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

Second reading (Senate), as of Dec. 7, 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, with the approval of the Information Commissioner, to decline to act on a request for access to a record for various reasons;

(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 to publish any reports that he or she makes, including those that contain any orders he or she makes, 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

Dec. 6, 2017 Passed 3rd reading and adoption 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
Dec. 5, 2017 Passed Time allocation for Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts
Nov. 27, 2017 Passed Concurrence at report stage 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
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 26th, 2017 / 1:45 p.m.
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NDP

François Choquette NDP Drummond, QC

Mr. Speaker, not only does Bill C-58 not extend the Access to Information Act, but it goes even further by giving departments loopholes so they can refuse to process access to information requests on the grounds that, for example, they were made in bad faith or would create too much work for public servants. The government cannot do things like that.

I have submitted plenty of access to information requests about fracking and shale gas. Of course the departments got annoyed at me for pestering them, but why did they not disclose that information themselves? Because they did not want to.

It could easily happen again. The government will disclose the information that makes it look good, and any information that could be harmful or embarrassing to it will be tucked away where no one can get at it. This is utterly unacceptable. These are not the actions of a transparent government that respects the people. It needs to change its attitude.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 12:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Gérard Deltell Conservative Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise in the House, and I am particularly pleased to be able to speak to this bill. This is not the first time that I have risen in the House, and I have had even more opportunities to do so since being appointed to the shadow cabinet as Treasury Board critic. However, this is the first time that I have had a chance to talk about a subject that comes straight from the Treasury Board. The hon. President of the Treasury Board introduced this bill just before the House rose for the summer in June, which means we had time to look it over and make observations about it. I am very honoured and proud to take on this essential role of providing positive, constructive, and, above all, vigilant opposition.

As such, I am very pleased to rise and speak to this extremely important bill that amends the Access to Information Act. That act was first introduced some time ago, so we have been living under its provisions since 1983. Fundamentally, our party is in no way opposed to carefully scrutinizing any act, statute, or procedure in order to enhance or improve it. A number of changes have been made over the past 35 years, since the bill was first debated and passed here in the House, particularly when it comes to information technology. Everyone agrees that access to information has changed over time. Simply put, we are not opposed to scrutinizing this act from 1983.

Still, we need to be logical and consistent, since this is about drawing a very fine line between access to information, which is necessary in a democracy, and for which I would be the first to fight as a former journalist, and the ability of the executive branch to do its job, for which it requires certain information. Some of the exchanges and debates that take place within cabinet are crucial and healthy for a democracy, but they need to remain behind the closed doors of cabinet. The same is true in parliamentary life, considering that every Wednesday morning, each parliamentary group has caucus meetings, where we can discuss the issues that matter in a positive, constructive way that lays a foundation for the future, while also sometimes having different points of view. That is democracy at work.

The government says that it tabled this bill to fulfill a political commitment. Really? Let us look back at the promise made by the Liberal Party two years ago during the campaign, which was, “Real Change. A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class.” That was the Liberal Party's program. On page 24, regarding access to information, it states, “We will make government information more accessible.” No one can disagree with that. It is like apple pie. No one is against better access to information.

The Liberals' specific objectives are, “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 is where the problem lies, because the first of these objectives has not been met and access to information still does not apply to the PMO. That is a broken promise by the Liberals.

I will come back to that a bit later on. We will show that the commitment made during the campaign, the very reason why Canadians elected this government, was once again, unfortunately, not upheld by the Liberals. We believe that it fuels public cynicism towards politicians. When a government does not keep its promises, which we strongly condemn, every single politician pays the price.

Let us take a closer look at what Bill C-58 entails exactly.

The real novelty of the bill is that the government is imposing a system of proactive publication, which is not so bad.

Let us look at what the government has tabled in the bill. Access to information lies in ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's office to properly publish the following information: mandate letters, and we have the mandate letters and everybody has seen them, so there is nothing new there; documentation on the training for new ministers; title and reference numbers of briefing notes; development notes for question period; backgrounders for occurrences before parliamentary committees; travel and hospitality expenditures; and contracts of more than $10,000.

This is the main problem. We are talking about proactive tabling of documents. That is great. Nobody can disagree with that, but on the other hand, and we will see it later, this is the end of the mandate for the Prime Minister and ministers.

Government organizations will also have to proactively publish the following information: travel expenses and shared travel expenses; reports tabled in Parliament; briefing packages for deputy heads; information about briefing notes; briefing materials for parliamentary committee appearances; contracts over $10,000; contributions over $25,000; and reclassification of positions.

The big change with this new bill is that the government is now deciding to publish this information proactively, which is not a bad thing, but the problem is that it ends there. That is why we have serious reservations about this bill, which does not really honour the Liberal Party's campaign promise. This bill is actually at odds with that promise.

Broken promises lead to disappointment. When people have expectations, they want those expectations met. People, especially those in the information sector, felt that this was one of the Liberal Party's key promises, so they expected the Liberal Party, once in government, to keep it. Unfortunately, people's faith was wasted on the Liberal Party because it did not keep that promise. That is from them, not me.

Let me read some quotes from important stakeholders about this important issue.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy group, says 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”. Moreover, she says, that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.

That is the problem. The Liberal Party promised to be more open, but proactively publishing information and then leaving it at that poses a problem.

I do not want to undermine this approach, but the reality is that the documents that are released and that will be proactively released, are general access documents, or documents that almost anyone can access, such as the ministers' mandate letters that were made public by the Prime Minister on the day the ministers were sworn in, which was a good thing. A minister's mandate letter is indeed published on the day he or she is sworn in, if memory serves me correctly. It was a good idea. That has been the practice for the past two years, and it is working out well enough. However, when it comes to preparing ministers for question period, we are talking about factual information, facts, figures, and basic information. When we ask for a technical briefing, or a refresher course on the ins and outs of a bill, then we are generally given more specific information. We have an excellent working relationship with the ministers' offices and departmental officials who are there to serve all Canadians.

Then, once we all have the same background information, we can prepare our arguments for or against the topic in question. This is what is great about democracy. There will always be people for something and people against it. It would be odd if everyone were in favour of the same thing.

As Katie Gibbs, the executive director of Evidence for Democracy, said, this bill falls short, and that is disappointing.

It is the same thing for another important stakeholder.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch group, says:

The bill take a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith. 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.

Mr. Conacher is on the same page. It is all well and good to be proactive, but there is no recourse if access to a document is denied because it is an executive-branch document and cannot be disclosed. That is the problem.

The government can go on and on about how open it is, but the government's actions and this bill do not reflect that reality.

Some people in Quebec have been very disappointed in the Liberal government. These people may have been seduced by the Liberal Party's big promises during the last election campaign, but now reality has caught up with them. Stéphane Giroux, the president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, said, “We were most interested in getting documents from ministers' offices. False alarm. It was too good to be true.” This is yet another disappointment.

This bill is a complete letdown. I have one more very interesting stakeholder to mention. He is so important that I saved him for last, because he is someone who really knows what he is talking about. His name is Robert Marleau, and he served as information commissioner from 2007 to 2009. He said, and I quote:

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

This was not some big bad Conservative or New Democrat speaking, or even anyone from the Green Party or the Bloc Québécois. This was Robert Marleau, a man who spent years enforcing the Access to Information Act as information commissioner from 2007 to 2009, pointing out very clearly the problems stemming from this act.

The government claims to want to be open and proactive, which in theory is not a bad thing. However, in reality, it is no longer possible for people to appeal if the information they requested is not provided. Robert Marleau pointed out that problem.

Other observers have been extremely critical. I am not talking about people with a direct interest in the issue, or about pressure groups, or anything like that. Rather, I am talking about observers like Shawn McCarthy of The Globe and Mail, who said the following in an article published on September 18:

The Liberals also vowed to amend the ATI law to make government “open by default.” But C-58 would give government departments the right to ignore information requests that they deem to be “frivolous or vexatious.” That exemption is being imposed without warning or justification, and is a power that should not be held by a government department that could benefit by wide interpretation in its own interest. It should be removed from the bill.

Once again, that was said by a well-intentioned individual who wants to see things change. He believes that things have to change. He thought that the Liberal government would be the one to bring about those changes, but that is just another disappointment for those who are unhappy to add to the list.

Another such person is Stephen Maher, who wrote the following in an article published in in iPolitics:

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.

That is similar to the point that was raised by the former commissioner, who said that, from now on, there would be no appeal process and that this was a step backward. I would like to once again quote Mr. Maher. He said:

This bill takes baby steps toward greater openness, but it does not offer what [the Prime Minister] promised—that government documents would be open by default.

In the business community, Fasken Martineau issued a notice, not to say a warning, to its clients concerning Bill C-58, which reads:

What if an application is made that raises grounds of contestation which do not respond to the third party's real concerns or interests? Despite this drafting, we expect that the Court will nonetheless allow the third party to file its own application to raise its concerns and interests—although it would be ideal if Parliament avoids useless battles in Court on the standing of third parties and clarified the provision immediately.

In other words, Fasken Martineau is saying that, as it stands, this bill will result in court challenges.

God knows, we certainly do not need yet another process clogging up our justice system, considering that this government is dragging its heels on appointing the judges that Canadians want and expect.

In Quebec, the justice minister has been waiting for months for this government to appoint 14 federal court judges. Of that number, barely half has been appointed so far. Until the appointment process is complete, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of Canadians awaiting a fair trial will not get one because the government is dragging its heels on this.

We certainly do not need to further clog up our courts by passing this bill. It may have been drafted with good intentions, and we are not against scrutinizing legislation that has been in effect since 1983, but we need to do things properly, which is not the case. Politically speaking, the Liberals should at least keep their election promise.

Is it any wonder that this bill only adds to the government's track record, which is a long list of broken promises? On top of that, just two years ago, this government said that it would not raise anyone's taxes, and yet what does it intend to do with its tax reform for small and medium-sized businesses? It intends to create even more obstacles and impose additional taxes on business, like the 73% tax, which is nearly 50% higher than the tax rate for large corporations.

Meanwhile, this government was elected barely two years ago on a promise that it would run small deficits of $10 billion. Where is the deficit now? It is about 80% higher than what the government promised. The Liberal Party also promised to return to a balanced budget by 2019, which happens to be the next election year. Now this government is abandoning its commitment, since it does not even know when Canada will return to a balanced budget. At no time in living memory has there ever been a government, a finance minister, and a prime minister who could not tell us when the budget would be balanced, except perhaps in times of crisis.

As many members will sadly recall, deficits became necessary in times of war, but it was the current Prime Minister's father who invented deficits in times of prosperity. That said, at least he had some idea as to when he would balance the budget. This government, however, has no idea when it will achieve that, which is a first in Canadian history. It has been one broken promise after another, and the same is true of Bill C-58.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 12:30 p.m.
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Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Speaker, I appreciated my colleague's comments on the tax changes coming forward. We know that this rushed, overreaching action on the part of the government is going to hurt our economy, hurt middle-class Canadians, farmers, small businessmen, and accountants. These are the people who have been communicating with the government and with us on this issue. The response from the government has been to try to say that we have been misinforming them and that we are causing this issue to be overblown.

In the same case, we know that Canadians are concerned. We have comments that you quoted from democracy groups, professional journalists, and even a previous information commissioner. Are these also people the government is going to dismiss as being somehow responsible to us in our arguments as to why Bill C-58 is not a good bill?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 12:35 p.m.
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Liberal

Anju Dhillon Liberal Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to offer a few words about Bill C-58 and its proposed amendments to Canada's Access to Information Act. In fact, I would like to begin with some specific comments about the Information Commissioner's expanded role under these legislative amendments.

Among the many changes we have made in our proposed reform of the Access to Information Act, one that we believe is important, and that the Information Commissioner has herself requested, is for strengthened oversight of the right of access.

Currently, the Information Commissioner has no power to order a government institution to release records that have been requested under the Access to Information Act.

For example, if a requester is dissatisfied with the reduction of records in response to a request, they have the option to send a complaint to the Information Commissioner. This complaint is then investigated, and the commissioner can make a recommendation to the government institution to release the records.

If the institution does not accept that recommendation, the commissioner currently has the option to challenge the decision in court, with the agreement of the requester.

Under Bill C-58, the person would continue to have the right to complain to the Information Commissioner if he or she does not agree with how the government institution responded to the request.

This right would be clearly communicated to the requester as required by the act, but when it comes to the conclusion of the commissioner’s investigation of such complaints, the commissioner would now have the power to issue an order to release the record if she deems it was improperly withheld.

The government institution would have to release the record in accordance with an order from the Information Commissioner or, if it disagreed with the commissioner's order, go to court and convince the court, based on evidence it provided, that it has applied the act correctly.

Mr. Speaker, this is a first at the federal level. Never before has the Information Commissioner had the ability to order the government to release records.

If the head of the institution disagrees with the order, believing, for example, that the record should be withheld for security reasons, Bill C-58 proposes to give the head of the institution 30 business days to ask the court to review the matter.

In short, the new reforms to the Access to Information Act would provide the Information Commissioner with order-making power. This would transform the commissioner's role from an ombudsperson to a powerful authority with legislative power to compel government to release records.

These new powers include the authority to make orders about such things as fees, access in the official language requested, format of release, and decisions by government institutions to decline to act on overbroad or bad faith requests.

To enable the Information Commissioner to carry out this new authority, we will also be providing the commissioner with additional resources.

The improvements we are proposing will reinforce the act's original purpose and respond to the recommendations of the Information Commissioner to strengthen her oversight of the right to access.

The changes to the commissioner's role from ombudsperson to an authority with legislated order-making power will increase the commissioner's effectiveness.

This is a sea change in the way access to information works at the federal level, and we are taking the important step to strengthen government transparency and accountability.

We are committed to modernizing the act and making continual progress towards a more open and transparent government.

To that end, the legislative package we have introduced proposes a new part of the act that sets out proactive publication requirements for all areas of government. This will entrench into law the obligation for the government to proactively publish a broad range of information to a predictable schedule. It will apply across departments and agencies, as well as new areas such as the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, and administrative institutions that support the superior courts and over 1,100 judges of the superior courts.

Making more government information publicly available and on a predictable schedule will promote accountability.

Like the Information Commissioner, we are aiming for increased openness and transparency across government.

At the same time, we recognize that proactive publication does not eliminate our responsibility to strengthen the request-based aspect of the system.

For that reason, we are also investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient. We will support training across government for consistent application of access to information rules and we will provide written explanations for exemptions and exclusions.

We have also heard the commissioner’s concerns regarding overbroad or bad faith requests, those where the intent is clearly to obstruct or bog down the system.

Under very specific circumstances and subject to oversight by the Information Commissioner, government institutions will be able to decline to act on bad faith requests. Doing so will help government better direct its resources to responding to requests that reflect the original intentions of the act, making government more transparent, responsive, and accountable to citizens.

We are making significant reforms to the access to information system, while continuing to establish a relationship of trust between those requesting information and the government that can provide that information. The amendments will also add a new requirement to review the act every five years to make sure it remains current.

The first review will begin no later than one year after the bill receives royal assent.

In addition, we will have a policy requiring departments to regularly review information requests and to use that analysis to make more types of information more easily accessible. This analysis would in turn guide the five-year reviews to ensure ongoing improvement.

After 34 years, the time has come for the ATI laws and program to be revitalized. The reforms we are proposing affect the whole of government, including areas never before touched by the legislation.

They also provide greater powers to the Information Commissioner to oversee the access to information regime and the ability to order the release of records.

I call upon all members to examine, debate, and support the goals of this legislation and to continue to work together to strengthen access to information and make government more open, transparent, and accountable.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 12:45 p.m.
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Liberal

Anju Dhillon Liberal Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle, QC

Mr. Speaker, with these proposed changes, we are stepping up on our commitment to make government more open and transparent. Bill C-58 is the first major overhaul of the Access to Information Act in 34 years. It proposes to enhance the accountability and transparency of federal institutions and promote an open and democratic society. We have already committed to the principle of openness by default, and the changes we are proposing to the Access to Information Act are another step on that bold path.

In brief, here is what we are proposing. We would amend the act to entrench in law the requirement that government organizations proactively publish a broad range of information in a timely manner and without having to receive an access to information request; we would give the Information Commissioner new powers to order the release of government records; we would put in place a range of measures to improve the administration of the request-based system, an outdated system that has not significantly changed since the act came into effect in 1983; and we would make mandatory a review of the act every five years so that it never again becomes outdated.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

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.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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?