Mr. Speaker, listening to the President of the Treasury Board speak, I think we should be breaking out the champagne for this once-in-a-lifetime change to the access to information law that will achieve everything. I heard him say that it is early in the day. I am sure he will make some time in the lobby behind us for other government members. However, I have bad news for them. The supposed openness and transparency law that the Liberals have introduced, where they faked themselves into thinking they have accomplished something, falls far short of what they promised during the election campaign. Also, according to the experts, it falls far short of what should have been achieved over this 30-year gap between when the ATIP law was introduced and the amendments they are proposing to make.
What is interesting is that we rise in the House in question period to ask questions that we never get answers to. The Liberals could have provided fulsome answers then. We have Order Paper questions asking for simple definitions that should be textbook, yet they fail to provide the answers for these Order Paper questions. These are privileges that each member of this House enjoys, and the government should be providing complete answers to those Order Paper questions. Therefore, it is no wonder that this access to information amendment it is proposing will fall far short of what should be achieved.
Many times I have heard the member for Carleton ask what the definition of “middle class” is and what the impact of the carbon tax would be. He has tried to get that information through the access to information laws. However, we never get that information from the government. What the Liberals are proposing today will never fix that. What is needed is a cultural change. I call this system that they are proposing the Potemkin ATIP system. It has all the window dressings, the image that is needed, but none of the changes they have promised to make will be in the guts of it.
I do have a Yiddish proverb, because I think it speaks volumes to what the government is proposing to do. It is, “The luck of an ignoramus is this: He doesn't know what he doesn't know.” I am not speaking with respect to the President of the Treasury Board, I am speaking of the government in general.
I will quote from the access to information law experts from the Centre for Law and Democracy, which noted a couple of disturbing elements in this bill.
It stated, “a large majority of the proactive publication obligations are already being implemented in practice by these bodies. While it is some progress to formalise these commitments, this is hardly groundbreaking”. I agree.
It goes on to state, and this is an important point, that the bill “fails to address the serious problem of delays in responding to requests. It does nothing to address the broad regime of exceptions....” That was my first question to the President of the Treasury Board.
It goes on to note that the bill “would also remove the obligation on public authorities to publish about the classes of records it holds, which is designed to facilitate the making of requests for access to information” in the first place. Therefore, that will be removed.
When I came here as a rookie member of this House, one of the very first things I did was to learn and understand how each department worked and the areas in which it specialized. I wanted to understand how to better keep the minister accountable. To do so, I looked for the type of information and the type of records the department was keeping. That was so I could better understand what types of records I could request through an access to information request if I did not get an answer to an Order Paper question or an answer in question period.
The Centre for Law and Democracy notes that section will be removed, which takes me back to my Yiddish proverb. If we do not know that a document exists, then how could we ever ask for it? It is interesting that the government is removing that one section. It is not just me saying that, but so is the Centre for Law and Democracy, which is the expert on this. It does analyses of all access to information laws in every jurisdiction in Canada, and it rates them. It is those experts who are saying that it falls short.
Who else is saying that it falls short? Robert Marleau, the former information commissioner from 2007 to 2008, stated, “there's no one [in government departments] to review what they choose not to [publish]”. This is contrary to the principles of the act. They put the commissioner out of the loop. If we requested briefing notes and parts of them had been blacked out, you had someone to appeal to. This is no longer the case. You cannot even ask the court. It is a step forward, two steps back.
Let us see what the Liberals say they have done. We have heard about mandate letters now being released to the public. It does not help if one does not follow the mandate letter and fulfill what is in it. It is just a letter, a piece of paper. It does not help us to understand anything. Also, I have news. The Alberta government has been releasing mandate letters for well over a decade. Therefore, it is not as if this is groundbreaking and setting some type of new frontier regarding access to information. Alberta has been doing it for years. I remember when the member for Calgary Confederation and the member for Calgary Signal Hill were in the provincial government, and they had mandate letters that were published. The difference is that they followed through with the contents of their mandate letters and were held accountable by the premier of Alberta for the contents. Here, they are not held accountable.
The other thing they say they will be doing is documentation on the training of new ministers, titles and reference numbers of briefing notes, development notes for question period, backgrounders for appearances before parliamentary committees, travel and hospitality expenditures, and contracts of more than $10,000. Other governments have been doing some of these things for a long time now, through freedom of information laws that are provincially based. These are not new frontiers. These are very basic documents.
Some of them are here. However, if they remove from the law the very basis of what type of records the department has to keep, how am I supposed to know that a record exists in the first place? It is like chasing a needle in a haystack a lot of times.
I have experienced this first-hand when doing access to information requests to the health department where I have been stalled out for lengthy periods of time. Sometimes I stumble upon new documents that I did not know even existed before. Then I do another access to information, and my staff and I continue in this manner. Many of the changes being proposed here will not end any of that.
It is hardly historic in terms of changes. There is an RTI rating, which is the methodology that assesses each access to information law to determine its score. The score is based on 150. On the RTI rating, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada will go from 90 to 92 points. That is a two-point increase. One would think after two years that the government could have cobbled together an amendment to the access to information law that would live up to the promises it made during the last election, because it has broken them here. It could do much better than a two-point increase in its score on access to information laws.
It is not as if Canada will be rising greatly. It is not as if the government did not know how to increase its score. It is not as if it did not have a comparator that it could look at, such as Serbia, which supposedly has a much better rate than we do.
Many experts in the field have said that there are issues, and I note in the law there are interesting oddities and amendments. One of them, and we have heard this before, is with regard to frivolous or vexatious claims for access to information requests. A department would be able to say that they cannot do that.
According to Policy Options, a well-respected think tank, the power to prevent such abuse is included in many ATI laws. However, that power should rest with the Information Commissioner, not the department that is subject to the request. If the department can determine what is frivolous and vexatious, then it can block any type of request it feels is frivolous and vexatious. It could up to the individual civil servant who receives the request.
Bill C-58 also includes a five-year review. The first five-year review would take place only a year after the legislation comes into force. Given the glacial pace of how legislation makes its way through the House and then to the Senate and then bounces back from the Senate, because the government does not really know what it is doing there, I do not think we would have a review of it before 2019, before the next election.
My other concern is that it does not have a sunset clause. Even the Bank Act has a sunset clause. It is set every five years. It forces the parliamentary committee to review the legislation through a mandatory review. It knows that it will sunset unless it provides feedback on its contents. I like the idea of mandatory reviews and sunset clauses in legislation, because it forces us, as parliamentarians, to review legislation on a consistent basis. When I worked as a staff member in the provincial legislature in Alberta, it was one of the things I kept pushing for in regulation and statutes with the minister I had the privilege of working for. I pushed that every single piece of legislation, regulation, should have that included, to mandatorily force members to review the legislation to make sure it still made sense, that the amendments that had been proposed in the last five years, and the improvements, were actually worth carrying on and being included in the final legislation.
I have a page from the Liberal policy platform from the last election. The Liberals promised many things on access to information, some of which they achieve here, and some which they absolutely do not. They said they would expand the powers and role of the Information Commissioner. They have done some of that. They also said that government data and information should be open by default, and that formats should be modern and easy to use. I have no problems with that. That is a great idea.
It is interesting to note that the previous President of the Treasury Board and the previous government started an open data, open government website, where people could download data on Excel spreadsheets. I know this, because we used them in the office that I worked in before. We downloaded bits of data, and used it to supplement Statistics Canada data that we were purchasing as well.
In this policy platform, the government talks about ensuring that the system continues to serve Canadians while it undertakes a full legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. I have been to many parliamentary committees where we get a cursory review.
In fact, on the small business tax change, the biggest tax change in a generation, the Liberals on the committee forced it through after we heard only six hours of testimony from witnesses. That was all the time allowed. The Carter commission took six years. If that is the standard the Liberals are going to go by, then I have worries about the mandatory five-year review. I have to wonder if in three or four years will we get six hours to review the legislation. Will the committee be stuffed with members from the Liberal side who will simply say that the committee will be given three hours every five years to figure it out and then they will be done with it? The Liberals have not lived up to the real change, the open and transparent government that they promised.
I will keep referring to the Centre for Law and Democracy, because it has produced a lot of information on the shortcomings and some of the improvements that it sees. There are a lot of shortcomings.
The centre also says that the bill fails to address the serious procedural problems, namely the highly discretionary power of public authorities to extend the initial 30-day limit for responses to requests. I have been the victim of this. I was told that I had asked for too many documents, or they were too difficult to get or too complicated. They tried to get me to pare down my request. That is when I knew I should keep pushing forward and get all of the documentation I was requesting.
With respect to the 30-day time limit for responding to requests, power has been applied with disturbing regularity they say, often to create very lengthy delays in responding to requests. On one access to information request, I was told it would take two years to respond. I reminded them that by then I may no longer be a member of the House and therefore the information they provide may be of limited use to me, which would be a shame.
There are a number of options for reducing official discretion in this area, for example, by requiring officials to obtain prior permission from the Information Commissioner for delays beyond the set period of 60 days. In fact, many access to information laws say that the government must respond within the 60-day time limit. That would be a vast improvement. No courts would be involved, and there would be no need to go to another body to get a document that has been lawfully requested. The documents would simply be released within 60 days.
There are hundreds of thousands of public servants who work for the federal government. Why can they not do a request within 60 days when a reasonable request for documents is made? Why should I, as a member of Parliament, need to go to a court to obtain them? I am not going to get questions answered in the House in question period or through an Order Paper question. My only recourse is to get documentation through access to information.
The commissioner would acquire new order-making powers, but they would be largely crippled and counter-productive. Ken Rubin, the CFE senior fellow who provided a critique on Ryerson University's website on Bill C-58, said it is counter-productive and largely crippled “because no amendments were put forward to change the numerous broad exemptions in the Access to Information Act that cut off access to [these] government records”.
If there are a bunch of exemptions and rules that can be used to not release documents for national security reasons, documents pertaining to cabinet confidences, which is perfectly legitimate, are things like third-party proprietary corporate information at all times really proprietary? It might be better to shed some light on the procurement process so that parliamentarians could better understand what is going on.
We have seen delay after delay, and huge costs associated with the government's failed procurement process. Maybe it is time to shine some light on the problem. The government did not do that in this legislation. It just did the trimmings on the edge, the Potemkin village that I talked about.
The exemptions still exist, and the exemptions are the core of the access to information law. The government has left them as they are so then it could always find an excuse not to release information, to black out information, and to not provide it under the exemptions.
I think the majority of Canadians interested in access to information were looking for the exemptions to be tweaked. The Liberals could have amended, diluted, or removed some of them to make it much easier to access this information.
Another point that Ken Rubin makes is that the Prime Minister has put forward other legislation that makes certain records off limits to the commissioner and the courts for review or their ability to order releases of information. One is the National Security and Intelligence Committee for Parliamentarians, again, on national security grounds. However, that can become overbroad and used as an excuse. We see this in some countries overseas, which use national security to limit access to all types of information, for all types of reasons. It is a blanket catch-all. I hope it does not become that way. However, for national security, I can see legitimate reasons for the government to deny access to information, such as because it would put Canadians at risk or it would put the national security of the country at risk.
The omnibus budget bill, Bill C-44, contains a section devoted to setting up the Canada infrastructure bank. This was a big point of contention in the last session. Section 28 gives the government the power to decide unilaterally what is privileged information, commercial, infrastructure, financial, and political transactions, with no independent review. It is an already controversial enough bill. With these provisions, we can see the government saying that this is a wonderful, new, once-in-a-generation, open and transparent access to information law. However, section 28 limits access to information on the Canada infrastructure bank.
The Liberals are putting exceptions in other bills, but not in the main bill, which should be of great concern to parliamentarians. If the exemptions are not put into the main ATI Act but are put into other legislation, then the government cannot claim to be open and transparent. I do not think anyone would claim that.
Another point Mr. Rubin makes is:
...one amendment in Bill C-58 also directly increases secrecy by expanding and broadening the legal definition of what is able to be exempt under solicitor-client relations.
The Liberals have put some wording around it so the Information Commissioner could have access to it, but they still broadened and expanded it, and Mr. Rubin details that.
Mr. Rubin also makes this point, overall, on Bill C-58, which supposedly would meet the government's promises made in the last election. He says:
It is a stopgap, government-controlled, limited administrative information system not subject to appeal to the information commissioner or the courts, containing a few sanitized offerings the government wants to provide.
I am a big believer in access to information laws. When I worked in the Alberta provincial government, the government there released information. Yes, it took a long time to meet every single requirement. Yes, there were administrative problems. Yes, not everybody was satisfied with the level of customer service they received from the FOIP office there. However, a lot of times it released information eventually and it embarrassed the government to no end. I was in a minister's office at the time, and sometimes it embarrassed our office. However, at least we knew people were getting the same information that we had. The briefing binders were perfectly available to people, and they could ask for the content of them. The only portions blacked out were portions that civil servants determined should not be released. We played absolutely no role in that.
I am sure members on the opposite side, and hopefully all members, will agree that access to information laws are part of our democratic process. People should have a right to get information. I totally agree with that. We cannot fight for the little guy, we cannot fight for the middle class, and then tell them they cannot know things that the government is doing or how it has came to a decision.
However, I will not be able to support the bill, because it does not meet with what the government said it would do during the last election. The Liberals fall far short of the majestic, historic promises they made. This is why I believe members on this side of the House should all oppose the bill. I look forward to continued debate on this.