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.