An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts

Sponsor

Scott Brison  Liberal

Status

In committee (House), as of Sept. 27, 2017

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Summary

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

This enactment amends the Access to Information Act to, among other things,

(a) authorize the head of a government institution to decline to act on a request for access to a record for various reasons, including because it is vexatious or made in bad faith, and give the person who made the request the right to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner if their request is declined;

(b) authorize the Information Commissioner to refuse to investigate or cease to investigate a complaint that is, in the Commissioner’s opinion, trivial, frivolous or vexatious or made in bad faith;

(c) clarify the powers of the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner to examine documents containing information that is subject to solicitor-client privilege or the professional secrecy of advocates and notaries or to litigation privilege in the course of their investigations and clarify that the disclosure by the head of a government institution to either of those Commissioners of such documents does not constitute a waiver of those privileges or that professional secrecy;

(d) authorize the Information Commissioner to make orders for the release of records or with respect to other matters relating to requesting or obtaining records and give parties the right to apply to the Federal Court for a review of the matter;

(e) create a new Part providing for the proactive publication of information or materials related to the Senate, the House of Commons, parliamentary entities, ministers’ offices, government institutions and institutions that support superior courts;

(f) require the designated Minister to undertake a review of the Act within one year after the day on which this enactment receives royal assent and every five years afterward;

(g) authorize government institutions to provide to other government institutions services related to requests for access to records; and

(h) expand the Governor in Council’s power to amend Schedule I to the Act and to retroactively validate amendments to that schedule.

It amends the Privacy Act to, among other things,

(a) create a new exception to the definition of “personal information” with respect to certain information regarding an individual who is a ministerial adviser or a member of a ministerial staff;

(b) authorize government institutions to provide to other government institutions services related to requests for personal information; and

(c) expand the Governor in Council’s power to amend the schedule to the Act and to retroactively validate amendments to that schedule.

It also makes consequential amendments to the Canada Evidence Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

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

Sept. 27, 2017 Passed 2nd reading of Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 12:55 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Erin O'Toole Conservative Durham, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to rise today to be part of the discussion on Bill C-58. As many of the members of the opposition have pointed out with some degree of consistency and clarity, this is perhaps the best example of the legacy of broken promises by the government. This broken promise in effect comprises 31 broken promises. In the midst of my speech I will address how this is not just a simple broken promise. Rather, it affects the entire open government concept paraded by the Liberals in the last election and goes to the heart of the sincerity of the Prime Minister on this subject. Many of the new members of Parliament were not here in the last session when the Prime Minister was the leader of the third party. However, when listening to my speech, members will learn that this was a centrepiece of the Prime Minister's time as MP for Papineau. He seems to have forgotten his passions from his time in opposition.

My friend, the member for Kings—Hants and President of the Treasury Board, in his remarks on this bill last week spoke a lot about his time in cabinet and how proud he was to be in the cabinet of Paul Martin. What was absent in his remarks was that he is no longer in that cabinet but in the cabinet of the current Prime Minister. Possibly he did not work that into his remarks because he was handed the biggest broken promise of the new session. It is never fun to have a prime minister make a minister come to the House of Commons to try to sell a dead fish. That is essentially what this bill is.

I will remind the members who did run on the Liberal platform of their promise. We all remember the various hashtags used by the government in the last election, hashtags about hope, hard work, and real change. “Real Change” was the title of their policy platform. What was contained in that platform? I will quote, “We will ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.” That was a real change in the section of their platform that talked about open and accountable government.

On the page before that in the document the Liberals also talked about giving real independence to and listening to government watchdogs, such as the Information Commissioner. Many previous information commissioners have provided commentary that the Liberals suggested they were going to act on. I am sure there are countless former watchdogs who are quite disappointed that the Liberals ran on this commitment but have fallen far short. If we look at the Liberals' campaign promise to earn the trust of Canadians, they said that the Prime Minister’s Office would be governed by access to information, as well as all ministers' offices. There were 31 different offices they pledged to bring under the umbrella of access to information. Those are 31 broken promises contained in Bill C-58. Of the litany of broken promises by the government, this is probably the most ambitious because there are 31 broken promises rolled into one.

I would love to have seen the emails about the Prime Minister's trip to a private island, along with the current Minister of Veterans Affairs and various members of Canada 2020 or the Liberal Party of Canada. I have a hard time distinguishing them. We know dribs and drabs about that trip because senior officials at the Privy Council Office had a hard time making sure that the Prime Minister could remain in touch. This was at a secluded billionaire's island. The Government of Canada had a hard time keeping up with the vacation ambitions of the Prime Minister. Had the Prime Minister kept his promise, I would love to have read a bit about what his senior officials thought and how they were pushing the government to accommodate this very unusual request.

Similarly, with regard to the investigations of the Prime Minister by both the Ethics Commissioner and Commissioner of Lobbying, it is unparalleled for a Prime Minister to be subject to one, let alone two, investigations in his first two years. I guess that is real change, and certainly a big change from Mr. Harper. There were no investigations of him over nine years by those officers of Parliament. Now we have two. I would love to see the emails of Gerald Butts and Katie Telford on how to handle the investigation of the Prime Minister's fundraising dinners with Chinese billionaires, the same ones who are building a statue of his father in Canada before the Prime Minister's government builds a statue and monument to the Afghanistan mission. The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is going to make sure that Pierre Trudeau has a monument before the 40,000 Canadians who served in Afghanistan do. I would love to see a little bit of the commentary on that.

What we have heard from government members, and we are at the beginning of debate so will hear these talking points quite regularly now, is that instead of keeping their promise and providing that 31 offices would now be subject to the Access to Information Act, they are going to produce proactive disclosure. This is their key defence of their broken promise. They are going to release schedules, agendas, and draft question period documents and say those should satisfy us. No, they will not. As members will see, if they stay with me a few moments, this is far more than a broken promise in the real change campaign document to Canadians. Why is that?

I am going to refer to remarks by the Liberal MP for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, a good guy, I might add, a friend. In the last Parliament, he said, “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.” He gave a really good speech. I recommend that the member and some of his colleagues refer to it. In the same speech he said, “A country's access to information system is the heart of open government.” These are wonderful words by my friend from Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, the longest serving member in the House from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Why such eloquent prose? What was that member speaking about in the last Parliament? He was speaking about a private member's bill on reforming access to information. Who brought forward that bill? It was the MP for Papineau, now the Prime Minister of Canada, whose own private member's bill in the last Parliament championed open government and reform of access to information. When he spoke, no wonder my friend from Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame was so eloquent in his praise and prose. It was his leader's bill, his leader's raison d'être, as the MP for Papineau.

I always found the number of that bill, Bill C-613, interesting. All government officials are generally in the 613 area code, so I always thought Bill C-613 was kind of ironic. It was the open government bill. The actual name of the bill was an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Access to Information Act (transparency). We know that when a member has a bill tabled and debated in the House, it is the most important issue to them.

We have seen great bills brought forward by passionate members of Parliament. For example, my friend from Cariboo—Prince George brought forward a national framework for post-traumatic stress disorder for our first responders. We have debated that framework, that passion of his, in this Parliament. In the last Parliament, when the Prime Minister was leader of the third party, what was his passion? It was access to information reform and open government.

Someone in the PMO should remind him of that and send him an email. However, we will not be able to see those emails because he is carving that out in these reforms. However, someone should remind the member for Papineau. He is still the member for Papineau. He is also the Prime Minister, and I respect that role. However, I am here to remind him what he brought to Parliament, when he would regularly grill the Conservative government of the day. I remember because I was in cabinet.

From the Prime Minister's bill on reforming and improving access to information, what did it start with? Proposed section 2 read:

2(1) The purpose of this Act is to extend the present laws of Canada to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of all government institutions in accordance with the principles that

(a) government information must be made openly available to the public and accessible....

That was the thrust of the Prime Minister's private member's legislation. In fact, it went on to talk about when it should be held back. I refer to paragraph 2(1)(b) of that bill, which stated, “necessary exceptions to the right of access should be rare, limited and specific.”

With this farce of a bill, how does it measure up against the Prime Minister's Bill C-613? It fails dramatically and terribly. Therefore, the hope and hard work the Prime Minister championed in opposition are long forgotten. His hopes and his promises on open government, which made it all the way to the Liberal platform, were dropped once he formed government. I hope Canadians see this for what it is. Once again, the photo ops and the hashtags do not match the conduct of the government.

I will leave the Prime Minister's Office with one last quote. The people of that office were not here with the member for Papineau in the last Parliament.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 1:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Erin O'Toole Conservative Durham, ON

No, the people of the Prime Minister's Office were not here. My friend from Winnipeg is heckling me, but he remembers early on that Canadian taxpayers paid to move the Prime Minister's officials to Ottawa. I know they were not here. We paid for them to come after the Liberals won. I would like those officials to also look at proposed subsection 2(4) where it says:

In the event of any uncertainty as to whether an exception applies to a record requested under this Act, the principle set out in paragraph 2(1)(a) applies and the record shall be made available.

Paragraph 2(1)(a) is that, all “government information must be...openly available”. This was the Prime Minister's raison d'être in the last Parliament. He has now brought a bill, through his President of the Treasury Board, to the House that would get an F if it were graded alongside what he suggested, not just in the election campaign but as a private member of the House.

As I said, not only is this a broken promise, it is 31 broken promises because he said that every minister of that front bench would have to have his or office open to disclosure under the Access to Information Act. That was a broken promise for a couple of rows of Parliament.

He then said that the purpose was to always lean in favour of disclosure, that holding back documents should be rare and specific. In this bill, there is also a paragraph that says that, if in the opinion of someone, it is a frivolous request, he or she does not have to disclose it either. This is an exception that one can drive a truck through in what someone might consider frivolous. Therefore, the lofty language and goals of the Prime Minister in the last Parliament certainly did not make their way into Bill C-58.

My colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent did a great job in outlining our opposition concerns with the bill. However, I want officials in the Prime Minister's Office to remind the Prime Minister of not only his commitments in the election but his commitment to this Parliament. His only private member's bill was on access to information and reform of Parliament.

Whether it is Bill C-58 or his commitments to never use omnibus bills, and I have lost track of how of those bills we have had, and how many times the government House leader has brought forward time allocation, the rhetoric of the Liberals in opposition, when held up alongside their actual record in government, is hypocrisy of the highest order. This bill is probably the best example.

I do not like being the voice of doom, but every bill the government brings forward just gives me hours' worth of material, as a parliamentarian. Therefore, with my remaining time, I want to thank Madam Suzanne Legault, who served Canada with great distinction and capability as our information commissioner for many years.

Many of her recommendations and the work she did, at the vanguard of global, open government access to information, was the basis of the Prime Minister's bill and the Prime Minister's old thinking in this area. Once he was sworn in, he forgot all that. I am sure Madam Legault, like many other people, is disappointed.

Here is what she said when I happened to be at committee with her in the previous Parliament, in December 2014:

Over the years, I have also made recommendations to the President of the Treasury Board on various ways to advance accountability and transparency. I am very pleased that most of these recommendations over the years have been implemented by the government.

That was the information commissioner's testimony before committee in the last Parliament.

We heard the last Liberal speaker say that Stephen Harper was not in favour of open government, and that it was a one-man show. That is simply not true. That was a narrative the Prime Minister liked to bring forward and it led to his bill and his showboating on the subject. However, it was not the testimony of our officer of Parliament. That was her quote, that generally governments under her tenure had responded, generally the president of the treasury board had responded to modernization.

I hope the Liberals remove, from their talking points, the aspersions they are casting at Mr. Harper, because they simply are not true. I would refer them to the testimony of Madam Legault and her great record. I asked her some difficult questions that day and she handled them with capability and aplomb. She also ran her department very effectively.

This bill would give more resources to the department, and that is needed. In the last Parliament, I think she lapsed $30,000. I have literally never seen a department run so efficiently. It is impossible for government to meet all its estimates right on. There always will be a lapse or a request for more funds. The department ran a very capable program at a time. Under her watch, there was a 30% increase in access to information requests. That department used technology and a number of means to modernize.

Another thing I see lacking in the bill, and I spoke about this in the last Parliament, is that the Access to Information Act comes from 1983, when the Prime Minister's father was the prime minister. The cost for an access request was $5 in 1983. It has not changed, and it should. The testimony given by Madam Legault suggested that it was a $1,300 internal cost for each request. We want to have open and accessible government, but $1,300 is the internal cost.

With requests going up by 30%, we need to change that. In fact, 21,000 requests of all departments of the government are commercial in nature. I used to see this as a corporate lawyer, companies looking at regulatory issues would submit an access to information because there was no barrier to just firing in thousands of requests. With 55,000 requests, on average, per year, and 30,000 of those being commercial requests, that is $71 million in costs for law firms, accountant firms, and businesses requesting information.

I have always been an advocate of a zero cost for a member of the public, one of our great people interested in democracy, but more like a $25 or $50 cost for a corporation other than a media outlet. We actually could stop some of the frivolous requests being made and clogging the system. John or Jane public member would have full access, but more of a threshold to show we changed a bit since 1983

I would refer the Prime Minister and members of his government to his bill from the last Parliament. I hope we can amend Bill C-58 to capture some of the promises that clearly have been broken.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 1:15 p.m.
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NDP

Sheila Malcolmson NDP Nanaimo—Ladysmith, BC

Mr. Speaker, I share the Conservative member's disappointment that the campaign commitment made by the Liberal government to close the loophole for access to information to the Prime Minister's Office and ministerial offices was not done even though that was in the Liberal mandate letters and in the campaign promise. I agree that Bill C-58 fails on that.

However, we have a bit more prehistory. In 2006, the Harper Conservatives campaigned on a promise that they would update access to information legislation, but they did not. The New Democrats introduced private members bills based on the recommendations by successive information commissioners. My colleague, Pat Martin, brought a private member's bill forward in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, and the Conservatives voted against every one of them.

Why the change of heart now?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 1:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Erin O'Toole Conservative Durham, ON

Mr. Speaker, when we are giving our speeches or asking questions or making comments here, we all focus on elements of our own past. I quoted the Information Commissioner and how she responded to how the government had responded to her recommendations. She said, “I am very please that most of these recommendations over the years have been implemented by the government.” I know that the member was not in the previous Parliament. However, she can refer to Madam Legault's comments.

Did the Conservative government do all of what was in Bill C-613, or in Pat Martin's private member's bill? No, it did not. I remember debating Pat Martin about one of his versions of the bill and suggesting that he bring the same disclosure he aspired to in government to his legal defence fund. Members might remember that from the last Parliament. He actually had unions contribute in a roundabout way, which I felt went around the rules for fundraising, to pay some of the bills for a libel action he had. I remember that debate. To his credit, Pat Martin did bring it regularly.

However, what I am highlighting today is the acute hypocrisy of the Prime Minister, because not only did we all see it in the “Real Change” document, and we have all referred to the Liberals' promise, but he brought a private member's bill forward in the last Parliament as the member of Parliament for Papineau. Just as we all bring bills or motions forward on areas we care the most about, that is what the Prime Minister said he cared the most about.

As I said, if we compare Bill C-58 to what he brought forward in Bill C-613 in the last Parliament, one cannot even recognize it. Certainly, at an absolute minimum, of the 31 broken promises, I think we all would agree that with respect to the Prime Minister's Office and all the cabinet offices, this is the most egregious of the broken promises. I am highlighting, based on my experience here in Parliament, where I think this falls short the most.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 3:45 p.m.
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Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Mr. Speaker, today, September 25, is Franco-Ontarian Day. I want to extend my best wishes to all Franco-Ontarians and to honour this important day by beginning my speech in French.

Bill C-58 authorizes heads of government institutions to decline access to information requests if they are vexatious or made in bad faith. Those subjective criteria will be used to decide who gets access to information. This bill gives the Information Commissioner more power, which makes it much harder for those seeking access to information to obtain an investigation. In essence, this bill will make it harder for Canadian citizens, media, and opposition party members to access information. Do we live in an open and democratic country?

I would also like to point out that the Prime Minister promised the Access to Information Act would also apply to cabinet and the Prime Minister's Office. Bill C-58 is just another example of what Canadians already know: the Prime Minister is not a man of his word. He simply does not keep his election promises.

Suffice it to say, here we are. It is Monday, we are in Ottawa, it is hot, I am speaking, and we are discussing another broken Liberal promise. Therefore, despite the summer, not much has changed.

Before I go too far into the substance of this bill, being back from the summer and having not had the chance to do so yet, I want to quickly pay tribute to my friend Arnold Chan. It was an honour to serve in this House with him. One of the things that has not been mentioned in his many tributes is his great service as the chair of the Canada-Armenia Parliamentary Friendship Group. It was through the group that I was able to get to know him. His commitment to that cause showed his character, his willingness to invest in Canada's relationship with a relatively small country, yet a country that is hard pressed because of the challenges it faces with its neighbours. His commitment to engaging with that cause showed his principled approach to politics. I wanted to make sure that was mentioned as well. I certainly would associate myself with all of the tributes that have been made recognizing his contribution to this place, his commitment to raising the standard of debate, and the other very important things that were said.

To the issue at hand, we are debating a government bill that would make various changes with respect to the access to information regime. I was not here for much of last week because I was in New York. I had the pleasure of going to some UN meetings with the President of the Treasury Board, as part of the Open Government Partnership. It was an interesting week, leading up to where we are today debating this bill, to have and to hear some discussions with our international partners specifically about the question of open government, of the access of citizens to government.

I was particularly struck by a presentation that was made by the President of Estonia. She was talking about the link between open government and trust. She made the point, and it is obviously true if one digs into it, that the mechanisms of open government, the structures and institutions of open government, can really only have meaning and be effective if they are associated with a culture in which people trust and have reason to trust the government. People are not going to share information with a government that they do not trust. They are not going to trust the quality of the information that they receive if there is not an underlying sense of being able to rely on the information, that they can rely on its word and on its commitment to a credible process. In other words, open government is a process, but it is also about a mentality, not just about a set of institutional changes. That was the case that she made, and I found it resonated with me and many of the other people in the room.

I say that because it is particularly paradoxical today. We are debating a bill that purports to be about the opening up of government, where the government is breaking faith, breaking trust, with the people who elected it by going back substantively on a promise. Of course, as colleagues of mine have said, we have seen many cases of the government breaking its election promises. However, it is particularly notable in this case when we are discussing an area that is supposed to be all about trust, about open government. The government is saying it is trying to open it up, and at the same doing it in a way that undermines a clear election commitment that it made.

Unfortunately, the government's unwillingness to take the promises it made seriously has undermined many people's trust in government and faith in the political process. Therefore, for those in the House who are interested in substantively advancing the values of open government, it is not just about institutional changes and structures, it is about following through on one's commitments. It is about respecting the trust that people have given, which is the basis for open government, as well as some of these institutional changes. I want to put that out as a kind of contextual framework for the conversation. Again, I think people would be disappointed anytime that they see the government breaking promises. There have been many instances of that, but when it is a process around open government, it is particularly ironic, and goes that much further in undermining people's trust in government.

Having said that, in terms of an introductory set-up, I will talk about the substance of the legislation.

Bill C-58 deals with access to information, which is the right that citizens have to file requests to the government to get information about what is happening inside of government. This is information that may not be proactively disclosed but that may be available. It is an important tool for opposition parties that are holding the government to account. Accessing information from the government is something that we do on a regular basis. It is also something that civil society organizations, academics, and ordinary citizens do. People have a range of motivations for accessing the information. As I said earlier in questions and comments, and I will come back to it later, it is not for the state, for us as parliamentarians, or for government ministers to judge whether someone's desire for accessing information is reasonable or justified.

The law ought to prescribe people having a right to certain information, to know how government operates and what the government is doing, and then it is up to them to decide how, when, and for what to use that information. I think that is an important principle. Obviously, certain information cannot be made available through access to information requests. However, we should not try to create a situation where the government is evaluating people's motivation and subjectively being able to determine whether it will give that information, based even on who the person is making the request.

Bill C-58 proposes various changes to the framework for access to information. I will mention a few of the particular aspects of it, and then I want to develop them.

There was a promise from the Liberals during the last election campaign. They said that they were going to extend access to information to activities within ministers' offices and within the Prime Minister's Office. This proposed legislation would not do that. The Liberals are breaking their commitment to having access to information include ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office. Unfortunately, they are going back on a very clear commitment yet again.

Under the proposed act, we would have a situation in which the government could refuse any access to information request that it regards as being vexatious, made in bad faith, or as a misuse of the right to request information. However, when we think about a vexatious request or a request made in bad faith, it is according to whom? In a free society, an opposition party, a member of the media, or a third-party organization might make an access to information request for no other reason than because they wish to politically embarrass the government. Certainly I would never make an access to information request along those lines, but I have heard of this maybe happening.

It is part of free democratic debate that people can access that information and use it as they see fit. With regard to exposing what is happening in government, even if the motivation of the person is purely to embarrass the government, that embarrassment may well be in the public interest, for the public to know what the government is doing behind closed doors and to hold the government accountable for that.

However, it begs the question of vexatious and in bad faith according to whom, because generally we accept that open information is in the public interest. It is consistent with the comment that the information be out there regardless of why it was requested in the first place or who is accessing it. The paradoxical situation envisioned by this is one in which perhaps I, as a member of the opposition requesting certain information, could be denied that information on the outlandish assumption that I am requesting it in bad faith, but that with someone else who requests exactly the same information, it is going to be presumed that they are not.

It invites the government to make determinations on the basis of motivation. However, more than that, it gives it the subjective power to make that determination. It may well be that it would claim that a request for information is vexatious or in bad faith, when in reality it is simply that the government department or minister in question does not want to see that information go out.

This is a problem. This is a troubling standard or mechanism for making determinations on what information goes out. We have the breaking of a promise and we have the introduction of a subjective standard that asks the government to psychoanalyze the motivations of the person seeking that information. These are two very clear and strong reasons for why not only our party but the NDP as well are opposing this. We both feel that these things are concerning.

Folks may have a range of different opinions about who and what should be subject to access to information, but the reality is that the Liberals, when they were in the third-party position, had the ability to engage in those debates internally, to think about what was and was not appropriate in the context of access to information, and to put their conclusions into their platform. That was what they offered to the Canadian people as their commitment of what they were going to do and how they were going to move forward. It was clearly there, and yet they went in the other direction. They totally reneged on it.

I want to note that this is not the first time we have seen the government break its election promises. There may be a record being set right now by the government in terms of the complete disregard for its election promises. Probably the most well-known and discussed example is the Liberals' commitment with respect to changes to the electoral system. They said that 2015 was going to be the last election under first past the post. Unless someone is planning for us to stop having elections, that promise will not be kept.

The Prime Minister, in the context of pulling back and declaring his intention to break that promise, said something to the effect that they were going to do what they felt was in the best interests of Canadians, not simply try to check a box on a platform. It begs the question then of what in the world the point of the platform was in the first place. The Liberals are supposed to make that public interest evaluation before they make the promise. They are not supposed to make whatever promises they think will get them elected and then make a public interest evaluation after that. That is the whole point of elections. The public evaluates what we put in front of them and makes that determination.

We were saying at the time that if we were going to change the electoral system, we would need to have a referendum. The government was somewhat unclear, but it was trying to get a particular result in terms of an electoral system, a runoff ballot. It became clear in the consultation process that nobody really wanted it. There were people talking about proportional representation, about the status quo, but it was only the Prime Minister and those around him who were talking about this runoff ballot.

When the government realized that it was not going to get that, rather than having a referendum, rather than taking seriously the recommendations of the committee, it decided it was just going to tear up the whole process. This was a broken promise that broke trust in the government. It left a lot of people disappointed and cynical about whether or not the platform commitments were meaningful.

On a lot of people's minds right now is the government's plan to change the system around small businesses and significantly increase the taxes they face. I should remind the government that this is also at odds with an election promise. It is hard to believe now that they promised to reduce taxes on small businesses. They have not talked about that one very much.

All three of the major parties in the House promised to move us to a small business tax rate of 9%. Then the government effectively raised taxes on small business initially by saying it would leave the tax rate at 10.5%. That was one broken promise to small business.

The Liberals also eliminated the hiring credit, which was specifically an incentive to encourage hiring. It is not something that I heard about from the Liberal candidate in Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan during the last election. Did they say they were going to eliminate the hiring credit for small businesses and make it harder for them to hire people? What about that idea? It did not come up in the forums. It did not come up in what they were saying while knocking on doors.

Not only did the government take those steps, but now it is contemplating the largest change to the tax code that we have seen in a long time. It is a change that virtually everybody is against. Not a single person has contacted my office in favour of the proposed changes. Probably now that I have said that, somebody somewhere will, but I have received an overwhelming amount of correspondence in opposition to these changes. This completely goes against the commitments that the Liberals made. During the election they talked about lowering taxes for small business.

The Liberals made other major economic promises.

They made a clear commitment to run $10-billion deficits in each of the first three years they were in government and then balance the budget in the final year. We did not think that was particularly prudent even as explained, but it was what they described as modest deficits. They have completely blown those numbers out of the water, by orders of magnitude. We are looking at not three years of projected deficits but at decades of projected deficits under the current plans of the government. As usually happens, it will take a Conservative government to clean up that mess.

It is hard for me to imagine how government members justify this flagrant dishonesty, whether we are talking about the commitments made with respect to ATIP that are now being ignored, the commitments made with respect to electoral reform now being ignored, balanced budgets now being ignored, or the protection of small business now being ignored. There are many other less publicized but still important examples of the government not respecting its commitments.

The Liberals stand up before voters and tell them what they are going to do, but as soon as they get into power, they come up with all kinds of excuses. On the economy, they usually say the situation has changed, that they did not quite anticipate how bad things were, but we could look at all of the independent analyses that say the budget was balanced before the Liberals came to power. The information that shows there was a surplus when the Liberals took power was there, and it is still clearly there.

With respect to ATIP, there is just no explanation, because there is no plausible claim that circumstances on the ground have changed. We are not talking about something that changes without the government changing it. The Liberals are making a decision to renege on their promise.

In the time I have left, I would like to highlight one more time that the government can refuse any ATIP request. Its only justification has to be that it suspects the good faith of the person making that request. I suspect that after this legislation passes, we will have many opposition ATIPs, many civil society ATIPs, many media ATIPs for which the motivation of those putting them forward will be suspect.

In a free society, government does not deny people information because it does not think their motives are pure enough. That is not how open government is supposed to work. That is not how government builds trust.

On that basis, we are opposing this bill.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 4:15 p.m.
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Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my hon. colleague from Calgary Heritage.

I am pleased to speak on Bill C-58, which would amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, also known as another broken Liberal promise hidden behind talking points peppered with key words like “open by default”, “transparency”, and “historic”. That is just the working title.

This bill demonstrates once again that the lofty rhetoric of the 2015 campaign on openness, transparency, and accountability was just that: rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. That is pretty much what we have here with this bill.

That said, there are components of the bill I agree with. First, giving the information and privacy commissioners more resources to do their jobs properly and more power to do them effectively are both good. In her recent annual report, the Information Commissioner described the current condition of access to information succinctly as, “there is a shadow of disinterest on behalf of the government” in transparency and accountability. Her conclusion was no more complimentary in stating “that the Act is being used as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government.” Hopefully she can use the minor positive changes in this bill to transform the act into something more meaningful, because that is essentially where the good parts stop.

Moving on to the bad, let us first talk about some of the problems with the current system. Timely access to information is a key characteristic of a well-functioning democracy. The word I want to underline in this statement is “timely”. If an access to information request takes months or even years to fulfill, the government has failed in its responsibility to be accessible. This legislation does not prevent requests from taking months or years to be completed, but, amazingly enough, enables the process to take even longer. That is unacceptable.

I am an avid user of the Access to Information Act. In the year and a half since I was elected, we have submitted over 60 ATIPs. I freely admit that we like to take advantage of the opportunity to get information from the government. Take my words seriously when I say that the Liberal government is unbearably slow in responding to ATIP requests.

As I mentioned, since we were elected we have filed over 60 requests, and only half of them have been completed. Some were filed in March of 2016 and remain outstanding over 18 months later. Here are some of the other outstanding requests: as mentioned, March 17, 2016, 18 months; August 19, 2016, 13 months; September 2, 2016, happy birthday to it, as it has been over a year now; two filed on January 31 , 2017, nine months; and April 6, 2017, five months. We have over a dozen ATIPs that we filed in the last four months that are still outstanding.

The government promised to be better, to set a gold standard and exceed it by a mile. Exceed it? It still has not left the starting blocks.

What has been the government's response to this? It wants to give heads of government institutions the ability to decline requests on the basis that they are vexatious or made in bad faith. Who is going to define vexatious? Who is going to ensure that the government heads are not declining requests that are vexatious to the government or departments because they would embarrass them and are in fact requests for information that the public needs to know, such as our ATIPs on the Phoenix issue that showed very clearly that the government was told two months before it pulled the trigger on Phoenix to clear the backlog, which it ignored? Under these rules about vexatious requests, the department would have been able to cover that off.

Another ATIP we had on Phoenix had the CFOs from literally every single government operation—Transport, Public Services, Agriculture, Finance, and Revenue—all stating very clearly not to go ahead with it, that the training and testing were not done. The government went ahead. Again, without ATIPs we would not have found this. Giving the department heads or the government the opportunity to block that would cover this all up.

At a legislative briefing back in June, my staff asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board if ministers would be able to decline requests using the same clause. The parliamentary secretary refused to confirm that ministers would not have that power. This is ridiculous. Theoretically, every request filed by someone not in the government is vexatious or made in bad faith in a way. The government has so far worked incredibly hard to hide anything it can, everything from errant ministerial limo expenses to deep-pocketed donors to the Prime Minister and the proper analysis completed by the department on which the policy was based, and the true cost of the Prime Minister's vacation to a billionaire's island.

I have no doubt that it will use these new, poorly defined and inadequately described powers to declare as much as it can to be in bad faith. Never fear, the Liberals say, if a person disagrees with the Liberal denial, he or she can appeal to the commissioner or go to the courts. The latter is truly laughable. As we have heard repeatedly, the court system is so bogged down with cases and understaffed by qualified judges, almost exclusively because the government is unable or unwilling to appoint judges for some reason, that accused murderers are being set free. I spoke to a lawyer the other day who was complaining that it was taking him four years to get a single court appearance for a civil case and that the government was saying that if he has an issue with that he can go to the courts to get timely access. I do not think so.

My point is that the system of denial, appeal, denial, appeal could take a process that already takes upward of 18 months or more and counting to two years, three years, or four years. The beauty of this legislation for the government is that there is no upper limit on timeliness. However, it is not the same for the public or the opposition. The government claims that it is ensuring it is open by default. That is patently false. Open by default would include setting an upper limit, after which the government releases the requested information. This legislation ensures that the Liberals can continue moving the upper limit as long as is politically convenient.

The next ridiculous provision is proactive disclosure. This one is great to discuss, as the minister touted proactive disclosure in his press conference introduction and was lambasted by the media for his excessive optimism. The legislation tends to create a new part providing for the proactive publication of information of materials related to the Senate, the House, parliamentary entities, ministers' offices, etc.

I will quote John Ivison for the National Post because he summarized these provisions better than I can. He stated:

The information that will emerge from briefing notes or Question Period binders is sure to be as sanitized, and therefore useless, as the average sterile government press release.

Having read numerous iterations of the question period binders for the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, I cannot imagine what an even more sanitized book would look like. I wish I shared the optimism of the President of the Treasury Board in his belief that the legislation will produce any outcome other than what was predicted by John Ivison. The Liberals believe that proactive disclosure will help ensure that governments remain more accountable, and the legislation includes publishing ministerial mandate letters to confirm the government's priorities. Theoretically, this will make it more difficult for the Liberals, or any government, to cavalierly disregard its promises.

How did that work out, practically speaking? Does publishing mandate letters force the government to keep its promises? Remember the debt and deficit promise? That was in the finance minister's mandate letter, which was blown off. The electoral reform promise was in the democratic institutions minister's mandate letter, which was blown off. What about the promise to fix Canada Post, which was in the public services and procurement minister's mandate letter, and to complete an open competition for the fighter jets within the mandate period before the mandate finished in 2019? Maybe it should have said to commit to a sole source purchase of an almost out of production plane with absolutely no parts made in Canada, and at the same time start a trade spat with Boeing, and to make sure to use taxpayer money for bonuses for the billionaire owners of Bombardier. I think that is a promise the minister can keep from the mandate letter. What about the promise to modify the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act? That was in the Treasury Board Minister's mandate letter and is also a failure.

The Liberals have clearly demonstrated that they do not care about mandate letters. They will disregard whatever promises happen to be inconvenient at the time. So much for proactive disclosure.

John lvison summed up his thoughts decisively when he stated:

It’s a farce, and...[the minister] has been around long enough to know the changes he’s just unveiled will not make the slightest difference to helping citizens understand the government for which they pay so richly.

That is it. Apart from a few other minor amendments, that is all the legislation intends to do. Have the Liberals lived up to their promise to bring the legislation into the 21st century? I will let the House know when I get my ATIPs back, perhaps sometime in the 22nd century.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 4:30 p.m.
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NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to know if my colleague who just spoke to Bill C-58 thinks that this Liberal bill lacks substance, much like the image the government has been promoting for the past two years.

It feels like the next Liberal speaker will use the phrase “a step in the right direction”. The thing is, a step does not get us very far. At best it transfers our weight from one leg to the other, but it does not move us forward.

Does my colleague truly believe that in committee the Liberal government will be open enough to accept the substantive amendments that will allow us to take several steps forward, considering that we are 35 years behind?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 4:30 p.m.
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Conservative

Bob Benzen Conservative Calgary Heritage, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-58, which seeks to address the important issue of transparency in government and Canadians' access to information.

Improving transparency for Canadians in their dealings with their government in and of itself seems a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, making government more accountable to the people it serves is a foundational pillar of our Conservative Party. In addition, it is something in which I personally and strongly believe.

It is important to all Canadians that there be better sharing of and access to information that makes the basis for the policies that impact them. It allows citizens to knowledgeably engage their government either in support of or opposition to a particular issue in question. Government and its bureaucracies have an unfortunate tendency toward secrecy and concealment. This institutional instinct toward a jealous defence of what they wrongly perceive as their turf rather than information that is for the good governance of Canadians is contrary to the spirit of the modern era.

The spirit of this age is one that values improved openness and access to information. That trend toward transparency is the natural reflection of what rapid advances in technology have made our new reality. The reality and expectation of today is that communications and knowledge is available instantly and in real time. In light of this, we know government has not kept pace with the changing needs of the citizens it serves, especially in regard to access to information.

The Information Commission of Canada said as much when, in March 2015, she presented a special report to Parliament on the very subject. In that report, the commissioner indicated that:

Over the Act’s three decades of existence, technology, the administration of government and Canadian society have been transformed in many regards. And yet, despite these changes, the Act remains largely in its original form.

She followed with recommendations, 85 of them in fact, to modernize the Access to Information Act. Consultations were held afterwards in the summer of 2016 regarding reform of the access to information regime, and a report in June of the same year by the Standing Committee on Access to Information resulted in 32 recommendations.

Therefore, on the surface at least, we can see some requirement to amend the Access to Information Act, which Bill C-58 purports to do, as well as amending the Privacy Act. We see some interesting aspects in a bill for Canadians seeking to bring documents under the control of federal institutions out into the light.

Not to oversimplify the contents of the 100 pages of the bill, but among the more relevant observations to be made are: first, the information and privacy commissioners would have some of their powers clarified around the examination of documents containing information that is sensitive; second, a system of proactive publication of some information would be made; and third, the information commissioner would have the ability to make orders that would force the communications and documents of federal institutions into the open. All of this sounds at first listen like a step forward. Certainly, the government promotes the amendments in such a manner, given some of the wording. For example, the proposed section 2 amendment outlining the purpose of the Information Act reads:

to enhance the accountability and transparency of federal institutions in order to promote an open and democratic society and to enable public debate on the conduct of those institutions.

This is pretty forward language. It certainly sets a positive tone, and from the outset portrays the intent of the bill as very progressive. The word in play is “progressive”. Is it not the word the government likes to claim for all of its actions? Is it not the same word the Liberals employed in trying to justify upsetting our long-established tax code in order to make a harmful and costly intrusion into the wallets and affairs of small business owners and job creators in Canada? However, I digress.

Returning specifically to the content of Bill C-58, it is difficult to imagine how an advocate of institutional transparency would stumble over the objective presented here. There is the rub.

There is a problem with the Liberals' progressive street cred in relation to the bill, and it is a glaring problem.

The reform to the Access to Information Act does not include the Liberals' campaign promise to extend the act to ministers' offices and to the Prime Minister's Office. Even stakeholders who have welcomed some of the provisions of the act that mandate proactive publication of certain information and the power of the commissioner to order publication also seldom fail to note how the Liberals have sidestepped their election vow to make changes to the access to information of the ministers' offices and the PMO.

In addition, the proposed amendments in the bill permit the government to refuse access to information if the request is deemed a misuse of the right to request the information. That is a highly subjective standard. It allows government officials, who may have a vested interest in keeping certain information under wraps, to refuse access requests if they consider them vexatious or made in bad faith. What bureaucrat anywhere on Earth would not consider a request aimed at uncovering his or her mistakes or misdeeds as personally vexatious?

The executive director of the Evidence For Democracy group argued that the subjective power to reject requests on undefined basis “jeopardizes the transparency and openness of government”. I tend to agree with that. The loopholes in the bill quickly become evident.

The co-founder of the Democracy Watch group expressed it in this way: that public servants should not have this authority because they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public the information it is allowed to know.

The Democracy Watch group is also apparently well aware of the institutional secrecy of governments and bureaucracy I referred to earlier. Defenders of transparency seek a government that is open by default, not by special request and certainly not one with the ability to choose which request to honour based on biased criteria.

The Liberals' flaunted claims of being progressive in offering new openness and transparency through the provisions of the bill simply do not survive the light of day. In one fell swoop, in a document that purports to reform access to information, the Liberals have instead chosen not to honour another election promise, chosen to be unaccountable in selecting what information to publish, and are giving themselves power to refuse requests.

The Liberals' amendments to the Access to Information Act require some amending. The bill should reflect the spirit of the principle of the act, which is, as its name suggests but which the Liberals obviously fail to grasp, access to information, not restrictions to information. It seems a simple concept, and I am surprised the Liberals have failed to grasp it. Although, as I watch the debacle of the small business tax hikes unfold and observe what the Liberals consider to be the wealthiest Canadians, perhaps their lack of comprehension should not surprise me that much.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 4:50 p.m.
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Conservative

Alupa Clarke Conservative Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Mr. Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today, so that I may contribute to the debate on Bill C-58.

Throughout the day today, I have heard my colleagues say over and over again that this is just one more broken promise from this government. Well, unfortunately, I have to say that I agree with them, because this bill does indeed represent yet another broken Liberal promise.

One could also say that this bill reflects Canadians' interests in decisions made by their elected representatives and government decision-makers, and that is only natural. Access to information arrived quite late in Canada, in the 1980s. If my memory serves correctly, the first country that granted access to information was Norway, at the end of the 19th century. We did so nearly a century later.

Access to information is very important in terms of the obligation of a country's elected officials and decision-makers to be accountable. It allows Canadians to keep an eye on what is happening with respect to decision making between elections so they can gain a better understanding of what is going on in their country. Furthermore, as several people have suggested here today, this is a very sensitive issue, because we need to find the right balance in such a bill, which seeks to amend the Access to Information Act.

I was in the army for a few years, and so I know how crucial information is. Having the necessary information is essential to reaching military objectives. In every sector, information is one of the keys to success. For 35 years, the Access to Information Act has obviously been very important, as it has increased accountability and allowed Canadians to better understand what is happening in their country. They can also know what businesses, elected officials, public servants and employees of democratic institutions are doing, because political staffers are also subject to that act.

It is also important to the media, who have to scrutinize and analyze every political decision and news story. That political scrutiny by the media and journalists helps Canadians understand how, why and in what context decisions are made. Access to information is vital for the journalists who keep Canadians informed.

The Liberals are claiming that Bill C-58 seeks to better inform Canadians regarding the decision-making process in order to maintain their confidence in their policy-makers and democratic institutions. That is my understanding, at least.

I really liked what the member for Trois-Rivières said about this bill. It truly is yet another patent example showing how image is everything to this government. This is something that has been obvious to me for the past two years. It used to surprise me every time, but not anymore. I am very disappointed that this government's bills, actions, speeches, photos, in short, everything it does is always aimed at managing its image.

The Conservatives were often accused of having communication and image problems, but at least we were brave, we made decisions, we put everything on the table and explained ourselves. The Liberals are so obsessed with maintaining a positive image that to avoid admitting to Canadians that they are breaking one of their own promises, they would rather table a watered-down bill that is nothing more than window dressing. It is designed to make you think the Liberals are making good on their promises, but if you read between the lines, you will realize they are doing the exact opposite.

I mentioned the example of the Canada Elections Act. The Prime Minister's practice of “cash-for-access” fundraising was uncovered thanks to the work of our official opposition. A few months later, instead of doing the honourable thing and pledging to put an end this undemocratic practice, the Liberals legalized cash for access by introducing a bill that, again, is very watered down. It seems to increase accountability and transparency around fundraising, but what it actually does is legalize the cash-for-access scheme.

This bill was introduced in June, and it would amend access to information, which was first brought in back in 1983. Now, 35 years later, the Liberals want to improve and enhance it, and they want to make some changes related to new technology. These days, access to information depends heavily on the digital tools we use every day. Here on Parliament Hill, in MPs' offices, ministers' offices, and the PMO, all politicians and all of our staff have telephones that they use to exchange information on important issues and make decisions. We can see how those decisions evolve via text and email messages between the PMO and ministerial offices.

In 2015, the Liberals made some key promises, and one of those promises was to make the PMO and ministerial offices more open by default. As it turns out, those offices will be exempt from the proposed amendments in Bill C-58, which is unbelievable, because their promise is right there on page 24 of the Liberal platform. The Liberals said it was important to facilitate access to information, and that applied to the PMO and ministers' offices too.

That being said, it was important for the Liberals to put these ideas forward during the election campaign in order to please certain groups who believe that it is important to have access to all information.

The Conservatives formed a responsible government and today we remain a responsible political party. Today, we heard a number of official opposition members say that we need to be careful about who has access to information from the Prime Minister's Office and the ministers' offices simply because a delicate balance must be maintained when giving the public access to information about the executive branch's decision making.

In Canada, we want above all to maintain an environment and conditions that are conducive to productive, vigorous, and heated debate, after which a decision can ultimately be made.

Debates in the House of Commons are open, transparent, and fully accessible to the public, because we do not make the final decision here. What is more, we are opposing parties, so the public expects us to squabble and debate. However, within the ministers' offices, there is a solidarity between ministers, even if they have differing points of view because they come from different regions and represent citizens with diverse interests. There may be acrimony regarding very important debates. The ministers will have very spirited debates among themselves, but when they come out of that ministers' meeting, they must all be prepared to uphold the group decision. Such decisions may pertain to Canada's internal or external affairs, but regardless of the reason for or the type of decision taken on an issue, it may require confidentiality.

We believe that at that level it is important to maintain some confidentiality in order to conduct government business properly. That is probably exactly what Canadian officials shared with the Liberal government. That is likely why this government waited so long to introduce the bill. I imagine that after the election, they wanted to move forward with opening access to information by default, but they were advised to the contrary.

Again, I think it is regrettable that the Liberals would have us believe that that is the case, that access is open by default, and they would have us believe that they are making information more accessible to the public when that is not necessarily entirely accurate.

By acting this way, as they do on a number of files, and breaking promises, they only fuel public cynicism, unfortunately. That is something we should all want to avoid, especially when we form the government.

That is why I go door to door when I am in my riding. Throughout the last election campaign, when I would go to seniors' homes, people kept telling me, and I respect this point of view, that I was only there because of the election campaign.

I told them I was honoured to be there, to meet them, and to listen to them, and that I would keep doing that once elected to prove that I meant what I said.

There are some positive things in this bill. The government promised to do more. For example, we all received the mandate letters shortly after the ministers were appointed. I recently read the Minister of Heritage's mandate letter because of my new role as the official opposition heritage critic. I think we can all agree that these mandate letters are quite broad. In fact, the first two pages are the same for every minister.

We can have briefings with the ministers, where we get information that is accessible under access to information. That remains in place, which is good.

However, access to information on more sensitive files will always be granted at the pleasure of the Liberals. Anything that has to do with enhancing access to information is based on a single word: proactive. Ministers, senior government officials, and the Prime Minister's Office will have to decide whether they will respond to a given request for information as they come in.

A number of journalists and a group that works to enhance transparency in democracy have spoken out about the Liberals' broken promise to extend access to information to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices.

I would like to share some of their comments with the House, because it is interesting and very telling to hear what these journalists and stakeholders think.

Katie Gibbs from Evidence for Democracy has said that by ruling out the possibility to obtain information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government open by default. This is coming from an external source; these are not our words. She added that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.

I had the opportunity to meet Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, on many occasions during the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates' study on protecting whistleblowers in the public service. He is extremely knowledgeable on the subject.

Mr. Conacher said that this bill brings some positive changes to the act by making disclosure more proactive and by giving the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information. However, according to him, the bill does nothing to address the enormous gaps in the Access to Information Act, as the Liberals promised. He believes that more changes will be needed to have a government that is open and transparent by default. The bill even takes a step backwards by allowing government officials to deny access to information requests if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith; this leaves the government considerable discretion. He believes that public officials should not be given this power, and I agree with him, as they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know.

Mr. Conacher is very well known in Canada and around the world. He participated in numerous analyses and reviews of whistleblower protection acts around the world.

No whistleblower protection in the world can be properly enforced unless it is supported by a strong access to information act.

What he wants us to understand is that despite the argument they are putting forward, the members of this government have not improved this pillar of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act and the Access to Information Act.

Stéphane Giroux, president of the Quebec federation of professional journalists, said that journalists were most excited about the prospect of getting access to ministerial records, but it was a false alarm. It was just too good to be true.

The groups that want to change the voting system in Canada would say the same about electoral reform. Small and medium-sized businesses would say the same as well, since they believed this government when it said it would reduce their basic tax rate to 9%. That is another broken promise, because the government is actually raising the tax on passive investment income to 73% for SMEs.

I would also like to share a few comments made by journalists. Mr. Maher of iPolitics titled his article “Liberals shockingly timid on access-to-information reform”.

This journalist is quite specific. On the second page, one of the first paragraphs, he mentioned the election platform of the Liberal Party, in which it stated in black and white that it was intending to open by default, access to information to the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet ministers' offices. He stated, “if you look closely at the changes proposed to access legislation, you can’t conclude that it matches his rhetoric.” He is talking about the rhetoric from the Liberal benches.

The next paragraph states:

The proactive disclosure of some ministerial documents may be a step backward, because the decisions about what to release and what to redact will not be reviewable by the information commissioner.

“For the ministries, there’s no one to review what they choose not to disclose, and I think that goes against the principle of the statute,”...

He was quoting from Robert Marleau, who was information commissioner from 2007 to 2009. This is quite powerful. These are big people supporting the opinion of the official opposition.

Another journalist, Carl Meyer, wrote an article entitled “Trudeau Liberals place restrictions on plan to end government secrecy”.

I will end with this. It is quite obvious, from advocacy groups, journalists, and our own evaluation of the bill, that the government is again breaking its promise and not doing what it said it would do. This bill does not at all reflect advancing or increasing access to information in Canada.

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September 25th, 2017 / 5:05 p.m.
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Vancouver Quadra B.C.

Liberal

Joyce Murray LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Beauport—Limoilou for his speech. He went into a lot of detail about this complex measure and shared the viewpoints of several organizations and members of the public.

We Liberals have talked about how important it is to modernize the Access to Information Act, and that is exactly what we have done. The member complained about the fact that it took us longer, but I would like to remind him that, in 10 years, the Conservative Party made no changes to the act. We initiated a study in the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. We immediately implemented an interim directive that covered three key aspects of openness and transparency. We introduced Bill C-58 to amend the Access to Information Act, and that is what we are debating now. The standing committee will be voting on these changes to the act so it can come into force in a year.

I think we did a number of things in an effort to have a more effective and relevant system that is tailored to the needs of Canadians.

I would like the hon. member to explain why the Conservative Party did nothing to advance this reform. It even promised to do so in 2006, but did nothing about it. On what moral basis does that party think it can criticize us for adopting the measures we have taken less than two years after being elected as the Liberal government?

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September 25th, 2017 / 5:15 p.m.
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NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by saying that I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Edmonton Strathcona. Many of us want to talk about Bill C-58.

I must admit that I am happy to be back in the House because, now, there can be another side to what the government tells the public. Thanks to the magic of democracy, people always have the ability to help governments strike a balance and sometimes improve bills. However, in the case of the bill before us today, there is so much to do that I am not sure we will be able to do much at all.

I would like to begin with a quote. In 2015, the Prime Minister said, “transparent government is good government”.

It is a short sentence. The idea and the sentence are clear. A good government is a transparent government. However, after two years in office, it is obvious that the Liberal government is still struggling with the notion of transparency. Bill C-58, which we are opposing at second reading, does absolutely nothing to improve the situation, and there are many others like it.

For example, I could mention the whole process that led up to this monumental fiasco with electoral reform, which was nowhere near transparency. It would not take much to turn the Prime Minister's slogan around and say that a government that is not transparent is a bad government. We will see.

However, before I make that assertion, I will try to describe the major shortcomings of this bill and thus demonstrate how the Liberals' proposal mangles the principles of transparency and accountability.

Historically, we got off to a good start. Back in 1983, when Canada passed the Access to Information Act, we were a pioneer of transparency. Things have changed, however, and that is sadly no longer the case. According to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada is now 49th in the world on access to information. We went from leader of the pack to practically bringing up the rear.

Over the years, the Conservatives and Liberals have promised to be more transparent, but they have not kept that promise. Now we have before us Bill C-58 on transparency and access to information. At first, it is hard to see how such a bill could make things more confusing than they already are. Who is opposed to transparency? I know very few people who would oppose improved transparency in communication between the government and the public.

However, we once again underestimated the Liberals, who are all about appearances. I spoke about this several times both today and in the context of other bills. The Liberals are all about appearances; they are masters of empty rhetoric. If there are indeed some major changes to the Access to Information Act in the bill, most of them only make things worse.

Once again, the law does not apply equally to everyone. The Liberal government is developing quite a reputation for treating party cronies and rich folk one way and everyone else another. In 2015, the Liberals promised that access to information would apply to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices. That is pretty straightforward. I am pretty sure everyone got exactly the same message from what was said during the last campaign: the Access to Information Act was going to apply to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. That is clear.

No doubt the House can guess what comes next. Ministers and the Prime Minister make decisions about measures that directly affect our constituents. It is therefore our duty to make sure that these decision makers are accountable to all.

Here is an example. My office submitted an access to information request to the Department of Finance concerning the elimination of the public transit tax credit. Our goal was simple: we wanted to know how this measure would affect Canadian families. In the answer we got, much of the information that was crucial to understanding which groups would be hurt by the government's decision to eliminate the credit was redacted.

It was covered in thick black lines and could not even be read under the light. The answers to the question of whether eliminating the tax credit would create more barriers for certain segments of society were blacked out. The government refuses to even reveal what advice the Minister of Finance based that decision on.

I could also reference the time I used the Access to Information Act to obtain a copy of the Credit Suisse study on the privatization of airports. Once again, the government refuses to release a study that was paid for and commissioned by the Department of Finance. Privatizing Canada's airports could threaten jobs, create new user fees, and ultimately increase the price of airline tickets for passengers. Given the many potential repercussions for workers and passengers, I find it unacceptable that the government is hiding the findings of a study paid for by the taxpayers. The Liberals also refuse to disclose how much they paid Credit Suisse for its advice on the privatization of our airports.

All this happened under the current legislation, while Bill C-58 will allow the government to make the situation even worse, if that is possible. That is one of the reasons that the Information Commissioner recommended that documents from the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices be subject to disclosure.

Many other civil society stakeholders have been highly critical of the current legislation. Mr. Holman, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, told the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that Canada is known for coming in last place when it comes to access to information. Although we were considered forerunners 35 years ago, now we are trailing behind. Quite frankly, the current legislation reinforces a culture of secrecy. That is why the Canadian Association of Journalists recommends closing and eliminating 75 loopholes in the current legislation. What does Bill C-58 do to achieve that? It does precious little.

Federal institutions use these loopholes to redact documents before releasing them. Here is part of Mr. Holman's testimony:

Section 21 of the Access to Information Act permits the government to refuse access to any advice or recommendations developed for public officials, as well as accounts of their consultations or deliberations for a 20-year period. In addition, section 69 prohibits access to any records related to cabinet, government's principal decision-making body.

These two sections are bad for our democracy. With tongue in cheek, Democracy Watch coordinator Mr. Conacher called the existing act a “guide to keeping secrets”.

I was talking about the existing act, but I should make it clear that Bill C-58 will further complicate the access to information request process. No matter how well-intentioned the government, if access is not guaranteed, the act is pointless. Proposed section 6.1 reads as follows:

6.1 (1) The head of a government institution may, before giving a person access to a record or refusing to do so, decline to act on the person’s request if, in the opinion of the head of the institution,

(c) the request is for such a large number of records or necessitates a search through such a large number of records that acting on the request would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the government institution...

How is that for transparency?

The government sets out vague conditions and broad concepts by using a kind of language we see so often in its legislation, whether it is around the concept of decent jobs or unreasonable numbers of documents.

There are other examples, but I see that time is running out, melting away like snow in sunshine, though snow in sunshine is hard to come by these days.

In closing, I would remind the House that in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, the NDP introduced private members' bills specifically to improve the Access to Information Act, bills that took into account the various recommendations made over the years by the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

I hope that, if it ever gets to committee, we will have a bill one day that reflects those recommendations. Time is running out. I will take the time to answer questions instead of continuing this speech.

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September 25th, 2017 / 5:30 p.m.
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NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the parliamentary secretary for her question.

I want to clarify something. My colleague is accusing the NDP of talking a lot. We certainly take every opportunity afforded to us to talk, without exception, but that is not all we do. We take action. I was saying earlier that in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, we introduced meaningful bills to improve things. I admit that the two measures that she mentioned from the bill are worthwhile, but saying that, every five years, we will have an opportunity to review a bill that is not doing the job means that there is much left to be done, in my opinion. We are doing more than just talking.

I wish the Liberal government had drawn from the NDP bills that were introduced, and that it had introduced a Bill C-58 that went a lot further than the one we currently have before us. It is high time that the government did more, that it stopped focusing on its image and really put words into action.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 5:35 p.m.
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NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to this bill and share many of the concerns and disappointments that have been raised in the House today.

In my 40 years as an environmental lawyer working as a public advocate, working with governments, and advising other nations, I have been constant in pursuing citizens' rights to have a voice in decision-making and to ensure that those voices are informed and constructive through ready and timely access to information, and, as my colleague from Regina—Lewvan mentioned today, fighting for whistle-blower protection measures.

Time after time, when we were dealing with issues that might impact health or the environment, officials in the health department and environment department have given up their careers by stepping forward and revealing information that the government did not want to reveal.

It is disappointing that those measures have not yet come forward. I have, three times over, tabled in this place a Canadian environmental bill of rights that would have expressly guaranteed those rights, including access to environmental information. It is sad to share that the first time I tabled this bill and it actually went to committee, the majority on that committee—since only I was there, and the others were Liberals and Conservatives—struck down the simple provision in my bill calling for the government to provide access to environmental information.

Why are my bill and a strengthened Access to Information Act necessary? Among the greatest barriers Canadians face in seeking to provide a voice in decisions impacting their health and environment is a lack of access to information. They want information on the planned routes of pipelines and the locations of chemical plants before they are approved. They want information on potential or known impacts of toxins on their health and environment before they are approved for use, information on the safety of consumer products before they are made available for sale, and information on how the government intends to strengthen our environmental protections in a revised NAFTA.

Here I add that the government has circulated a call for public input on environmental impact, yet it has provided absolutely no information on what it is proposing to put in NAFTA. Talk about a vacuous call for consultation.

In successive reports by the parliamentary committee on environment and sustainable development, recommendations have been made to ensure greater public access to such information. We await actions on these recommendations by a government that claims priority for the environment and for these long-overdue reforms, and we wait for for the government to enact an environmental bill of rights.

As the Centre for Law and Democracy has stated in its comments on Bill C-58:

...the heart of a right to information system...is the right of individuals to request whatever information they want from government.

In other words, at the heart of the right of access of information is the right of Canadians to ask for the information they want, not to sit back and wait for the government to decide what information it might choose to disclose. Yes, we need both, but we need access to information and more willingness to disclose, and as my colleague has pointed out, the Liberal emphasis on proactive publication leaves government the discretion of what to disclose.

In reviewing Bill C-58, we need only consider this simple question: does it deliver on the Liberals' promise to improve access to information? Sadly, the clear answer is no, it does not.

Sadly, Bill C-58 represents yet another broken election promise, as has been said many times over in this place. The government, in presenting this bill, has blatantly disregarded the 85 recommendations for reform by the Information Commissioner and the recommendations by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. It has ignored the advice of legal experts and access to information experts.

The bill is completely at odds with the reforms proposed by the Prime Minister in the bill he himself tabled while in opposition. It fails to deliver reforms recommended in many bills tabled by the New Democratic Party. It contradicts the directives issued by the Prime Minister to all of his ministers in the mandate letters, and we have heard this mentioned many times in this place. As the Prime Minister said in every mandate letter:

We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government. It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves. Government and its information should be open by default.

Contrary to what the President of the Treasury Board has asserted, a statement in a mandate letter does not, in fact, extend a right to information. The government expects accolades for releasing these mandate letters, then abjectly fails to deliver on them.

The President of the Treasury Board gave accolades to the government because it was elected to this open government committee, yet one remains puzzled. An analysis by a recognized group, the Centre for Law and Democracy, pointed out that there are actually international criteria for assessing how well a government is delivering on access to information. There are seven criteria, and they have done an analysis. It is important to note that right now, Canada sits at a miserable 49th position globally. By implementing the measures in the bill, it is only going to rise to the 46th position. It shoots a cannon hole in the argument of the President of the Treasury Board that the bill deserves great accolades.

Canadians remember the broken election promise to end first past the post elections, which was an action mandated to the first minister of democratic reform and broken.

On balance, Bill C-58 is a very small step forward in improving public access to information, but it delivers us many steps backwards.

What are the key reforms the commissioner, the committee, members of Parliament, and access to information experts have long called for? First is expanding the scope of the act to require access to a broader array of information. Second is reducing the wait times and fees. The government is doing that. In fact, it has done it before. It would simply put it in law. Third is substantially narrowing the exceptions and exclusions, including access to prime ministerial and ministerial information, yet the bill would cut that back with the exceptions it includes. Fourth is empowering the Information Commissioner to issue binding orders. While that power would be extended, it would be cut back by additional powers that would be given to the government to short-circuit those powers. We would have hoped for protection for whistle-blowers.

What would the bill provide? Bill C-58 would provide a five-year review. We have waited three decades for a strengthened act, and now all we get is that in five years, we can review it again. It defies credibility. I find it astounding. Of course there should be a five-year review, but we should not wait for the amendments we have waited 30 years for.

The bill would formalize free waivers. It would grant powers to the Information Commissioner, which I mentioned, but they would be restricted.

Where have the Liberals failed? Well, there is no duty to document the decision-making processes. The bill would allow the labelling of information as cabinet briefings to deny access. It introduces yet more exceptions. It fails to require a harms test, which is a specific recommendation made by the parliamentary committee. It fails to prescribe in law an explicit public interest override, a recommendation of the parliamentary committee. Indeed, it empowers the commission to order information released but undermines it with other provisions it adds.

Absent government acceptance of significant amendments to the bill, and the record has been that the Liberals have not been open to amendments from this place, and given the abject failings of Bill C-58, perhaps the next measure we can anticipate by the government to cover off another broken election promise, and sad to say we will wait and see, is yet another amendment to the ministerial mandate letters to remove the commitment to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government.

The President of the Treasury Board has committed to be open to amendments. We are hopeful. We will have a good discourse in the committee. There have been a lot of concerns raised. We have had a lot of reviews—from the Information Commissioner, from previous reports by Parliament, and from experts. Let us hope that if the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee examines the bill in closer detail, it will speak to the Government of Canada and call for these kinds of changes to come forward to genuinely provide access to information to Canadians. If the Liberals will not listen us, perhaps they will listen to nations around the world.

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September 25th, 2017 / 5:45 p.m.
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Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise to speak to Bill C-58 in questions and comments to my hon. colleague from Edmonton Strathcona. I have been listening to the debate all day, but popping up has not yielded me the floor until this moment.

We used to say in this country that we did not exactly have freedom of information but rather freedom from information. I am afraid that Bill C-58 does let us down badly in a couple of key areas.

I wonder if my colleague has any comments on something I find particularly distressing, which is the expanding of the ability of the government institution that holds the information to make its own decision that a request is vexatious. From what I can see in the bill, it would not be subject to independent review. I wonder if she has any comments on that.

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September 25th, 2017 / 5:50 p.m.
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Conservative

Alain Rayes Conservative Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address you today to speak to Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts. It is sponsored by the hon. President of the Treasury Board, whom we all know and enjoy listening to. It is also a very special bill by the way in which it is introduced. It seeks to amend the Access to Information Act, 1983. It is a rather old piece of legislation that deserves to be cleaned up and made more current.

The amendments were meant to affect any organization that shares information with federal government institutions, and allow anyone seeking to obtain that information to access it, according to the Liberal government's election promise. The first important observation is that this change to the Access to Information Act does not include the Liberals' electoral promise to extend the application of the legislation to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. I think that is the most glaring omission in this bill.

Under the new provisions of the act, the government can decline any access to information request it feels is vexatious, made in bad faith, or is an abuse of the right to make a request for access to records. If these reasons could be properly assessed, we might find that provision acceptable. However, the problem is that these reasons are subjective. It is possible that the Liberal Party, particularly when we look at how it governs, would use these reasons to prevent Canadians, the opposition parties, and groups that monitor the government to ensure it is doing its work properly from having access to all of the information.

Since it was founded, our party has been relentless in its efforts to make the government more accountable to Canadians. When our party was in office, it was not a scandal-ridden government like the previous Liberal governments and particularly the government that has been in office for the past two years. The bill provides for an increase of $5.1 billion in the budget of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. Is that simply to determine whether requests are vexatious or illegitimate? We are wondering why the Liberal government cannot do that work itself with all of the staff it has at its disposal, particularly since it always seems to be able to find a way to dip into people's pockets.

I would like to quote a few stakeholders, since people might say we are bound to criticize everything the government does simply because we are the official opposition. I will quote some people who are neutral and need access to information, people who are guardians of our democracy.

The first is Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence For Democracy. She says that the Liberal government is not keeping its election promise. She believes that by ruling out the possibility of obtaining information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government open by default. She added that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.

In addition, Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, has said that the bill does nothing to address the enormous gaps in the legislation, as the Liberals promised. He believes that more changes are needed to have a government that is transparent and open by default. He said that the bill takes a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous, which is entirely subjective, or made in bad faith. He believes that public officials should not be given this power, as they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know. Yes, he called this a step backwards. This does not improve things. Theoretically, when a bill is introduced, it is usually meant to improve things and move society forward.

Stéphane Giroux, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, said, “What interested us most was having access to cabinet documents. It was a false alarm; too good to be true.”

The next quote is from Robert Marleau, Canada's Information Commissioner from 2007 to 2009. This is not just anyone. We are not quoting opposition members, but rather experts in the field. He said, and I quote:

For the ministries, there’s no one to review what they choose not to disclose, and I think that goes against the principle of the statute. They’ve taken the commissioner out of the loop. If you ask for these briefing notes, and you’ve got them and they were redacted, you had someone to appeal to. So there’s no appeal. You can’t even go to a court. It’s one step forward, two steps back.

The British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association said that the bill leaves black holes in the act that will prevent certain kinds of information from being released. That is why we must strongly condemn the fact that the Prime Minister is breaking yet another election promise.

Yes, another promise has been broken. Let me review some of the other broken election promises. For those who may not have been keeping up with the news, the government promised electoral reform, but did not deliver. They changed their minds on that one. They talked about a small deficit, just $10 billion per year. That was another broken promise. These past two years, the deficit has been in excess of $25 billion.

The Liberals promised to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. They failed to do so. They talked about re-evaluating the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project, but they did not do so. They promised to provide cost analyses for all bills, and they have not done it. They talked about lowering taxes for the middle class. We are examining the tax reform right now because the tax rate was supposed to drop from 11% to 9%. That was an election promise. Instead, the government wants to raise taxes for the middle class, businesses, and entrepreneurs across Canada. The Liberals were supposed to reduce the federal debt-to-GDP ratio by 31% in 2015-16, but they failed to do so. They wanted to immediately begin reinvesting $3 billion over the next four years to support home care, and that has not been done. That is eight broken promises, and I have not even come close to mentioning all of them. They also promised to set a cap on how much can be claimed through the stock option deduction, and they failed to do that too.

The Liberals promised not to buy F-35 fighter jets and to immediately launch an open and transparent bidding process. Once again we see the words “open” and “transparent“ getting bandied about a lot, but they do not really mean anything.

The Liberals promised veterans that they would cover the cost of four years of post-secondary education for every veteran who wanted to go back to school, but they did not do so. They talked about investing $100 million to give veterans' families better support, investing $80 million a year to create a new education benefit for veterans, and restoring lifelong pensions for soldiers wounded in action, but they did not do any of these things. I see that I am running out of time, but I still have many more examples. The Liberals have broken so many promises that I will not have time to mention them all.

The Liberals promised to invest $300 million more in the youth employment strategy in order to create 40,000 jobs, including 5,000 green jobs during each of the next three years. We know how much young people need work experience, but the Liberals did not follow through. They talked about investing $40 million annually to help employers create new internship opportunities, but that did not happen. They said they would change the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to put an end to the use of omnibus bills that prevent proper debate in the House, but that did not happen.

They promised to invest $50 million more a year in the post-secondary student support program, but that did not happen. They said they wanted to immediately eliminate the 2% funding cap for first nations programs, and Lord knows that they are constantly saying that they are working hard for first nations, but that did not happen. They promised to guarantee indigenous communities the right to veto the development of natural resources on their territory, but that did not happen. It goes on and on.

The government told us that it would introduce a bill to guarantee more transparency. We are currently seeing the opposite. It is nothing new. As the experts I cited said, we are taking one step forward and two steps back.

Despite their virtuous election promises, the Liberals have failed to make the government more open and transparent. A government that chooses what information to publish and when not to be accountable to Canadians is dishonest. In fact, the Liberals are giving themselves the power to refuse to respond to requests for access to information that they find embarrassing. As a result of the Liberals' proposed changes, Canadians will have access to less information. The Liberals are doing nothing to correct the delays that have become irresponsible.