(i) conduct open and public hearings with a view to replace the Board of Internal Economy with an independent oversight body;

Now that is transparency.

(ii) invite the Auditor General, the Clerk and the Chief Financial Officer of the House of Commons to participate fully in these hearings;

(iii) study the practices of provincial and territorial legislatures, as well as other jurisdictions and Westminster-style Parliaments in order to compare and contrast their administrative oversight;

(iv) propose modifications to the Parliament of Canada Act, the Financial Administration Act, the Auditor General Act and any other acts as deemed necessary;

(v) propose any necessary modifications to the administrative policies and practices of the House of Commons;

(vi) examine the subject-matter of the motions, standing in the name of other members of Parliament;

(vii) report its findings to the House no later than December 2, 2013, in order to have any proposed changes approved.

That is a reasonable and transparent vision of government. That is what we are proposing as the official opposition.

Unfortunately, Liberals react only when they are caught, and when they do react, they respond with half measures and convenient grey areas in their legislative proposals to safeguard their discretionary elbow room, which they use abundantly to restrict access when they are in power.

On this side of the House, that is, at this end of the opposition benches, in line with the Auditor General's recommendations and in the spirit of the NDP June 18, 2013 motion, which was passed in the House unanimously, we propose meaningful changes to POCA that entrench independent oversight of Parliament's expenditures and operations and that make accountability to all Canadians, not just MPs, a priority.

We need the other parties to commit to pushing for a fully transparent and accountable system, the backbone of good governance, which is so lacking today and so necessary to restore the credibility of our parliamentary institutions and political system. We propose that we stress, however, that even with the best possible reform of the ATI Act and the BOIE, changing the rules will never be sufficient if the people in power aspire to thwart the system. Integrity should be at the heart of governance. Integrity cannot be legislative, and integrity is a missing element in past federal Liberal and Conservative governments.

March 31st, 2015 / 6:05 p.m.
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Liberal

Justin Trudeau Liberal Papineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have listened to today's debate on my private member's bill, Bill C-613, the transparency act, with great interest.

The member for Don Valley West actually spoke quite eloquently, using all the right words about what open data and open government actually mean, which is all the more disconcerting, given that it means that the government is acting not out of ignorance but actually wilfully to have the most secretive, opaque government Canada has ever known.

I believe the conversation we have had today in this House has been a timely one, and I hope Canadians are all the more convinced now that adopting the bill is a wise and necessary step for this House.

The purpose of the transparency act is to make important changes to how Canadians stay informed about what their government is doing. The measures outlined in this bill guarantee a government whose information is automatically accessible

The members have already shown that they are ready to take up the challenge.

The Liberal Party was the first party to opt for proactive disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses, and I was pleased to see the members of the other parties follow our example. However, there is more work to be done.

It is not acceptable any more that decisions about the regulation of MPs' spending are made behind closed doors, entirely in secret, far from the light of public scrutiny. That is not the way things ought to be done in 2015. Instead, the House of Commons' Board of Internal Economy must be made open by default.

The challenge that the NDP members have not quite understood or highlighted in their speaking points is that the Board of Internal Economy is not a regular House committee. It is one that, by oath, must remain secret on a wide range of things. Regardless if we have unanimous consent at the BOIE to overturn that secrecy, it cannot, without possibly facing sanctions for having broken the Parliament of Canada Act. That is why a legislated change is needed to open the BOIE.

Canadians should know more about what their elected representatives are doing and how the rules are made that govern spending. Some things would remain confidential, such as personal matters or contractual dealings, but overall, reform of the Board of Internal Economy is well overdue.

We also cannot expect Canadians to be satisfied with the current access to information system, which is now outdated. It is a complicated and confusing system that often delivers results that are far from satisfactory. This is not surprising, considering that it has not undergone any significant changes in over 20 years.

We need a new approach, a system that allows Canadians to understand what we do here in Ottawa, as well as a system that takes into account the technological advances that have completely reshaped the information landscape and data sharing.

This bill would update the Access to Information system in four ways.

First, it would make all government information and data open by default and easily accessible.

Second, it would require that accessing information cost no more than the initial $5.00 fee.

Third, this bill would expand and strengthen the Information Commissioner's mandate, giving him or her the power to enforce access to information laws. Once the government opens up, we want it to remain open. This was actually a Conservative promise during the 2006 election campaign.

Fourth, this bill provides for a mandatory review of our access to information system within 90 days of this bill receiving royal assent and every five years thereafter.

I put forth the transparency act in good faith with my colleagues here, who I hope share the spirit with which this bill was introduced. That is, that we are all striving to make a better government for Canadians.

I believe more openness and transparency, along with strengthened information laws, will lend more accountability to this place. It is important to Canadians and to the continued health of our democracy.

In the spirit of openness and transparency, I will be hosting, in 20 minutes, an information session at 6:30 p.m. in East Block Room 362, where I will be glad to take any and all questions from my colleagues on these important improvements to transparency.

Tomorrow, I am hopeful members will join me in voting Bill C-613 through to committee stage.

Parliament of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

November 18th, 2014 / 5:45 p.m.
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Liberal

Justin Trudeau Liberal Papineau, QC

moved that Bill C-613, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Access to Information Act (transparency), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today and speak on Bill C-613—the transparency act—my private member’s bill offering concrete reforms to raise the bar on openness in government. Since the beginning of my leadership campaign, I have been talking about the need to improve the transparency of our institutions. I do believe that this is how we can restore a sense of trust in our democracy.

In my leadership campaign, I offered specific proposals on democratic reform: particularly, ending the practice of appointments of candidates by party leaders and, instead, holding open nominations; loosening the grip of the Prime Minister's Office on Parliament; working with all parties to consider electoral reform; banning partisan government advertising; and embracing evidence-based scrutiny.

After my election, our Liberal caucus also put forward the open Parliament plan, a tangible strategy to shine more light on what happens here on Parliament Hill. The plan called for more frequent and accessible reports of all parliamentarians' spending data, as well as mandatory performance audits of both Houses every three years by the Auditor General.

The open parliament plan called for the creation of public guidelines for more detailed audits, ending the secretive nature of the Board of Internal Economy, and the proactive disclosure of parliamentarians’ expenses at the standard of government ministers.

That announcement was not just about the ideas themselves; it was also about demonstrating a willingness to raise the bar on openness and transparency, and it was about working across the aisle to achieve results.

While it took a bit longer than we might have hoped, hon. members unanimously agreed to adopt the Liberal model and create a new system of proactive disclosure. It was a great example of how parliamentarians could work together.

It was also the Liberal Party that took steps to reduce partisanship and patronage in the Senate, by limiting membership in the national Liberal caucus to elected MPs only.

We are committed to instituting an open, transparent and non-partisan appointment process for that upper house. Taken together, these actions can end the partisan and patronage-based nature of the Senate, all without launching a new round of constitutional negotiations.

We are proud of what we have done so far, but there is more we can do. With this private member's bill, I wanted to offer an additional step in the continuing effort to raise the bar on openness and transparency, not just in Parliament but in government.

The transparency act would improve openness in government in two fundamental ways.

First, it significantly strengthens Canada’s access to information laws by mandating that government information is open by default.

Second, it achieves another goal in our open parliament plan by ending the secretive nature of the Board of Internal Economy.

Achieving a more open government makes sense for Canada. Governments around the world that embrace this concept have demonstrated new ways to reduce costs, spark entrepreneurial initiatives, and aid the public and private sectors in better serving citizens. After all, a country’s access to information system is at the heart of open government.

There is no doubt that our current access to information regime is outdated and needs to be updated to reflect governance and technologies in the 21st century. The world’s strongest access to information systems have been updated within the last five years. Ours is stuck in the 1980s.

As we know well, Canada's record on its access to information and privacy system has been criticized by the Information Commissioner, the press, researchers and independent experts. Proposals for reforming our access to information and privacy regime are certainly nothing new. Members from all parties in this place have advanced the need for reform, most recently the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre.

I would like to collaborate with all parliamentarians to implement the following reforms.

First, the transparency act would legislate that all government data and information would be open by default and would be available in user-friendly formats that would keep up with modern technologies.

Second, the act would require that only the initial $5.00 request be paid by Canadians, with no additional fees added on later.

Third, the Information Commissioner's mandate would be expanded so she herself could enforce information laws and ensure that government information would always open by default.

Fourth, the act would require a statutory review of our access to information laws within 90 days of this bill receiving royal assent and every five years thereafter. This would ensure that the regime would reflect modern technologies and would continue to serve Canadians.

The Information Commissioner herself has insisted that:

[r]eal improvement in the [access to information] system will only come from modernizing the Act—a long-overdue step that is crucial to advancing the cause of transparency and accountability in Canada.

I agree, and I know that many of us in this place do too.

As I have already addressed, the transparency act would also make the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy open by default.

Today, parliamentarians are making decisions about the regulations that govern our own spending with insufficient public scrutiny. Our parliamentary system enables parliamentarians to govern themselves, but it must be done in the open.

I share the view of many that we need an open board and a system of oversight more similar to that in the upper house.

When inappropriate spending in the other place was examined, Canadians were better served by an oversight body that was accessible to the press and to the public. Like the upper house, the reforms included in this transparency act would provide the flexibility to go in camera when sensitive, personal or personnel matters are discussed.

However, in fairness to those who currently sit on the Board of Internal Economy, their discussions are now kept secret by law, a reality which has been affirmed to me in my consultations with parliamentary counsel. The statutory oath of secrecy can only be overcome with a legislative change, and the transparency act would offer that. It is time to change that law.

I believe that by bringing openness to board conversations, we can better serve Canadians. They have demanded more accountability, rightly so, and they will get more accountability.

It is with a positive spirit and optimism about its passing that I introduce the transparency act in the House of Commons. I consulted on this bill with Canadians across the country throughout the summer and fall. I have heard what Canadians think about the state of transparency and accountability within our government. It is abundantly clear to me that they have an appetite for change. Canadians are looking for a better, open and modern government.

The Liberal Party is genuinely committed to working with all parties to pass the transparency act in the House of Commons. Just as we did in achieving the proactive disclosure of parliamentary expenses, we want to achieve an all-party consensus to pass the transparency act. We are open to amendments, suggestions, and improvements, and we hope that members of all parties will engage in meaningful debate and questions on the bill that I have spoken on today.

The important reforms included in the transparency act are fully achievable. The fate of this bill is not in the hands of the government alone; it is also in the hands of individual members of Parliament from all parties. Together, we can make a difference and provide Canadians with an example of parliamentarians reaching across the aisle in pursuit of a common goal.

I am convinced that in the service of all Canadians, we can work together within Parliament to raise the bar on openness and transparency in our democracy.

Parliament of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

November 18th, 2014 / 6 p.m.
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Okanagan—Coquihalla B.C.

Conservative

Dan Albas ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to provide the government's response to Bill C-613, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Access to Information Act (transparency).

For many reasons, the government cannot support this bill, not least of which is because it includes a number of problematic amendments.

The proposed changes to the Access to Information Act, for example, would increase the required administration involved, and seldom does an increase in administration result in decreased costs or efficiencies to taxpayers. Our current system includes an independent Information Commissioner who reports directly to Parliament and who already has a strong mandate to investigate and resolve disputes concerning access requests.

This system has a very broad reach and includes nearly 200 federal institutions, including crown corporations like the CBC and Canada Post, and government funded foundations like the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

In 2012-13 alone, the system released nearly six million pages of information to Canadians, which is an increase of over a million and a half pages over the preceding year. During that same year, the government received and responded to nearly 54,000 access requests, which is more than in previous years.

This proves that Canada's access to information system is working well.

Under our Conservative government, Canadians are accessing more information from the government than ever before.

That is something all Canadians can be proud of.

The government is determined to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to government information and documents of all kinds. The government recognizes that accountability and transparency are an ongoing process.

We acknowledge that Canadians expect a high level of openness in government. We also understand that they expect to have more opportunities to participate in public affairs, particularly through the use of new and emerging technologies.

The government is committed to meeting these high expectations of Canadians, which is why we have continued to explore and implement new ways of giving Canadians access to government information. This includes our popular open data portal at data.gc.ca. This portal provides government data in machine-readable formats to enable citizens, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations the ability to leverage it in new, innovative, and value-added ways.

Our efforts also include the many measures we have taken to proactively disclose financial and human resources records of government institutions to the public. These include the disclosure of travel and hospitality expenses for selected government officials, contracts over $10,000, for instance, and the awarding of grants and contributions over $25,000, all of which can be found easily online.

By making this information readily available on departmental websites, Canadians and Parliament are better able to hold the government and public sector officials to account.

In short, we will continue to improve transparency and openness within government, but we will not do so by supporting the bill before us today.

The changes proposed by the member for Papineau ring hollow. After all, it was this member who accepted speaking fees from unions and then voted against union transparency legislation. It is also the member for Papineau who promises to repeal the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

Recently, Barb Cote, a member of the Shuswap First Nations, thanked our government, stating:

The First Nations Transparency Act came in, and it actually showed what the previous council was doing—spending all our money on places that were not for the people.

This is the legislation that the member for Papineau will replace.

These, I would say, are not the actions of a champion of transparency.

The proposed changes in this legislation would lead to increased delays in response times to access for information requests and add cost pressures on government institutions.

As it stands, institutions are already required to document their deliberations and decisions on each request received under the act. Under our government, institutions are required to provide a detailed explanation every time they apply an exemption under the Access to Information Act. If requesters are not satisfied with the application of any exemptions, they may file a complaint with the Information Commissioner of Canada, who will examine the matter in detail. Also requiring the provision of detailed explanations every time an exemption is applied would add an unnecessary burden on the entire access to information program across the government.

The bill would also amend the Access to Information Act to eliminate all fees for access requests, except for the $5 application fee. This change would not show respect for the tax dollars of Canadians. As we all know, some individual access requests carry a large cost, given the high volume of records involved and the hours required to respond. So the government has the authority under the access to information regulations to charge an extra fee to reflect these costs. The government feels that it is quite reasonable to require a minor additional fee to process requests that consist of thousands of pages of material. I would add that federal institutions take a fair and judicious approach to charging these fees. This includes waiving or eliminating them. The vast majority of requests are fulfilled at no direct cost beyond the initial $5 application fee. In 2012-13, for example, this was the case for 99.5% of all cases. Again, 99.5% of these requests required no additional fee.

This legislation would also expand the mandate of the Information Commissioner to include the power to order the release of information. This would fundamentally change the role of the Information Commissioner, whose office would then become a quasi-judicial body. This would be in addition to the Information Commissioner's current role as an ombudsperson, which works well given her strong powers to investigate and resolve disputes about access requests.

I would also note what former information commissioner John Reid had to say on this question. He told a parliamentary committee in 2005 the following:

There is no evidence that order powers would strengthen the right of access, speed up the process, or reduce the amount of secrecy. The experience of 22 years is that the ombudsman model works very well. Fewer than 1% of complaints end up before the courts.

That said, it would be much better to continue with the present situation where the commissioner can apply to the Federal Court when an institution refuses to follow one of her recommendations to release some records.

I would just like to talk about one last change proposed in this bill: the requirement for a parliamentary committee to review the Access to Information Act every five years. I just want to say that the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics is responsible for carrying out such reviews and reporting its findings. The committee has actually carried out 15 studies on access to information since 2006.

From a careful reading of this private member's bill, I see more costs and more administration being added to government. I also see the potential for more litigation and disagreement, which in turn would add costs and further slow the process.

I do welcome the proposal by the member for Papineau to improve the transparency of the Board of Internal Economy. However, as stated by the Clerk of the House and former Speakers, there will always be a need for the board to meet in camera.

I would therefore encourage all members of this place to join me in opposing Bill C-613.

Parliament of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

November 18th, 2014 / 6:20 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, we need to look at this as an opportunity. Through the bill, we have a wonderful opportunity to send a very strong and powerful message to all Canadians. If we listened to our constituents on the issue of being open, transparent and accountable, if we consulted with them and put the bill before them, I truly believe the advice we would get from them would be that this bill was worthy of a yes vote. This is the type of legislation that could make a difference in a very real and tangible way on the issue of transparency and accountability.

When our leader presented the bill, he indicated it was a bill that would get the debate going, hoping that it would go to committee and that we would be open to ideas, thoughts and possible amendments. The initial response by the government was to deny. That is unfortunate.

If we read what the government member said, he referenced one aspect of the legislation. There was no comment on the Board of Internal Economy. We are talking about 2014, yet there is a law in place that says the board has to meet in camera. There is a need to change the law, yet the government's response was to ignore that aspect of the legislation. How would the Conservatives' constituents respond to that? Where is the government's need to listen to what good ideas come forward from the House of Commons?

This is not the first time we have seen an effort by the leader of the Liberal Party to bring forward an idea that has made a difference. We should remember proactive disclosure. I was sitting here when the leader brought forward the idea and sought unanimous consent of the House to move forward on proactive disclosure. The result was, no. There were parties in the House that did not want to go toward proactive disclosure. We persisted. The leader of the Liberal Party indicated that the Liberal caucus would have to abide by proactive disclosure. We were prepared to demonstrate leadership on this issue because we understood that Canadians' expectations were that much higher. We wanted to raise the bar. We wanted to show that we were prepared to be more transparent and accountable.

When we brought forward the proactive disclosure and the Liberal members acted on it, it was only a couple of months later that the Conservative Party joined in with us. I applaud them for recognizing a good idea. It took a few more months and ultimately an opposition day, but we were able to eventually gain support from the New Democratic Party. It is because of that building of consensus that we were able to pass a motion that ultimately led to change.

Everyone inside the chamber has the opportunity to vote for transparency and accountability. If we recognize the value of government data, then surely to goodness we recognize how important it is that the citizens of Canada have a right to gain that access. Bill C-613 would enable Canadians from coast to coast to coast more access, by default, to government data.

What is wrong with that? If the members have some ideas or have some concerns, at least they could vote for the bill to go to committee and raise it there. If they think they can improve upon the legislation, then they should bring forward amendments. I would suggest their constituents would agree with that thought.

What about the Board of Internal Economy? It would appear that we do have the support of at least two political entities on that issue. I am not sure where the government sits on it because the government member never commented on that aspect of the legislation.

Does the Conservative government or the PMO believe that we should still have a law in place in the year of 2014 that says we need to have in camera meetings, that it would be against the law to do anything otherwise?

I would like to think that if provided the opportunity to change that law, the government would recognize the benefits of it and allow for that to happen. I will be listening to future Conservative speakers who speak to the bill. I would challenge members to provide comment on that aspect also. Do members not see the value of it?

Going back to the access to information, it is very important to recognize that the Information Commissioner herself insists that the real improvements in the access to information system will only come from the modernization of the act, which is a long overdue step that is crucial to advancing the cause of transparency and accountability in Canada.

The leader of the Liberal Party indicated how long it has been since we have had real substantial changes. What we see in Bill C-163 is an opportunity for us to send a very strong message, and it is a part of the open Parliament plan that we have talked about for months now. It takes into consideration a number of bold, new initiatives that would make, and have made, a difference. This is just another step in the right direction that I believe Canadians would be very happy to see take place.

My concern is that, through the PMO or some selected members of the Conservative caucus, the Conservatives will not see the merits of the legislation before us. That would be most tragic, because, as I pointed out at the beginning of my comments, we need to recognize the importance of government data and the importance of Canadians having access to that necessary information, which is being stored within government data banks. There is a litany of reasons as to why this should take place.

The previous speaker talked about other countries. However, in recent years, Canada has not done well in terms of protecting the interests of access to information of government data. We continue to drop in the world ranking, and there is so much more we could do to improve upon that.

One of the most significant things we can do is vote in favour of this proposed legislation to go to committee. As it was indicated at the very beginning by my leader, we are in search of getting that all-party consensus. We were able to accomplish that on issues like proactive disclosure, and this is yet another step that would make a difference.

I challenge all members to read through the legislation to get a better understanding of the issue of the government data bank and having access to information. I challenge members to vote in favour of this bill going to committee so Canada can improve upon our access laws and end the law on in camera meetings of the Board of Internal Economy.