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

Sponsor

Scott Brison  Liberal

Status

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

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Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It amends the Privacy Act to, among other things,

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Votes

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 10:10 a.m.
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Liberal

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on the amendments to the Access to Information Act and the significant reforms our government is proposing in Bill C-58.

Ours is the first government in 34 years to substantially revamp Canada's access to information system, and it is about time. Our existing access to information legislation came into force in 1983.

The word that some have used to describe this legislation is “antiquated”. It is hard to disagree with this view when we consider that in 1983 government information was mainly recorded on paper and stored in filing cabinets.

Moreover, the federal government has grown over the past 34 years, and the sheer volume of government-related information has grown right along with it. The number of requests to access that information has gone up too.

Since 1983, more than 750,000 access to information requests have been processed, and the number of requests the government receives has grown by an average of 13% annually.

The current access to information system is under considerable strain. The information age has resulted in higher expectations for access to government information. Digitization and the Internet have made information readily available and at our fingertips 24/7. Canadians now expect this level of accessibility from their government as well.

Canadians expect an open and transparent government. They expect access to government information so they can engage meaningfully in the demographic process and demand government accountability.

In the access to information, privacy and ethics committee, the one thing we heard over and over again was that the 1983 Access to Information Act regime was not built for our times and is insufficient to meet our needs. That is why we are committed to modernizing the act to make government more open and transparent. This is what we are proposing to do in Bill C-58.

First, the bill would amend the act to create a new part relating to proactive publication. This would entrench in law for this government and future governments the requirement that government organizations proactively publish a broad range of information in a timely manner and without anyone having to make an access to information request. This new part of the act would apply across more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations. For the first time, the act would also apply to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges in the superior courts. This would create an obligation to proactively publish information that is known to be of interest to Canadians. The system would be routinely reviewed so that the information that would be proactively disclosed would remain relevant and of interest to Canadians.

This information would be available to all Canadians on the government website, no ATIP request required. Our goal is to continue to expand the type of government information that can be disclosed proactively. This measure is consistent with our view that the government should be open by default.

It reflects the future of access to information in the digital age, and the future is now.

Bill C-58 would put in place a range of measures to ease the strain on the antiquated access to information regime. Specifically, we would invest in tools to make processing information requests more efficient; provide training across government to get a common and consistent interpretation and application of the new rules; allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share the request processing services, for greater efficiency; and develop a new plain-language guide that would provide requesters with clear explanations for exemptions and exclusions.

Government institutions would also have the authority to decline to act on requests that were vague or made in bad faith. We want to make sure that people are using our access to information system properly and that it is not being used to intentionally bog down the government. As an example of the type of requests we are talking about, there are some requesters who ask for millions of pages worth of documents without providing a clear reason for that request. Others submit hundreds or thousands of requests at a single time. Such requests are not in keeping with the purpose of the act, which is to give Canadians access to the information they need to participate in decisions about public policy. At the same time, Bill C-58 would amend the Access to Information Act to provide the Information Commissioner with the oversight of this new authority.

Requesters can file an appeal with the commissioner if an institution or organization refuses to process their requests. The Information Commissioner can then examine the complaint and, if it is justified, she can exercise this new power to order the release of information to resolve the matter.

At the same time, this legislation would affirm the right of Canadians to make broad and deep information requests that were consistent with the spirit of the act. The bill would also give the Information Commissioner's office more financial resources to do the job.

The Information Commissioner's power to order the release of information is an important step that will strengthen access to information in Canada. It is an innovative proposal that would change the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with the power to order the release of government records.

Bill C-58 proposes a mandatory review of the Access to Information Act every five years so that it never again becomes outdated. The first review would begin no later than one year after this bill received royal assent.

We can never become complacent when it comes to transparency. By revitalizing access to information, our government would raise the bar once more on openness in government.

With this bill, we will be modernizing our law and the access to information system, which is outdated.

With this bill, we would modernize our antiquated access to information law and system. We would strengthen the trust between Canadians and their government, and we would reaffirm the principle of openness and transparency as a hallmark of our democratic system. I am proud, as both a parliamentarian and a member of the ethics committee, to support this legislation.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 10:25 a.m.
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Conservative

Sylvie Boucher Conservative Beauport—Côte-de-Beaupré—Île d’Orléans—Charlevoix, QC

Madam Speaker, as members know, it is always a pleasure for me to take part in debate here in the House.

Considering that we have little, if any, time to debate certain things that are important in our society, I am always happy to talk about them. I think it is important that I have the opportunity to share my ideas as a member of the opposition. Consider for example everything that is going on with the new legislation on taxes, on which we were never consulted and were not able to participate in discussions. I am especially pleased to talk about Bill C-58 today. I would remind the party opposite that it is always useful to listen to the opposition parties and hear what Canadians have to say about things that matter to them.

That said, today we are talking about an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. The first thing I noticed when I read the bill is that the changes to the Access to Information Act do not make good, yet again, on the Liberals' election promise to extend the act to ministerial offices and the Prime Minister's Office. This is yet another broken election promise. We have lost count of all the Liberals' broken promises. Again, just for kicks, they introduce a bill that does not reflect their initial promise.

Under the new provision in the legislation, the government can refuse any access to information request if the government finds that the request is vexatious. The government is in the process of hand-picking what it wants to protect. The government is giving itself the right to choose what information to release and what not to release, making itself unaccountable to Canadians. Having already been in government, we know that there is a fine line. When a government wants to be ultra-transparent and says so loud and clear in front of the cameras and through selfies, but then introduces a bill enabling it to pick and choose what to talk about, then people become bitter. They are bitter that the Liberals are still trying to convince us that they are keeping their promise. Clearly they are not keeping their promises. They either backtrack or leave out key words from their election promises. People are not buying it.

When we look at the bill, we realize that the Liberals are giving themselves the power to refuse access to information requests if they are embarrassing to the government. When we talked about the Prime Minister's trip to visit the Aga Khan they may not have wanted us to do so, but that came out because someone somewhere talked. Perhaps the Liberal Party did not let it out by not releasing this information, but journalists dug it up.

However, for my part, I believe that it is a good thing that the mandate letters are made available. I admit that I like the idea. It shows people that we are able to say where we are headed and which minister does what. It makes it easier to understand the minister's or the department's role. What I personally find more problematic is when we ask for all the mandate letters, the briefing packages for new ministers, the titles and references, which is all good, the briefing notes and everything else. At some point we will no longer be able to ask for anything because the door will be shut.

We in the opposition keep asking questions in the House, but we are not getting any answers.

Imagine how far things will go if this bill is passed. We are in the House, we were democratically elected, and we ask relevant questions on behalf of our constituents. However, the members opposite are giving us only meaningless or hastily conceived answers.

When a government emphatically states that it wants to be transparent and introduces a bill like this, it needs to put words into action. Right now, we are hearing a lot of fine words, and the government has taken some action, but it goes against the Liberals' election promise. As I said a number of times, this is just another one of their broken promises.

We have been talking about Bill C-58 for several days now, and what saddens me is that it is always the same government members who rise to speak to bills. I am not the only one who is saying so. Quebeckers even have their own nickname for these members. When the government rises to defend its bills, it would be nice if more members participated in the debate, not just the same ones all the time.

On this side of the House, we have always been relentless in our efforts to make the government more accountable to Canadians. The key word here is “Canadians”. Many of the questions that our constituents are asking remain unanswered. Earlier, we requested a debate on the new tax system, but that request was refused. However, a discussion like that in the House would give us the opportunity to speak on behalf of our constituents.

I hope that the government will be a bit more transparent in that regard and that the Liberals will give us the chance to talk about the tax reform in the House. It is just as important as Bill C-58. People are writing to us about it every day, and I am sure it is the same for the Liberals. We are not the only ones getting those letters. That is impossible since they are addressed to everyone. We see all the names that are on them.

For all of these reasons, I oppose Bill C-58. It is one more broken promise in a string of Liberal promises, and it proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that despite what the Liberals say about wanting to be transparent, there will actually be less and less transparency, because the government gets to pick which subjects it wants to address and refuse those it finds embarrassing. This is an important point for me. Some information is not easy to disclose, particularly if it is security-related, but other information that is just as important deserves to be publicly released, even at the risk of embarrassing the government.

The government says it wants to be transparent, but it is arranging things so that it gets to make all the decisions, saying that it is the best, and just too bad for everyone else, because they will not get the answers they are looking for. That is a real shame.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 10:40 a.m.
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Liberal

Randy Boissonnault Liberal Edmonton Centre, AB

Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to Bill C-58 and the proposed amendments to Canada's Access to Information Act.

To begin, it is important to note that we have thoroughly consulted many individuals to get where we are today, including Canadians at large, parliamentarians, the Information Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner as well.

Our government is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people. The Access to Information Act, which received royal assent in 1983, enshrined in law the fact that citizens, both as individuals and as corporations in Canada, have the right to see government information.

This is especially important, as it enables Canadians to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

Providing access to government information makes the government more responsible, because it gives Canadians the information they need to ask informed questions. The legislative updates we are proposing reinforce this original objective and take into account Canadians' expectations with respect to technology, openness, and the availability of information in today's digital age.

The rise of the Internet since 1983 puts information at the fingertips of most Canadians. People who care about how our government provides services to Canadians are keenly seeking that information. Canadians' information expectations of their government have necessarily changed: faster, easier, better, and more open is what citizens are demanding of us.

Since the act came into effect in 1983, more than 750,000 access to information requests have been processed, and the number of requests received has grown by 13% annually. For instance, more than 65,000 requests were received in 2015-16.

Self-identification by requesters suggests that 41% of these requests came from business and 35% from the public. Members may be surprised to hear that only nine per cent of the self-identified requests for that year came from the media. Five per cent came from organizations and four per cent came from academia. The source of the remaining six per cent is unknown.

We recognize that although the access to information system is not perfect, overall, it has had a positive impact on government transparency and accountability. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to protect certain information.

This includes personal information, information about international affairs and defence, and cabinet confidences. Our democratic traditions provide for and protect a safe place for ministers to candidly debate and discuss policy choices, and will continue to do so. Unsurprisingly, the cost of administering the act has gone up, with federal institutions spending more than $64 million to cover direct costs in 2015-16 alone.

Those costs have gone up by an average of about 8% per year. Those figures do not include costs associated with the research and document review done by employees who handle the material in question. The process can take a long time. It all adds up, but living in an open and democratic society makes it worthwhile. In general, the system has served Canadians well.

However, we are committed to modernizing the act to make even more progress toward open and transparent government. In May 2016, we issued an interim directive that entrenched the principle of open by default.

That is our guiding principle for making government information available to Canadians because we want to make sure they can consult their government about policies, programs, and services.

The interim directive also eliminated all fees except the $5 filing fee and instructed officials to release information in more user-friendly formats whenever possible.

The Government of Canada would continue to collect only the small five-dollar filing fee for each access to information request and would not charge processing fees.

The amendments we are proposing in Bill C-58 will enhance Canadians' access to government information.

For example, this measure will legally require the government to proactively publish a broad range of information on a predictable schedule without the need for ATIP requests.

It would apply to more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations, departments and agencies that we all know well, as well as the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices; senators and members of Parliament; institutions that support Parliament; administrative institutions that support the courts, and over 1,100 judges of the Superior Courts. We would also be putting into law the proactive publication of travel and hospitality expenses of ministers and their staff, as well as of senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000 and all contracts for MPs and senators; grants and contributions over $25,000; mandate letters and revised mandate letters; briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers; lists of briefing notes for the minister or deputy minister, including the titles of these notes and their tracking numbers; and the briefing binders used for question period and parliamentary committee appearances.

Once more government information is available to the public on a predictable schedule, people will have a better understanding of how government works, they will feel prepared and empowered to participate more, and they will have greater confidence in the government.

That is why, as well as making great strides in proactive publication, we would also develop a new, plain-language guide that would provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions, invest in tools to make processing information requests more efficient, allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request-processing services for greater efficiency, and support new legislation with training across government to get common and consistent interpretation and application of the new rules. Government institutions would also be able to decline to act on overbroad, vexatious, or bad-faith requests whose intent is clearly to obstruct the system.

Along with these changes, we will continue to affirm Canadians' right to submit broad and comprehensive information requests that meet the important objective of the act, which is to increase the government's accountability in order to promote an open and democratic society and to allow public debate on the conduct of its institutions.

In addition, we are taking this a step further. The proposed amendments would change the Information Commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with the power to order the release of government records.

These are innovative improvements to our access to information regime that will build trust between citizens and their government.

The amendments also require a review of the act every five years to ensure that it never again becomes outdated.

The first review would begin no later than one year after the bill receives royal assent. In addition, government institutions would be required, through policy, to regularly review the information being requested under the act.

This measure will help expand the type of information that could become more easily available and will also inform the five-year reviews.

After 34 years, the Access to Information Act is undergoing significant revitalization. These reforms affect the whole of government, including areas never before touched by the legislation.

I am confident that by working together to strengthen access to information, we will make government more open, transparent, and accountable.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:05 a.m.
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Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Madam Speaker, is an honour to rise today to speak to Bill C-58, the long-awaited amendments to the Access to Information and the Privacy Act.

As we have heard from many Liberal members, this is the first time the act has been substantially amended since its initial debut. As has been said by many of us in the environmental law community, Canada does not so much have freedom of information legislation as it has freedom from information legislation.

We had hoped for far more openness, given the promise that was in the Liberal platform. I will just repeat it as a way of context-setting for my presentation:

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.

To give Liberals their due, let me cover some of the things that I think represent improvements in openness under the new government, and then focus more substantively on the failures and gaps in this legislation.

We do have, on the Treasury Board website, the heralding of access to information that is open by default. I think that is a stretch, but it certainly is a positive step. I want to emphasize that.

This Prime Minister is the first that I know of in our history to have made the mandate letters to ministers public letters. That has already had an impact on other governments. When Premier John Horgan became premier in my home province of British Columbia recently and formed his cabinet, the mandate letters became public. I think that is the first time that has happened at a provincial level, but once it happens federally and once the Prime Minister does it, it was “Where are the mandate letters?”

I am pleased to see in this legislation that mandate letters of a Prime Minister to members of his or her cabinet will, going forward, be legislated requirements for openness. That is a very good thing. It is a good thing to know that briefing packages of ministers will be proactively revealed, that question period binders will be made public, as well as hospitality expenses, contracts over $10,000, and so on. Those will be proactively disclosed, including expenses from ministers' offices and senators.

There will be a lot more transparency around things that I am going to describe as routine, expenses that are predictable, contracts that are large, and briefing documents that are predictable. It is also important to note that this will apply to other agencies and institutions within the Government of Canada.

Unfortunately, this is not what was promised. What was promised was that access to information legislation would apply to a Prime Minister's Office and to a ministerial office so that, for instance, when an issue arose, a member of the public or the media could ask how that happened and do an access request. That will not be permitted under this legislation. We will not see the opportunity that we thought was going to transpire in this legislation.

Certainly lots of knowledgeable members of what might be called the architecture of privacy and information in this country made recommendations. For instance, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault recommended that it be up to access to information officials and officers to determine whether emails and memos in and out of the PMO or a minister's office were political or parliamentary in nature, in which case it would be recommended they remain confidential, or would pertain to running a department, in which case they would be accessible through access to information. That recommendation has not made it into this legislation. Perhaps the Liberals are open to seeing amendments to Bill C-58 that would allow the legislation to meet the earlier promise.

I am going to quote from an article by Stephen Maher at iPolitics. He is certainly one of Canada's leading investigative journalists. He certainly has a lot of experience with access to information. He used it very effectively to investigate the robocall scandal, among other things. What he wrote was:

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.

In a sense, what looks like a step forward is actually a step backward. Was it an unintentional step backward? We will have to find out at committee how open the Liberals are to amendments on this bill.

One of the things I found very concerning is found at proposed section 6.1, which is that the head of a government institution can, on his or her own initiative, decide to ignore an access to information request for a number of reasons.

Many of those reasons are reasonable. If the request does not meet the requirements set out in the act, for instance, or if the person has already been given access to the record and may access the record by other means, or if the request is for a large number of records and necessitates such a large search that it would unreasonably interfere with the operations of government, it would be reasonable to refuse the request.

However, this one is outrageous: proposed subsection 6.1(1)(d) states that the head of a government institution may on his or her own initiative, and not reviewably, refuse to accept an access to information request if “the request is vexatious”. That is a subjective term. If an institution decides that someone's interest in, for instance, toxic chemicals in their watershed is something the department does not want to share with the public, the institution just has to say it is a vexatious request.

“Vexatious” is far too subjective and far too restrictive a term to be allowed in government legislation. It certainly is a shock to find it in legislation that is supposed to take us to the promise of open and accessible government.

In other areas, those who are knowledgeable are saying that this legislation is not as good as what other provincial governments have already accepted in terms of openness. The information commissioners in the Government of British Columbia and the Government of Alberta have more robust powers than the federal Information Commissioner will have even after this legislation is passed. That is a surprise, because from the Liberal promises during the election campaign, I would have thought that this new access to information legislation would set a new high-water mark to which other jurisdictions could aspire. Unfortunately, the government has fallen short of existing powers that provincial governments already have for their information commissioners.

I am again going to quote someone who is an expert in this area. Vincent Gogolek, who is the executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said, “That’s what we have here in British Columbia, and responsible government hasn’t collapsed here.” The Government of British Columbia has been living with a far more robust freedom of information regime, which has not been extended into our federal law with respect to the access to information that we certainly expected to come forward from the government.

How much of this is reviewable by information commissioners? That is an important point. There have been discussions, admittedly, in committee, and recommendations were made that there needs to be some screen to deal with requests that might be seen as vexatious. However, the screen was not supposed to be a subjective unilateral decision by the head of the agency in whose control the information resides. The decision as to whether the information is releasable or not needs to reside with the Information Commissioner or members of that agency. It is up to those officials to decide whether it is vexatious or not.

That failure in this legislation is substantial. I sincerely hope that when the bill gets to committee, the Liberals will be open to amendments. If this legislation stays as it is, there is no question that it will be considered a broken promise, because as much as there have been steps toward greater openness compared to the previous administration, this legislation falls far short of the Liberals' election promises and compares unfavourably to regimes already found in other provinces.

The model here is a weak model that can be found in other provinces. We find it in Newfoundland and Labrador. We do not find it in British Columbia and Alberta. Exemptions throughout the bill are far too broad. Access to cabinet documents is certainly not something we will see. There are questions as to who would redact information and whether the redactions are acceptable. These will also fall to the agency itself and not, as I understand it, be reviewable by the Information Commissioner.

There have been a lot of concerns on the opposition benches. I wanted to give balance in my presentation today because it occurred to me that in the debate on Bill C-58, the Canadian public watching this debate might be baffled by the assertions being made by Liberal members that this legislation does apply to ministers' offices and to the PMO, while those on the opposition benches think it would not.

Proactive disclosure of some things, like briefing documents, spending, contracts, and so on, is a good thing, but here is the rub: giving that control solely to the agency itself and not allowing it to be reviewable may actually be a step backward, in that it would increase the discretion of those who control information to deny information.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:15 a.m.
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Vancouver Quadra B.C.

Liberal

Joyce Murray LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands for taking the time to point out that there are a number of very important steps forward in terms of this legislation we are debating, Bill C-58. She is aware that this bill will go to a committee, where concerns she is expressing around powers of the Information Commissioner or issues around who defines vexatious applications will absolutely be discussed and ideas brought forward. Our government does have a record of entertaining and accepting amendments at committees.

I appreciate the balanced nature of her comments, but I take issue with her comments around proactive disclosure, for the reason that currently there is no requirement to proactively disclose briefing documents and the kinds of things we will be regulating here. As a result, if there was anything awkward, it could be pulled off the disclosure list. In fact, we know that the previous government exercised political interference, even with accepted applications that the department had fulfilled. It balked them.

To me, proactive disclosure means that people have to disclose those things. They can be counted on to do it, whether they are awkward or inconvenient or not. It is a big step forward.

Yes, things—

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:20 a.m.
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Liberal

Dan Vandal Liberal Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, MB

Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure to rise today to speak to this bill, a comprehensive set of amendments to the Access to Information Act.

It is always with great pleasure that I rise in the House on behalf of the constituents of Saint-Boniface—Saint-Vital to discuss important amendments to the Access to Information Act.

Bill C-58 would enact a number of the reforms called for on numerous occasions since the act first came into place some 34 years ago. I think we can all agree that the current act is out of touch with the expectations of our citizens in today's digital age. This is hardly surprising when we consider that the act has not been updated significantly since it received royal assent in 1983. That was a time when most government records were on paper. Today, the vast majority of government records are digital, and Canadians increasingly expect to be able to find information online instead of having to request it.

To appreciate the groundbreaking nature of Bill C-58's reforms, it is worth looking at recommendations that have been made over the years to improve the act. In 1987, 30 years ago, the first review of the act by a parliamentary committee identified inconsistencies in its administration across government and recommended clearer Treasury Board policy direction. The committee also made two noteworthy recommendations: first, that the act be extended to ministers' offices, administrative institutions supporting Parliament and the courts, and crown corporations; and second, that the Information Commissioner be granted order-making powers for the disclosure of records. In the end, the government adopted some administrative proposals, but neither of these two key recommendations. The bill before us today would finally put these two reforms into law, some three decades after they were first proposed.

In 1990, the Information Commissioner, academics, and parliamentarians requested additional improvements. Let me highlight two of interest. First, there was a recommendation to extend the act to all government bodies, and second was a recommendation to grant the Information Commissioner order-making powers for the disclosure of records. Neither of these recommendations was implemented. Instead, over the next decade the government made several targeted amendments to the act. For example, in 1992, it enabled requesters with sensory disabilities to obtain records in alternative formats. In 1999, the act was amended to make it a criminal offence to intentionally deny a right of access under the act by destroying, altering, hiding, or falsifying a record, or directing someone else to do so.

In 2001, it added more national security protections. Around that same time, the access to information review task force commissioned numerous research papers and consulted Canadians, civil society groups, and experts across Canada. The task force's 2002 report, “Access to information: making it work for Canadians”, made 140 recommendations for improving access to information at the federal level. These included extending the act to the House of Commons, Parliament, and the Senate; establishing broader access to government records, including those in ministers' offices and those produced for government by contractors; permitting institutions to not process frivolous and vexatious requests; granting the Information Commissioner order-making powers; providing more training and resources to federal institutions; and strengthening performance reporting. While these proposals were not acted upon at that time, I am pleased to report that the bill before us today addresses many of these important recommendations. I will highlight a few in just a moment.

Returning to the history of reform of the act, in 2006 the Federal Accountability Act expanded coverage of the Access to Information Act to officers of Parliament, crown corporations, and institutions created under federal statutes. This increased the number of institutions to which the act applied to about 240. The 2006 amendments also established a duty to assist, meaning an obligation on institutions to make every reasonable effort to assist requesters and to provide a timely and complete response to a request.

Finally, in 2009, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics undertook a review of the act. The committee consulted with civil society, media, and legal organizations, as well as provincial information and privacy commissioners. Its report made a number of suggestions, including granting the Information Commissioner the power to order institutions to search, retrieve, and reproduce records; granting the Information Commissioner a public education mandate; requiring a review of the act every five years; and extending the act to cover the general administration of Parliament and the courts. Once again, regrettably, these recommendations were not implemented at that time.

The bill before us today takes on the challenge of addressing issues that governments have been avoiding for over 30 years, and while there is legitimate debate about ensuring that we get these changes right, our government has the conviction to welcome debate and to listen.

Our bill would break new ground by giving the Information Commissioner the power to order government information to be released. That is very significant. For the first, the act would also include ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's Office, officers of Parliament, and institutions that support the courts, all through a legislated system of proactive publication.

At the same time as we are breaking new ground by providing the Information Commissioner the power to order that government information be released, and legislating a system of proactive publication across government, we are also developing a new plain-language guide that would provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions. We are investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient, allowing federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request processing services for greater efficiency, and supporting the new legislation with training across government to get common and consistent application of the changes we are introducing.

Another important change would give government institutions the ability to decline to act on overly broad or bad-faith requests that simply gum up the system. This would be subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner. If a department decides to decline to act on a request, the requester would have the right to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner, and the commissioner could use the new order-making power to resolve the issue. Finally, Bill C-58 would entrench a requirement that the Access to Information Act be reviewed every five years.

This is the first government to bring forward legislation to enact the important improvements that have been proposed at one time or another over the last 30 years. That is because we believe that access to information is an important pillar of a democratic system of government. It allows citizens to request records about the decisions, operations, administration, and performance of government, subject, of course, to legitimate and very rare exceptions. In short, it allows Canadians to know and understand what their government is doing, and when people have timely access to relevant information, they are better able to participate in the democratic process.

I am proud to be part of a government that has the courage to act on these principles, and I encourage my hon. colleagues to join me in supporting this bill, a bill that would dramatically improve the Access to Information Act and thus strengthen our democracy.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:35 a.m.
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Conservative

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in turn to talk about this important bill that was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Liberals' election platform in 2015. Since the start of the debate, all kinds of things have been said about Bill C-58 that do not necessarily reflect reality. I feel that it would be in the interests of my Liberal colleagues to properly inform themselves about the content of the bill before them.

For example, we have just heard about the appeal process for requests for access to documents from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office. Unfortunately, with regards to certain kinds of information, people will no longer be able to appeal to the Information Commissioner. There is a little problem there, I feel.

It has also been mentioned, on a number of occasions, that the bill would give Canadians better access to information from ministers' offices. However, the ministers retain an enormous amount of power in determining what can and cannot be disclosed. It is already a little vexatious to say that ministers' offices do not want to waste their time replying to all kinds of information requests from Canadians. It is absolutely unbelievable to hear such things in this place. We are being told that Canadians ask too many questions and so decisions have to be made as to which requests are going to be processed and which are not. That is more or less what I am hearing from my colleague, and I must say I am a little surprised.

We have to take the time to study Bill C-58 properly. At the outset, it was supposed to be key among the Liberal Party's election commitments. Let me remind them of that commitment; it appeared in the chapter entitled, “Open and Transparent Government”:

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.

It is the promise that got the Liberals elected. It is not the first time that the Liberals have done this. It is not the first time that we have been told that something is going to happen during this government's term and that promises have not been kept. This is one example.

We all remember the promise to run small $10-billion deficits, supposedly in order to invest in Canadian infrastructure and stimulate the economy. We were told that we had to take advantage of low interest rates in order to invest. Two years later, the result is that $25 billion, not $10 billion, has been invested in infrastructure. Moreover, we are still waiting for a number of infrastructure announcements because it would seem that the money ended up having gone to various government programs, instead. In other words, they have been feeding the beast rather than investing in regional infrastructure, which would have stimulated the economy.

The Liberals are just riding this wave of economic recovery that has been sweeping over North America and that started under the previous government. That government knew how to manage the public purse in a reasonable manner, and the Liberals look good today as a result. However, it will not be the case in two years, ten years, or any number of years, when our children and grandchildren will have to pay off this huge deficit that the Liberals are going to leave us with. That is another unkept promise.

In addition, the promise to cut corporate taxes had been clearly set out in the Liberal platform, but we no longer hear about it. Then, there is the promise of electoral reform, one that the Prime Minister personally committed to fulfilling. I remember attending the throne speech for the first time as an MP, over in the Senate, and hearing words written by the Prime Minister's Office saying that the election that had just taken place would be the last to use the voting system that we have always known.

When the Liberals realized that fulfilling that promise would mean shooting themselves in the foot, and that it would hurt them more than the opposition parties, they backed off. This means that the Liberals were elected under false pretences. Promises made to Canadians must be kept. That is what Canadians voted for.

Unfortunately, we have yet another example today with Bill C-58. The Liberals were elected on false promises of transparency and openness. We actually see that Bill C-58 will instead better protect information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office.

Let us look at a concrete example of the type of information that the government may want to protect. We now have before us, in the House, a tax reform proposal that will affect each and every Canadian, small and medium-sized business, and farmer in Canada. They will all face tax increases, because the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister, who chose to protect themselves from those changes, have not, or may not have, studied the effects of the changes on farmers and small businesses. Perhaps they did not want to.

I have no way of knowing if they considered the impact. My sense is that they did not because, logically, nobody would do things like that without taking a close look at the impact. My point is that we will never know because Bill C-58 will not make the briefing notes from ministers' offices and the PMO available to us. We will not have access to them, so we will never know what the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food said to the Minister of Finance when the latter made up his mind to propose a tax reform last June.

Was the Minister of Finance made aware of the impact of his tax reform on agriculture? Did the Minister of Finance ask his Agriculture and Agri-Food colleague how his proposed changes would affect farm families across Canada?

Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to that because I do not have access to the Minister of Finance's briefing book. If I wanted, I could try getting access to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food's briefing book. I could ask him if he was consulted and if he commented on capital gains taxation for farmers' family members or if he offered up any proposals about taxation of dividends paid to family members and passive income.

Did the Minister of Agriculture himself consult? Will his briefing book reflect that, following the process, he attempted to influence the Minister of Finance's decision by pointing out to him the repercussions that these changes would have? What did the Minister of Finance take away from the consultations that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food may have had?

We are speaking in “maybes” and “ifs”. We are living in anticipation. For the past two weeks, all of my colleagues and I have been getting letters every day from our constituents, farmers, agricultural associations, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec. They are calling on us to ask the government why it would target them in such a way, and that is what we are doing. We have been asking the question every day for a week. We asked the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food a question in writing so that he may provide us with more information. He could decide not to give us that information under Bill C-58. That is the problem with Bill C-58.

Do the Minister of Agriculture and the Prime Minister have any reason not to provide that information? The information belongs to them, but they got elected on a promise to provide information. That is the problem. The Liberals asked Canadians to trust them and promised to give Canadians information. At the first opportunity to show Canadians that the government is open and transparent, it is being closed and opaque.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:45 a.m.
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Conservative

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

Madam Speaker, I can tell the hon. member for Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot that I hear a lot of things about tax reform from constituents in her riding.

She is from an agricultural riding, and she knows very well all the impacts this reform will have on the farmers in her riding. Sadly, as it stands, Bill C-58 will not get us all the answers from the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food that would allow my colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot to respond to her constituents.

That is the problem right there. They make promises, they crow, they use big words like “proactive disclosure”. That may have a nice ring to it, but “proactive” means that they can decide what information to give. When we want information, it is called vexatious. It is true that it may be vexing for a government to have to respond to opposition requests for information, but these requests for information come to us from Canadians.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:50 a.m.
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Conservative

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

Madam Speaker, the hon. member for Provencher explained it so well in his comment.

Indeed, it is unbelievable to say one thing and to do the complete opposite, and yet, that is exactly what my colleagues on the other side of the House have been doing since the start of the debate. They probably did not have access to the right briefing book because I think even the backbenchers on the government side do not have access to the briefing book that gives real examples of the effects of the changes proposed in Bill C-58.

Perhaps it is vexatious for cabinet members not to give information to members of the Liberal caucus.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 11:50 a.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Madam Speaker, I will begin by reminding colleagues in the House and all of those watching at home that the hallmark of the Liberal government is broken promises.

To the litany of broken Liberal promises on tax cuts and government spending, electoral reform, revenue-neutral carbon pricing, indigenous matters, restoration of home mail delivery, United Nations peacekeeping, and on open and transparent government, to all of those broken promises we now add the broken Liberal promise on reform to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Bill C-58 is a hefty document. It is 53 pages of amendments to the existing act, definition sections and subsections, terminological changes, and designated duties and exceptions. The President of the Treasury Board tabled a truly weighty bundle of bureaucratese, but it is as light as a feather in terms of undelivered promised content.

To be fair—we in the official opposition do not abuse the meaning of this word, as the Liberals so blatantly do when they recite their speaking points about tax fairness—Bill C-58 does give the Information Commissioner the power to order government departments to release information, but it prevents the commissioner from looking at documents if the government claims they contain cabinet confidences. That represents, in the view of all the experts, the deepest black hole in the ATI system.

When the ethics committee completed its study of this issue last year, chaired by the Conservative member for Red Deer—Lacombe, it made a number of unanimous recommendations in line with recommendations suggested by the Information Commissioner. The ethics committee—Liberal, Conservative, and NDP members—unanimously recommended that legitimate cabinet confidence should be protected. However, at the same time the committee said that much content that is too often shielded on cabinet confidence justifications should be accessible.

Recommendation 23 says:

That the mandatory exemption for Cabinet confidences would not apply to: purely factual or background information; information in a record of decision made by Cabinet or any of its committees on an appeal under an act; where consent is obtained to disclose the information; and information in a record that has been in existence for an appropriate period of time as determined by the government and that this period of time be less than the current 20 years.

All of that advice is ignored in this Liberal bill.

Bill C-58 also falls short on another important recommendation made by the ethics committee, and that involves the matter of a general public interest override. The committee's recommendation stated:

That in the first phase of the reform of the Access to Information Act, the Act be amended to include a general public interest override, applicable to all non-mandatory exemptions, with a requirement to consider the following, non-exhaustive list of factors: Open Government objectives; environmental, health or public safety implications; whether the information reveals human rights abuses or would safeguard the right to life, liberty or security of the person.

That recommendation is also ignored by the Liberals and is not included in Bill C-58.

The Liberals are making much of proactive disclosure provisions in the Access to Information Act provisions. These provisions will require the Senate, the House of Commons, parliamentary entities, ministers' offices, including the PMO, government institutions, and institutions that support superior courts to proactively disclose specific categories of information, such as mandate letters, travel expenses, contracts, documentation on the training of new ministers—and there has perhaps been a deficit in that area with the government—development notes for question period, and boilerplate backgrounders for appearances before parliamentary committees.

That is actually misleading, the so-called opening of ministerial offices to the Access to Information Act.

We remember that the Liberal campaign promise was to ensure that access to information applies to the Prime Minister's Office and the ministers' offices as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and its courts. The proactive disclosure provisions in Bill C-58 do not come anywhere close to fulfilling that promise.

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has dismissed the so-called proactive provisions as a bizarre sleight of hand, which seems intended to give the false impression of an election promise kept. Compounding the broken promise are the conditions to refuse requests when it comes to requests for information that the Liberals themselves may rule are frivolous or vexatious. Many jurisdictions have provisions to prevent frivolous or vexatious abuses of access to information laws, but that power resides with the Information Commission, not with a minister or department that is the subject of that request.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch offered a measured, if critical, assessment of Bill C-58 in saying that the bill proposes good amendments, by requiring a more proactive publication of some information, by giving the Information Commissioner the power to order the publication of some information, but it “does nothing” to fill the huge gaps in the act, as promised by the Liberals.

Stéphane Giroux, president of la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, offered the federation's assessment of Bill C-58 with droll irony. He said that the most interesting fact for them was to have access to ministers' office documents. However, he concludes it was a false alarm, too good to be true.

A former information commissioner, Robert Marleau, lamented the fact that under Bill C-58, there is no one in government departments to review what they choose not to publish. He said this is contrary to the principle of the act. It puts the commissioner completely out of the loop. If people requested briefing notes previously and parts had been blacked out, they had someone to appeal to. This would be no longer the case, and they cannot even ask in court. Monsieur Marleau concluded, “It is one step forward, two steps back”.

Members will be forgiven if they have lost track of the number of Liberal promises broken, not across the entire Liberal policy spectrum but here in Bill C-58 alone. They may have noticed recently that the Liberals are somewhat sensitive to discussion of the emptiness of their virtue signalling in policy pronouncements. I am sure that this is a phrase that was coined only in the past few years, but it could well have been custom designed for the current Liberal government. Virtue signalling has become a shorthand characterization for the spouting of superficial, platitudinous, supposedly high-minded, morally correct commitments with little intention of fulfilling or living up to these commitments. I am sure members will agree that characterization applies almost top to bottom with the Liberals' 2015 campaign promises. Much was promised, as I detailed in my opening remarks, with regard to tax cuts and government spending, electoral reform, revenue-neutral carbon pricing, indigenous matters, restoration of home mail delivery, United Nations peacekeeping, and open and transparent government; but precious little has been delivered. There have been so many promises blithely broken.

Bill C-58 is a perfect example of virtue signalling in the promises of great reform, transparency, and openness in Canadians' access to information. The reality is, as has been said so often in this debate on Bill C-58, one step forward and several steps back.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / noon
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, two years of Liberal government should put in the past the schoolyard practices of pointing elsewhere when criticism is presented to the litany of broken promises that it is accumulating.

With regard to frivolous and vexatious questions, I agree that there is often occasion for a good number of such frivolous and vexatious requests for information. I found that in my time in government as a minister. It does represent a continuing problem. The various information authorities across the country have pointed out that in fact Bill C-58 does not have that defined right of appeal to the Information Commissioner. The appeal is not formally implanted in this legislation, and it appears that the word of the minister or the individual department will be considered as final. I am sure this will be brought up in review at the one-year point, although I hope that in committee an amendment will be made to provide for a formalized authority for appeals directly.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, my hon. friend speaks to the matters of information in Bill C-58, the considerations included and not included, with the authority of his personal history. Yes, that is exactly the suggestion that has been made, not only by my hon. friend but by experts across the country that, in fact, the appeal process should be directly to the Information Commissioner who, with the authority of the position, would make a decision one way or the other.

It is true that the statistics do not show great continuing volume of frivolous and vexatious questions. However, I can say that there are times, as in our previous government, when certain interest groups will deluge certain ministries with what can only be considered frivolous and vexatious requests.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:05 p.m.
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Vaudreuil—Soulanges Québec

Liberal

Peter Schiefke LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Youth)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the government to speak to our efforts to strengthen our access to information regime.

Our government recognizes the importance of a solid framework for access to information. We promised to provide a modern access to information regime because we are determined to preserve and strengthen the democratic principles of openness and transparency. We recognize that Canadians cannot meaningfully participate in democracy without having the information they need. In fact, we believe that the information that Canadians have paid for belongs to them. They absolutely have the right to have access to it.

Bill C-58, a detailed set of amendments to the Access to Information Act, was designed to give Canadians the openness and accountability they expect. Furthermore, it will enhance transparency, foster greater public participation in governance, and support the Government of Canada's commitment to evidence-based decision-making.

Canada's access to information legislation has not changed a great deal since 1983, but our world has changed a great deal since then. The proliferation of personal technology like smart phones has transformed many aspects of our lives. We recognize that technology in all its forms is changing how citizens interact with their government in powerful ways. This change is happening around the world and and certainly here in Canada.

Technology is empowering citizens to act on their expectations that a government be honest, open, and sincere in its efforts to serve the public interest. Canadians are demanding greater openness from their government. They are calling for greater participation in the government's decision-making process. They are seeking to make their government more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to its citizens. That is why, in 2016, the President of the Treasury Board issued the interim directive on the administration of the Access to Information Act. Under this directive, federal employees are required to waive all access to information fees, apart from the $5 application fee.

Wherever possible, they are also required to provide the information to requesters in formats that are modern and easy to use. This directive enshrines the principle of openness by default. Make no mistake, this is a crucial measure. Being open by default means optimizing the release of government data and information. The interim directive sends a clear message to all federal institutions. Citizens should not have to explain why they need information in the government's possession. On the contrary, our government said that it intends to publish as much information as possible, subject to certain necessary restrictions that we can all understand, such as protection of personal information, confidentiality, and national security.

Here are some examples of information that will be proactively disclosed: travel and hospitality expenses for ministers and their staff, as well as senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000 and all contracts for MPs and senators; grants and contributions over $25,000; mandate letters and revised mandate letters; briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers; lists of briefing notes for the minister or deputy minister, including the titles of these notes and their tracking numbers; and, of course, the briefing binders used for question period.

This is fundamental not only to the ability to participate in the democratic process, but also to hold the government to account. Today, with Bill C-58, we are going further. The legislation proposes to entrench in law for current and future governments an obligation to proactively publish a broad range of information to a predictable schedule and without the need for an access to information request.

One way to ensure the continued strength of the access to information regime is to undertake a review of the Access to Information Act every five years, another important feature in Bill C-58. Legislative reviews provide an important opportunity for stakeholders to have their say on access rights, and help us ensure that the regime continues to meet their needs.

In conclusion, open and transparent government is the way forward. Canadians have waited a long time to have their access to information regime modernized to meet their needs in the digital age. I encourage my hon. colleagues to support Bill C-58, thereby giving Canadians the kind of access to information regime they expect.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:15 p.m.
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Liberal

Peter Schiefke Liberal Vaudreuil—Soulanges, QC

Mr. Speaker, that is a sincere question, and I very much appreciate all of the member's questions.

She is 100% right that the system is broken. The system is not working the way it should. I am confident in the steps we are taking right now to make the system work better, not only for members of the House but for all Canadians. Concrete measures are included in Bill C-58 that would ensure Canadians have greater access to their government and that future governments, not just the current government, are more transparent.

What is also great is that in five years, which is a component of the bill, we will see how things are going, if the changes we have put in place are having a positive impact, and if there are other ways we could perhaps make the system even better. It will be revised in five years. Hopefully we will all be here at that time to look at what has been done and see how we can make it even better. One of the positive aspects of Bill C-58 is that it would give us the capacity to do that in five years.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:15 p.m.
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Liberal

Peter Schiefke Liberal Vaudreuil—Soulanges, QC

Mr. Speaker, we have taken the appropriate steps. The methodology we have used to come to a conclusion on the proposal in Bill C-58 is the best way to move forward on this. We did it in a transparent way. We were able to talk to Canadians about this. I had discussions in my own riding about the best path forward.

This is something all Canadians can get behind. It is easy to understand. I think Canadians understand that this would allow them to have more efficient, transparent, and easily accessible contact with their government so they can better understand the actions we take as their government.

I look at this bill as one that will positively impact not just the current government but future generations of governments to come. As well, it will positively impact Canadians. They will now have a better, more transparent, and more accessible government.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in today's debate on Bill C-58.

The bill amends the 1983 Access to Information Act. Amendments to the act will affect organizations that share information with federal government institutions and people who want to access that information. It comes as no surprise that this Access to Information Act reform does not fulfill the Liberals' election promise to apply the act to ministers' offices and the PMO. That is the time-honoured Liberal way of doing things.

What is new here is that the government is implementing a proactive information disclosure regime. Under the new Access to Information Act, ministers' offices and the PMO will have to proactively publish several types of information.

Ethics and transparency matter to me, so I strongly condemn the fact that the Prime Minister is breaking yet another election promise. In fact, I find it offensive.

The Liberal government calls itself open and transparent, but it has once again missed an opportunity to prove it. It has failed to deliver the amendments it promised with respect to access to information from ministers' offices and the PMO.

Under our very eyes, the Liberals are being dishonest with Canadians and are once more seeking to make their decisions behind closed doors in order to make their friends rich and to hold on to power. This also reminds me of the marijuana legislation scandal last November when it was seriously suspected that the marijuana task force report was leaked before it was tabled. As if by chance, this benefited a company operated by the person responsible for the Liberal Party's finances. Oh, yes, that person is the co-founder of a company that produces marijuana and that saw its shares double in a week, even though the final report had not yet been released. We saw that the Minister of Justice was not too co-operative and did not want to face those facts.

Despite all their fine promises during the election campaign, the Liberals have failed to increase the government's openness and transparency. It is no exaggeration for me to add that, since the Liberals took office, even the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner has had a hard time overseeing and enforcing the guidelines in the document entitled ”Open and Accountable Government”, which, let us recall, comes from the Prime Minister himself.

This government is known for not walking the talk because it unscrupulously chooses what information to publish and when not to be accountable to Canadians. Once again, it is scandalous to see that only its cronies get preferential treatment.

How can the actions of such a government be described? It is easy, in fact. It is called the art of giving itself the power to refuse to respond to access to information requests when the government considers them embarrassing or shameful.

There is something to be ashamed of when one thinks of the scandal of the Prime Minister and his family vacationing down south at the Aga Khan's home at the expense of taxpayers. We received the information in dribs and drabs and waited more than eight months before finding out how much that luxury of the Prime Minister really cost us.

It is absolutely appalling that the changes proposed by the Liberals will ensure that even less information will be available to Canadians, and that they are obviously doing nothing to address the already unacceptable delays.

Monitoring this government is becoming virtually a full-time job because ethics is a value that it undeniably lacks.

I think the Liberals like to test limits. Not only did they give themselves the power to sidestep their duty to be transparent for Canadians, we know that they like to walk a fine line between conflict of interest and the appearance of conflict of interest, which is unacceptable for our Canadian democracy.

Last December, I had to raise this issue in an adjournment debate seeking to ensure that no preferential access or appearance of preferential access would be granted to individuals or organizations that have contributed to the Liberal Party at the many events where a parade of cabinet ministers have all the time in the world for their special friends who pay for preferential access.

I would like to remind members of the injustice, unethical behaviour, and lack of transparency.

It all began with the relocation costs of two employees and friends who work in the Prime Minister's Office. Their move cost Canadian taxpayers $200,000. Then we happened to get wind of a number of cocktail parties that cost $1,500 to get into, but guests could eat canapés, drink some good wine, and while they were at it, as I just mentioned, have privileged access to ministers and friends of the party in order to talk secretly about matters and issues that have to do with the portfolios of those ministers.

We also learned about the donation from a wealthy Chinese businessman, which made Canada a place where not only are ministers for sale or rent, but so is the Prime Minister. In exchange for a huge donation, he just might be able to get a foothold in our Canadian economy in any way he chooses.

Then there is the scandal involving the Minister of Justice, who turned blue in the face denying leaks from the task force on marijuana. Not only is the Liberal government and its Prime Minister irresponsible, but they are undermining our democracy in every sense of the word.

Once more, the Prime Minister thinks he is above the law and the obligation to be transparent. In our view, the Liberals are being dishonest with Canadians and are again trying to make decisions behind closed doors to make their friends rich and hold on to power.

We see that they have always favoured those who have the means to pay for the luxury of special treatment in true Liberal style.

Since the Liberals are unlikely to vote to put an end to this ethics and transparency scandal and to have the Prime Minister and the ministers take their duties seriously and with transparency, I would like to know what the government plans to do to put an end to this old Liberal practice.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:25 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 must say, that was a rather surprising speech. The Conservative MP started by criticizing Bill C-58 in its entirety. He then talked about a number of other things that have nothing to do with today's topic. For the first time, the Access to Information Act will be extended to include the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. This bill gives the Information Commissioner the power to order government information to be released for the first time. We are making substantive amendments that will have the combined effect of reducing delays. There are a number of initiatives in addition to the powers of the Information Commissioner.

Does the member not feel that granting powers to the Information Commissioner is an improvement to our current access to information regime?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 12:30 p.m.
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Northumberland—Peterborough South Ontario

Liberal

Kim Rudd LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the government about our efforts to strengthen our access to information system.

This government recognizes the importance of a robust access to information framework. We promised to deliver a modern and responsible access to information regime, because we are committed to upholding and strengthening the democratic principles of openness and transparency.

We recognize that Canadians cannot meaningfully participate in a democracy without having the information they need. Indeed, we believe that information Canadians paid for belongs to Canadians. They have every right to access it.

Bill C-58, a comprehensive set of amendments to the Access to Information Act, is designed to provide the openness and accountability Canadians expect. It would also bring greater transparency, open the doors for greater public participation in governance, and support the Government of Canada's commitment to evidence-based decision-making.

Canada's access to information legislation has not really changed much since 1983, but our world has changed very much since then. The proliferation of personal technology, such as smart phones, has transformed so many aspects of our lives. We recognize that technology in all forms is altering how citizens interact with their government in powerful ways. This change is happening around the world and right here at home. Technology is empowering citizens to act on their expectations that a government be honest, open, and sincere in its efforts to serve the public interest.

Canadians are demanding greater openness in government. They are calling for greater participation in government decision-making, and they are seeking to make their government more transparent, responsive, and accountable. That is why, in April 2016, the President of the Treasury Board issued an interim directive on the administration of the Access to Information Act. This directive requires federal officials to waive all access to information fees, apart from the $5 application fee. It also requires them to provide to requesters, wherever feasible, information in modern and easy-to-use formats, and it enshrines the principle of open by default. This is an important measure.

Being open by default means maximizing the release of government data and information. As such, the interim directive sends a strong message across federal institutions. It says that government information belongs to the people it serves and therefore should be open by default.

Citizens should not have to make the case for why they deserve information from the government. Instead, our government has said that it will make as much information as it can available, subject to necessary limitations, for reasons we all can understand, such as privacy, confidentiality, and national security. This is fundamental not only to the ability to participate in the democratic process but to hold the government to account.

Today, with Bill C-58, we are going further. The legislation proposes to entrench in law, for current and future governments, an obligation to proactively publish a broad range of information on a predictable schedule and without the need for an access to information request. The amendments would create a new part of the act on proactive publication, taking advantage of digital technologies and building on current best practices. This new part of the act would establish consistent requirements for the proactive release of key information across government.

Let me list a few examples: travel and hospitality expenses for ministers and their staff as well as for senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000, and all contracts for MPs and senators; grants and contributions over $25,000; mandate letters and revised mandate letters; briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers; lists of briefing notes for ministers and deputy ministers, including the titles of these notes and their tracking numbers; and the briefing binders used for question period and parliamentary committee appearances. This would allow our citizens a greater understanding of government and demonstrate effective stewardship of public funds.

We are doing this because we know that Canadians want us to pull back the curtain on how government spends and the factors that influence the decisions that affect their lives. Canadians expect to know how and why decisions are made on their behalf.

That is not all the bill would do. No access to information regime is complete without powerful and meaningful oversight. We promised Canadians that we would empower the Information Commissioner to order government information to be released. Bill C-58 would do just that. This bill would change the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to an authority with the legislated ability to order government institutions to release records.

We also recognize that this reform cannot be a one-off initiative. We have been witness to many changes in society since the access to information program was established back in 1983. We need to find ways to ensure that the system continues to grow and change alongside us. We cannot allow our access to information practices to become stagnant. A vibrant and evolving access to information regime will support a strong, open, and transparent democracy.

One way to ensure the continued strength of the access to information regime would be to undertake a review of the Access to Information Act every five years, another important feature in Bill C-58. Legislative reviews would provide an important opportunity for stakeholders to have their say on access rights and would help us ensure that the regime continued to meet their needs.

Let there be no doubt. Open and transparent government is the way forward. If citizens understand why their government takes a particular course of action, if they have been engaged from the beginning, if they have access to the same information government has, they will have more confidence and trust in the outcomes.

Canadians have waited a long time to have their access to information regime modernized to meet their needs in the digital age. I encourage my hon. colleagues to support Bill C-58, thereby giving Canadians the kind of access to information regime they expect and deserve.

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September 26th, 2017 / 12:40 p.m.
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Liberal

Kim Rudd Liberal Northumberland—Peterborough South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member is absolutely right about subjectivity. The member's subjectivity is possibly clouding the overarching positive aspect of this bill, and that is the ability of Canadians to access information to which Canadians are entitled.

I will reiterate comments made earlier today about the fact that this is a big change for Canadians. Starting about 12 years ago, for a period of 10 years, Canadians waited six, seven, and eight years to actually get information from the previous government, and then, in fact, it was denied.

Bill C-58 takes a new approach. It is open by default, with the opportunity for all Canadians to access the information they are rightfully entitled to.

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September 26th, 2017 / 12:40 p.m.
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Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, my question is for the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources. The former information commissioner, Robert Marleau, had this to say about Bill C-58:

There are many, many countries that are much better, and some that are not quite as advanced technologically as we are. We are not the shining light, even after this legislation, and we were in 1983. In 1983 most countries looked to us for innovation and transparency, and we've lost that halo.

This is from a knowledgeable, non-partisan observer. Although Bill C-58 includes some welcome efforts at transparency, it falls far short of what provincial governments, such as B.C. and Alberta, are doing in this country. I would ask the parliamentary secretary if she does not agree that the government should do better.

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September 26th, 2017 / 12:45 p.m.
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Liberal

Kim Rudd Liberal Northumberland—Peterborough South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think that is exactly the point. The mandatory review every five years is about making it better. It is about looking at each piece of legislation as we change as a country and as a society, as technology changes, and as opportunities to make things better come about. The mandatory five-year review speaks exactly to that.

This bill has not been reviewed since it was created in 1983. In 2016, the President of the Treasury Board made a commitment and started along this process. I am very happy to stand here and talk about Bill C-58, because I think it is a step in the right direction. Five years from now, we may be back here having a conversation about how our digital world has changed and how Canadians want us to respond to them, and we will be reacting to that.

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September 26th, 2017 / 12:45 p.m.
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Conservative

Joël Godin Conservative Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today for the first time since we all returned home this summer at the conclusion of an intense session.

I appreciate this opportunity to speak to Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts.

This bill will amend the Access to Information Act of 1984—I mean 1983. I am smiling as I say this. You will understand why in a moment.

The amendments to this act will affect every organization that sends information to federal institutions and every person who tries to obtain information.

Think back to 1983. Does anyone here remember who was in power? Who was the Prime Minister of Canada? No, it was not Mr. Mulroney, it was Mr. Trudeau, Trudeau senior. Trudeau senior was in power, he tabled this act in 1983, and today, his son is going to fix a past mistake. The Liberals passed legislation only to realize that it fell short of Canadians' expectations. That historical tidbit is why I was smiling earlier.

Reforming the Access to Information Act is a good idea. As parliamentarians, it is a good idea for us to open our eyes, to want to improve our systems and our laws. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it seems that this bill is once again just smoke and mirrors. That is what we are used to from the Liberal government. The bill has no substance. On the surface it appears to be a wonderful thing, but in reality it is a hollow bill.

This reform does not even fulfill the promise that the Liberals made during the 2015 election campaign. They said that they were going to extend the act so that it applied to the Prime Minister's and minsters' offices.

Here is the proposed wording in Bill C-58:

An Act to extend the present laws of Canada that provide access to information under the control of the Government of Canada and to provide for the proactive publication of certain information.

As parliamentarians, we do a lot of research to be able to provide clear and transparent information. I took the liberty of looking up the meaning of the word “proactive”. According to the dictionary, to be proactive means, “to be enterprising, to take initiative or to act on one's own initiative without waiting to be asked or instructed to do something”. The government is proposing legislation absent any accompanying framework.

I also looked up the word “appearance”. Excuse me, I meant to say “transparency”, but it all relates because what the Liberals are interested in is the appearance of transparency. The dictionary defines “transparency” as, “complete accessibility to information regarding public opinion”. If I am smiling yet again, it is because I was pleasantly surprised to see the example that followed, which was, “demanding transparency regarding political party financing”.

As fate would have it, we are talking about a Liberal bill and the dictionary gives an example that talks about transparency around political financing. I mention this in the House because I hope that the people watching at home will question the transparency of the Liberals' fundraising activities.

Let us recall that the Liberals made a promise about this bill during the election campaign, but they also made a lot of other campaign promises that they have not kept. A lot of people probably do not remember a very popular promise in the Montreal region, that of bringing back Canada Post letter carriers and their routes. The promise was made in 2015 and there has been a technological evolution since. I do not know whether the Liberals have evolved, but we in the Conservative Party have evolved.

Mr. Harper, our prime minister at the time, decided to manage public resources very carefully and to provide the same service to all Canadians. To get themselves elected and to play to the crowds, the Liberals promised that they were going to put the letter carriers back on the job. They are still not there. The Liberals also promised to reduce the tax rate for our businesses. I will come back to that later because, in terms of tax rates for businesses and of respecting SMEs, we are now seeing how this government treats the businesses that create jobs in Canada.

The Liberals also said that they would run a slight deficit of $10 billion and that they would get back to balanced budgets before the next election. They went on to waste a bit of money. I have no problem with investments when there is a plan. The Liberals, however, have no plan and they are making huge expenditures with no control or proper management of the public purse. The parliamentary budget officer, an independent officer of Parliament, cannot see the day when Canada's budget will again be balanced. It is comforting to have the Liberals in power.

The Liberals also said that it would be the last election where the current system would be used to choose the 338 members of Parliament who represent Canadians. The Liberals derided the committee, thanked the minister, and then removed her from her portfolio.

We are now talking about tax reform. Small and medium-sized businesses are the key economic drivers in my riding. We do not have a lot of big public multinationals, and in fact they do not represent the majority of businesses in Canada. They are big businesses, but the lifeblood of our regions and the Canadian economy are our SMEs. The Liberals never mentioned this during their election campaign, and today, they are taking away their incentive to thrive. These businesses have the right to prosper. These business owners, men and women, get up early every day and have to deal with the stress of managing their businesses and ensure that they do thrive. When they are able to thrive, they can provide jobs to our middle class, which we Conservatives stand up for. It is important to support our SMEs instead of stifling them. I received a text message from a business in Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier; I actually talked about it last week.

I will be told that I am biased, so I will quote an article from the wise and respectable newspaper Le Devoir from September 15, 2017, written by Shawn McCarthy, president of the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom:

The Liberals promised that the ATI law would be amended to apply to the Prime Minister's Office and offices of ministers. [Bill] C-58 does nothing of the sort. It maintains the status quo.

When the [Liberal] government released its long-awaited bill to reform the 34-year-old Access to Information Act on a sunny Friday afternoon before Parliament's summer recess, it gave itself a check mark in the promise-kept column.

[Bill] C-58 represents an improvement over the current system. And the Liberals suggest it as a first step, with promises of more sweeping reforms some time later. But why wait?

Anyone taking the time to review C-58 before Parliament resumes September 18 will find the Liberals come up short on election promises made on Access to Information reform in 2015. As the Centre for Law and Democracy noted in a review of C-58, the proposed legislation “is far more conspicuous for what it fails to do.”

Let's look at those promises, starting with one the bill seems to have delivered—enhanced powers for the Information Commissioner. Bill C-58 gives the commissioner the overdue power to order government departments to disclose information.

The government promised to eliminate all ATI fees except the nominal $5 application fee. That promise was delivered before C-58 was tabled.

The Liberals did not need this bill. I will read another section from the article: “The Liberals promised that the Act would apply to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and offices of ministers. C-58 does nothing of the sort. It maintains the status quo.”

I could go on, but I will stop there by saying that, although it seems good on the surface, this bill has no substance.

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September 26th, 2017 / 1 p.m.
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Conservative

Todd Doherty Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand in the House to speak to Bill C-58 for the first time.

Let us look back at how we got to where we are today. When the Liberals were campaigning in 2015, I believe it was on the tenth day that the member for Papineau, now the Prime Minister, stood before Canadians and said that a government under him would be the most open and transparent in Canadian history. Man, how far we have fallen from those comments. Canadians probably had some hope at that point, but shortly thereafter it was a case of the government saying, “We were just joking, do not take us seriously on things such as the debt perhaps and other areas.”

Early on we heard things in the opposition and Canadians found out through mechanisms such as access to information and others about things such as pay to play. I will refresh the House's memory that early in the government's mandate, in every mandate letter the Prime Minister directed his ministers to conduct themselves to the full extent of the law and to be able to take the most fine-grained public scrutiny. What we have seen to this point is some ministers operating as if they are above the law, and that includes the Prime Minister as well.

Early last year, the Minister of Justice perhaps forgot whether she was representing her riding at a pay-to-play event where a fee was charged for dinner with a a full house of solicitors and lawyers at a Toronto law firm. The House reminded her of the distinction and asked very cautiously whether she was acting as a member of Parliament for her area or the Minister of Justice at the time. I think we saw a bit of retraction there.

We have a Prime Minister who himself is under multiple investigations by the Ethics Commissioner. One thing that keeps coming up—and I am not going to minimize this—is his vacation with the Aga Khan. I do not judge anybody. We work very hard as members of Parliament and people should be able to take their vacations when they can, but our Prime Minister has probably shown disregard for the rules. The rules do not apply to him in terms of public expenditures and he has refused to this point to answer any questions on the huge cost that has been passed on to Canadians as a result. He has deferred the questions and, some might say, blamed the very public servants whom we trust, the public servants who put on their uniforms every day knowing full well that they are going to encounter danger. When we pick up the phone and dial 911, they come running regardless of any illness or stress they are facing, without exception. Instead of answering the question, our Prime Minister has deferred every question on the cost of his trip to the RCMP, perhaps even blaming them for the exorbitant costs associated with it. That is shameful.

This speaks to where we are today with the Liberals who have continually blamed the government and Parliaments of previous years and have asserted that they are “modernizing” the government and this House. They use that term all the time.

Time and again, Liberal ministers and perhaps the Prime Minister himself have stood with their hands on their hearts and used the words “open and transparent” when talking about about consultations on things such as electoral reform and carbon pricing. They were going from coast to coast to coast to talk to Canadians about, let us get this right, a campaign promise of theirs. They were going to reduce the small business tax. Where did that go? I guess we are probably going to be talking about the liberals' unfair tax plan in a mere 45 minutes. That is another broken promise, and it is not open or transparent at all. It is disappointing.

The Liberals campaigned on real change. The second page of their campaign document read:

Together, we can restore a sense of trust in our democracy. Greater openness and transparency are fundamental to accomplishing this.

Those are great words, but we have not seen action by the Liberals. As a matter of fact, the next paragraph stated:

...our objective is nothing less than making transparency a fundamental principle across the Government of Canada.

Where has that gone? It is gone. Everything they are doing absolutely flies in the face of their campaign promises.

Again, they are talking about modernization of the House, doing things better here and better for Canadians. I am going to bring us back to just before we rose in June, the six or eight weeks when the House leader, a mere 18 months into her tenure as a member of Parliament, tabled a document, a discussion paper. She wanted to have a discussion in the House on how we could make the House better and do things better. I have been a member of Parliament for the same time she has, and while we all have ideas on how we can make things efficient and smooth, I would not be as arrogant to think I can put a paper together, put it out in the media, and suggest that we are going to do things better when this House belongs to Canadians. It does not belong to me or the members who are present. It belongs to those in the gallery and those who elect us to be here and represent Canadians.

What the Liberals have done with Bill C-58 under the guise of being open and transparent is to stop what has brought us here. We have a Prime Minister who is under multiple investigations. We have had patronage appointments, as access to information requests have found out. What they want to do is to stop that. They do not want Canadians to know. They want the power to say what is frivolous and without merit. That is unacceptable.

We are smack in the middle of international Right to Know Week, which runs from September 25 to October 1. There are 10 principles of right to know, which I found on the government website. Number one is that “Access to information is a right of everyone.” Number two is “Access is the rule—secrecy is the exception!” We agree. There are certain things that we do not put into the hands of others. As my hon. colleague mentioned earlier, defence issues are one of them, or things that could tip off those with nefarious ideas.

However, simple everyday common information that the public, and indeed the opposition and those who represent the public, require to do their everyday jobs is fundamental. The things they are talking about in Bill C-58 are inherent principles and rights that the public and opposition already have. This does not need to be done.

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September 26th, 2017 / 1:15 p.m.
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NDP

Brigitte Sansoucy NDP Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC

Mr. Speaker, during their respective campaigns, the Liberal government and the Conservative government before them promised to amend the Access to Information Act, specifically by expanding the act to apply to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices. After the Conservative government failed to take the necessary steps to modernize the act, the Liberal government is making an attempt with Bill C-58, which seeks to amend the Access to Information Act,1983.

This law is essential because it allows Canadians to apply to federal institutions to get access to information on the government and on government institutions. With Bill C-58, the government's goal is to amend access to information, the Privacy Act and other acts that deal with the same subject.

Canada was a pioneer in access to information. We were one of the first countries to pass legislation about information, in 1983. Today, with this bill, the government is seriously compromising access to information.

The bill has many problems. Many recommendations from the Information Commissioner and from the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics have not been considered.

We are asking that all these recommendations be incorporated into the bill, which currently contains so few as to prompt us to wonder whether the government even read their work. It feels like it was all for naught. What is the point in asking expert organizations to make recommendations if those are not taken into account in the government's bill?

Members of the NDP, including the former member for Winnipeg Centre, tried several times in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, to introduce proper legislation modernizing the Access to Information Act. All those initiatives were rejected even though the former government and the current government claimed to want to amend the act.

The NDP tried very hard to propose concrete amendments to modernize the act and allow people to have better access to information. However, the Conservative government and the current Liberal government both refused to listen.

Except for the fact that the Information Commissioner has the power to order the disclosure of information, which is one of the important points that we have long been calling for, and that the bill provides for a legislative review every five years, the NDP believes the bill is inadequate and does not go far enough. That is why the NDP is totally opposed to the bill at second reading.

Despite its election promises, the government does not really want to be transparent and that is unacceptable. I think it goes without saying that Canadians ought to have the right to review the information that the government does not want to publish. Since it governs at their pleasure, it is accountable to them.

The Liberals do not want to extend the act to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. Do they have something to hide? The government must set an example and obey the law. It cannot ask Canadians to obey the law if its own members do not. The government is not above the law, nor is it above Canadians.

Why is the government reneging on its promise? I know that this is not the first time that the government has broken one of its promises. The people have every right to wonder how many other election promises the Liberals will break, how much more backpedalling they will do, as they are doing now. The Liberals are hiding behind this bill and that is not right.

I will remind members what the Prime Minister kept saying during the campaign, which is, “A country's information system is at the very heart of the principle of open government.” “Transparent government is good government.”

The Prime Minister himself seems to be saying that the Liberal government is neither open nor good. He also claimed to want to extend the act to the Prime Minister's Office, to other ministers' offices, and to administrative institutions supporting Parliament and the courts. However, once in power, the government had no qualms about breaking this campaign promise, even though it was so important to Canadians, who have been calling for the modernization of the Access to Information Act for a few years now.

Perhaps the government should reacquaint itself with its election promises to realize that it did exactly the opposite in this bill. Canadians are increasingly interested in the government's actions.

In fact, they made 81% more access to information requests in 2015-16 as compared to five years ago, which is their right. Canadians want to know how their money is being spent and how the government acts by having access to some confidential documents. Canadians must be able to have access to information to avoid all sorts of scandals, such as the sponsorship scandal, in which the government lied to the public by refusing to release the invoices from its suppliers.

Canada currently ranks 49th in terms of right to information legislation. The bill would enable it to move up from 49th to 46th place, but this small gain shows full well that this bill does not go far enough. It is just window dressing.

With this bill, the government is making information less available to people. For example, the bill does away with the government's obligation to publish information about government organization mandates. It even gives officials the right to decline access to information requests that they feel, for whatever reason, are made in bad faith.

The NDP cannot support this bill at second reading for two main reasons. First, despite the election promise, it does not expand the act to cover the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. Second, it does not reflect crucial recommendations by the Information Commissioner and the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics produced a report with 32 recommendations, and the Information Commissioner's report contains 85. The government had plenty to draw on, but it included very few of those recommendations in its bill. The Liberals are so proud of their proactive disclosure idea, but it does not really give people better access to information. The government should also provide criteria for deciding whether a request is overly broad or cannot be processed. Departments will also not be required to publish their org charts, their powers, duties, and functions, or descriptions of all classes of documents they are responsible for.

The bill imposes no specific legal obligation to document cases of failure to comply or appropriate sanctions, which was a key issue for the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. This bill also fails to shorten deadlines for access to information, which are currently much too long at up to 200 days, and to reduce the number of extensions.

For example, in April 2016, The Globe and Mail reported that it took more than a year for the RCMP to provide them with statistics for its series of investigative reports titled Unfounded, which revealed that police dismiss one in five sexual assault claims as baseless. What makes the government think it can take so long to provide citizens with this information? This clearly shows that access to information is vital and that it can bring to light certain things that organizations and citizens need to know about.

Naturally, we want the government to extend the act to cover Prime Minister's Office and the offices of other ministers as well, which is a priority for citizens and one of the main changes they have been calling for. We support the recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics and the Information Commissioner. We need to modernize the Access to Information Act, but we cannot allow the government to take an authoritarian approach and do away with some of the rights currently provided under the act in its present form.

Canadians do not want their rights taken away. They are simply asking for the act to be modernized, because it is now out of date. Canada was seen as a pioneer in the area of access to information. With this bill, the government is trying to take rights away from people rather than to give them more, as it promised during the election campaign. Canadians deserve answers from the government. It must explain to us all why it has decided to limit access to information from the Prime Minister's Office and the offices of the other ministers and, in its bill, to remove some rights that were, in fact, in the act.

The government must explain to us all why it is not keeping one of its main campaign promises. It is the government's duty to provide explanations to the Canadians who are demanding answers.

In conclusion, access to information is the basis of democracy. Sadly, the government is trying to obstruct democracy with this bill, even though it promised to expand the legislation for Canadians. There was never any question of a bill of this kind during their campaign.

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September 26th, 2017 / 1:30 p.m.
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NDP

François Choquette NDP Drummond, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, because in my work as an MP I often have to obtain information beyond that provided by the government.

It is very important to me to speak to this bill. I have come to realize that Canadians across the country, including the constituents of Drummond, often seek information to which they do not necessarily have access. It should be known that the government decides to voluntarily disclose some information, but not all. I discovered this when I was elected in 2011. I was looking for a lot of information about shale gas and fracking, because that was a hot topic in the riding of Drummond and across Quebec at the time. I realized that the federal government at the time had conducted research and several studies and put together several review committees, but that not all these reports had been made public.

I ended up having to submit some access to information requests, which is when I realized the limitations of the Access to Information Act. Many passages in the documents I received had been blacked out and made unreadable. Other documents took months and months to reach me. Furthermore, I recently asked a series of questions about the appointment of Ms. Meilleur as official languages commissioner. She eventually took herself out of the running, which I thought was a wise decision. At the time, I asked the government some questions about contact between Ms. Meilleur and officials in the Prime Minister's office and contact between her and officials at Canadian Heritage. Since the answers I received were totally unsatisfactory, I submitted some access to information requests. Right now, I am told, the wait time to receive even a partial answer from Canadian Heritage is 105 days. For the Treasury Board, it is 90 days, and for the Department of Justice, it is 120 days.

I am not going receive my answers before the new commissioner is appointed. It is easy to see how important it is to have access to this information. I would like to congratulate all the members on the ethics committee for the work they did. They conducted a study and issued a number of recommendations. The ethics commissioner made the same recommendations. The time was ripe for this debate, seeing as this law has been on the books for more than 30 years and never been reviewed. It is worth noting that the sole reason we have this bill is to fulfill one of the Liberals' election promises. The Prime Minister promised during the campaign that he would review the Access to Information Act and extend this act to cover the Prime Minister's office and the ministers' offices.

Unfortunately, I do not see that anywhere in Bill C-58. I asked my Liberal colleagues about this, and they told me it had been extended to ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's office, but proactive disclosure does not mean extending the Access to Information Act to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. It is not the same thing. Proactive disclosure, as the word "proactive" implies, means that people choose what they want to disclose, but often, what people want is the information the government chooses not to disclose. That is the difference, and that is why the Access to Information Act is so important.

Earlier, I shared some examples to do with shale gas, fracking, and the appointment of an official languages commissioner who apparently had ties to the government. In cases like those, it is important for people to have access to information that the government chooses not to disclose for various reasons.

I have some other concerns about this bill. For example, it adds new loopholes. As I mentioned, for various reasons, information can be blacked out or entire reports can be nothing but blank pages. The pages exist, but all that is provided is blank pages. That is a problem we have already.

Now there will be a new loophole allowing departments to decline to process requests that they deem overly broad, that they feel would seriously interfere with government operations, or that they think are made in bad faith.

I will come back to those last two very important elements. Obviously, if the government deliberately decides, for example, not to disclose large quantities of research and studies conducted by Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada on fracking and shale gas and I request it, a lot of work will need to be done to gather and process all of that information. I am not asking for it because I am acting in bad faith or because I want to interfere with the government's work. I am asking for it because residents of Drummond and Canadians paid for that information. It should already be available. However, I have to go through the Access to Information Act to give people access to that information. The government cannot start saying that this will create too much work. Of course if the government does not disclose information proactively, then it will create a lot of work for itself down the road.

The government could also determine that the request was made in bad faith. No definition, details, or explanation is provided in that regard. That means that anyone can decide that a request was made in bad faith. If I ask a question about the connection between the current government and Ms. Meilleur's appointment as official languages commissioner, my request could be deemed to have been made in bad faith, when in actual fact it is extremely important that Canadians have that information in order to make sure that the Liberals do not make the same mistake again.

This is completely unacceptable, and that is why we will be voting against this bill. For a government that claims to want to be transparent and to improve access to information, this bill is not going to work at all.

I would like to talk about the battle that the NDP has been waging since the mid-2000s to improve the Access to Information Act. My former colleague, MP Pat Martin, tried a number of times to improve the Access to Information Act. Unfortunately, the Conservative government at the time thwarted all of his attempts. It was really disappointing.

We have nothing against the government's much-vaunted proactive disclosure. It is good in principle. However, proactive disclosure is not the same thing as the Access to Information Act. Obviously, if we already had more proactive disclosure, we would not have to submit so many access to information requests. However, the fact remains that the government could still, at any time and for any reason, decide not to disclose certain information. That is why the Access to Information Act is so important. It needs to be revised and improved. This bill will not do the trick, and that is why we need to fix it.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Erin O'Toole Conservative Durham, ON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Sheila Malcolmson NDP Nanaimo—Ladysmith, BC

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

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

Why the change of heart now?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Erin O'Toole Conservative Durham, ON

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberals made other major economic promises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that basis, we are opposing this bill.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John lvison summed up his thoughts decisively when he stated:

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Bob Benzen Conservative Calgary Heritage, AB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Alupa Clarke Conservative Beauport—Limoilou, QC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next paragraph states:

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is that for transparency?

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

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

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

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

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

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

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

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

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

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

Alain Rayes Conservative Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 5:55 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 also thank my Conservative colleague for his speech.

It is important that our access to information system work well for Canadians. At present, there are no limits to the number of requests an individual can file or regarding the scope of the request.

A number of members have taken aim at that aspect of Bill C-58, including my colleague, and I have a question for him.

Our system is currently being delayed by frivolous and sometimes vexatious requests. With this bill, we want to change that, because it is unfair to Canadians who file legitimate access to information requests.

Is the member aware that several provinces and territories have a different version of the legislation we are proposing to protect the effectiveness of their respective access to information systems, and that that is also the case for Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom?

I heard several concerns regarding our decision, but I have to ask the following question: do we not have a duty to make the system more effective for Canadians who submit requests in good faith, and to reject those that are not in good faith and are frivolous and vexatious?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 25th, 2017 / 6:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Bernard Généreux Conservative Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House to oppose Bill C-58. That is about as clear and transparent as it gets.

This is about yet another broken Liberal promise. My colleague just listed off at least 20 broken Liberal promises. The Liberals made promises during the campaign. In fact, when he was just an MP, the Prime Minister himself introduced a bill promising openness and transparency, but we see none of that in this bill. It seems to me that our friends in power have developed a nasty habit of breaking their promises, and Canadians are clearly getting sick of it. This is not the first time, and it will probably not be the last.

I get the feeling that the sunny ways are about to be gone.

One of those election promises was electoral reform. That was no minor Liberal promise; it was extremely important. However, when the committee finished its work and tabled its report, the Liberals realized that Canadians clearly saw through their charade. In other words, the Liberals' real objective was to bring in a preferential ballot system, which would put them at an advantage. In the end, given that the committee report did not support the Liberals' position, they decided to abandon that promise. When you abandon a promise as important as electoral reform, how Canadians vote for their elected officials, basically you are telling them that they cannot be trusted. That is what we heard from Canadians.

The government struck an independent committee, but it had to be changed because initially, it had a Liberal majority. Pressure from the four opposition parties, including the Green Party, made a difference. From that moment on, the Liberals dropped the whole thing and the promise changed. In the case of Bill C-58, once again, the Liberals are reneging on an election promise and doing the opposite now that they are in power.

Earlier, my colleague from Mégantic—L'Érable and I counted the broken Liberal promises. We got to 20 broken promises, but there are more yet. By breaking all these promises, the government is sending a message to Canadians that fuels cynicism. During the election campaign, the Liberals promised they would inform people better and increase transparency in ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office. However, two years later, that is just another broken promise. This is unacceptable. That is why I am voting against this bill.

Over the past few weeks, a number of people have spoken out against this bill. Some organizations that were rather tough on the Conservative Party when it was in power are now being just as tough on the government in power. They are making statements worth noting. For example, when the government promises clarity and transparency, then it has to live up to that, but the Liberal Party that is in power is really not up to the task.

The Liberals said they would make all of the information exchanged within ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office accessible. What kind of information are we talking about? At what point did that information become irrelevant to the people? The moment the Liberals introduced this bill.

Let me make sure we all understand what is going on. When the government came to power, it decided to take a close look at an act that has been around since 1983 and modernize it. That is all well and good, but earlier, I heard parliamentary secretaries say that they had covered a substantial portion of it. A substantial portion of it? Why not modernize the whole thing? It looks like they have a problem with disclosing information or making any information public that could come back and bite them. That is my conclusion based on what I heard today.

I have been listening to the debate since early afternoon, and every time an MP or a parliamentary secretary talks about the bill, we get the feeling that they deliberately left out the obligation to make the information clear and transparent so they would not get trapped by the information that is circulating, especially within the Prime Minister's Office.

If the journalists who defend the democracy that these MPs serve each and every day here in the House cannot have access to the information that is relevant to Canadians, how can they do their jobs properly? It is essential that the bills we put forward not be half measures. That way, we can ensure they meet their stated objectives. The Liberals are saying very little yet again, and the answers they give are all the same.

Sadly, after promising Canadians the world in 2015, the government is keeping neither of these promises. There are organizations that act as watchdogs of Canadian democracy. Most of them are non-profit organizations and are totally independent from any government, like Democracy Watch, for example. These organizations are very critical of the work we do, and rightfully so. They spend an enormous amount of time analyzing everything we parliamentarians do on a daily basis in order to strengthen our democracy, to increase transparency and to improve communications with Canadians. They were very outspoken, to put it mildly, about the current government. They said that the bill represents not one step forward, but two steps back.

A sentence like that says a lot about the relevance of the bill and how it was designed and drafted. I can imagine being the Prime Minister, who in 2015 promised to be open and transparent and to allow all Canadians to see everything that happens in the ministers' offices and in his own office. Once in his office, however, he realized that not everything that happens in ministers' offices, and especially the Prime Minister's Office, can be disclosed to the public.

What information does he not want to make public? That is a very relevant question, and one that we should put to the Prime Minister. We will be sure to do so. A government does not introduce legislation for no reason. A government introduces legislation because it really wants to keep a promise. I say again, 20 promises have been broken so far; my colleague listed them earlier. Bill C-58 is definitely not the first broken promise, and it will not be the last.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 10:05 a.m.
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Kings—Hants Nova Scotia

Liberal

Scott Brison LiberalPresident of the Treasury Board

moved that Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I am proud today to discuss Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts.

This legislation, which I introduced on June 19, is built on a foundation of work by many people through consultations: parliamentarians, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, important stakeholders, and, of course, Canadian citizens. All have strong views, sometimes conflicting, as to what we ought to do to modernize this 34-year-old act.

I would like to thank each of them for their careful consideration of the issues involved in updating our access to information regime.

The Liberal Party has spent over a decade defending and strengthening the principles of openness and transparency, both in government and in opposition. In fact, I remember when I served in the Right Hon. Paul Martin's cabinet. That was the first time a prime minister required the proactive disclosure of ministers' expenses. In fact, Mr. Speaker, you were a colleague in that same cabinet.

Later, in opposition, under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, our Liberal caucus was the first to proactively disclose parliamentarians' expenses. Now we are bringing this ongoing effort toward openness and transparency to government.

On day one, our Prime Minister made the ministers' mandate letters public, for the first time ever. This week, when I was in New York at the UN General Assembly, the CEO of the global organization Open Government Partnership told me that making public ministerial mandate letters is a real game changer that is going to raise the bar globally in terms of other countries.

Ministers are no longer just accountable to the Prime Minister for their mandates. Today, having our mandate letters public means that we are more accountable to Parliament, and of course, are more accountable to Canadian citizens.

That was just the beginning. Within our first two days of government we unmuzzled government scientists and restored the mandatory long-form census. All these measures are consistent with our drive toward openness and transparency and providing higher-quality information to Canadians.

Our actions are being recognized by global organizations. In March we were elected to the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership for the first time. This week we agreed to take on the role of co-chair of the OGP. This is the world's largest multilateral organization dedicated to open, transparent, and accountable government.

As we developed this first set of legislative reforms of the Access to Information Act, we have continued to be guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves. If anything, it is truer today than ever before.

The Access to Information Act, in 1983, first enshrined in law the following principles: that citizens have a right to government information, that transparency makes government more accountable and responsive to the needs of citizens, and that access to information allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and hold their government to account.

The amendments we are proposing to the act will strengthen its original purpose in a way that reflects today's technologies, policies, and legislation. Now more than ever, open government is good government. We want to work with parliamentarians, independent officers of Parliament, and stakeholders to ensure that this first major Access to Information Act reform in three decades reflects that intention.

A lot has changed since the ATI Act first came into force. Thirty-four years ago, government information was paper-based and stored in file cabinets.

Since then, information technology and our communications infrastructure have been revolutionized and personalized.

Over the same period, the volume of information collected and held by government has grown, and the Internet has made it easier for the government to make large amounts of information widely available.

The Access to Information Act played an important part in bringing about a change in public expectations. It was in fact ground-breaking.

Since the act became law, in fact, more than 750,000 information requests have been processed. That is 85 requests every working day for more than three decades. Since 1983, the number of requests has grown by an average of 13% annually. In fact, 2015-16 saw more than 75,000 requests. I would like us to consider that number: 75,000 information requests in one year. That represents almost 10% of the overall number of information requests processed since 1983, so demand for information is actually growing.

Clearly, there is a rising demand for government information and government transparency. That demand has strained government, and it has frustrated Canadians who are accessing information.

We have heard the complaints about government delays in responding to requests or about denied requests. We believe that the changes we are making will help address some of these issues. However, in 2015-16, for example, 64% of all completed information requests were answered within the initial statutory time limit of 30 days. That number jumps to 86% if we consider the requests closed within an extension period provided for within the act. More than nine million pages were processed in 2015-16, and more than 80% of the records were disclosed either in full or in part.

In some cases, exemptions were invoked for valid reasons, including the privacy of personal information, national security, and the ability of the public service to give full and frank advice to government.

Nonetheless, to say that reforming the 1983 act has been a long time coming would certainly be an understatement.

That is why we are modernizing the act today. This is not just a one-off exercise that might have to wait another 34 years for an update. We are making it law that there will be regular reviews of the act. We began these efforts just over a year ago. In May 2016, we issued an interim directive that enshrined the principle of open by default. This refers to a culture shift across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course unless there are specific reasons not to do so.

This culture of openness helps Canadians engage with their government on policies, programs, and services.

We believe that good public policy comes out of conversations and consultations with Canadians and that it needs to be two-way communication. Even in the last few months since introducing this legislation, we have continued to engage the commissioners of information and privacy, along with many other experts on this subject. We paid close attention to the concerns raised, and I look forward to pursuing that conversation with this Parliament and with parliamentarians here today and in the coming weeks.

“Open by default” involves providing more information to the general public, engaging citizens in identifying issues and problems, and helping to develop solutions around them.

The interim directive we issued in May 2016 also eliminated all fees for access to information requests, apart from the standard $5 fee, and directed the release of information in more user-friendly and shareable digital formats whenever possible. Now is the time to take more steps on this path of open government.

The legislative package we have introduced proposes amendments that would further improve Canadians’ access to government information.

To begin with, the amendments would create a new part of the act relating to proactive disclosure.

Proactive publication puts into practice the principle of “open by default”.

With modern technologies making it easier to share information in real time, we are looking at new ways to meet Canadians' expectations by sharing government information more quickly and automatically while relieving some of the pressure from our demand-based system.

This approach would build on current best practices, and apply consistent requirements for the publication of information across the government.

It would apply to more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations. It would include the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges of the superior courts.

We would be putting in law the proactive publication of the travel and hospitality expenses of ministers and their staff as well as of senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000 and all contracts issued by members of Parliament and senators; grants and contributions over $25,000; mandate letters and revised mandate letters; briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers; lists of briefing notes for ministers and deputy ministers, including the titles of the notes and their tracking numbers; and the parliamentary binder used for question period and committee appearances. We developed this list by examining some of the most sought after documents in access to information requests.

We expect, in fact, that this approach would guide us over time in terms of expanding proactive disclosure. In other words, if there are certain categories of information that are frequently being requested through the demand-based system, that would be a signal to our government and to future governments that we ought to consider proactively disclosing those categories as we move forward.

This will lead to better public understanding of government decision-making, fostering more participation and public trust in government. We also understand that proactive publication does not absolve us of our responsibility to strengthen the request-based system.

That is why we are also developing a new plain-language guide that will help provide requesters with clear explanations for any exemptions and exclusions. We will be investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient. We will be allowing federal institutions that have the same minister to share request-processing services to achieve greater efficiency.

Because one of the most common complaints we have heard has been directed at the consistency of how the act is applied across government institutions, we will invest in better government training to get a common and consistent interpretation and application of ATI rules across the government.

We are also following the guidance of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

We are moving to help government institutions weed out what are genuinely bad-faith requests that put significant strain on the system, slowing responses for everyone else. Repetitive, vexatious requests can gum up access to information processes while providing little new information, and as such, can do a disservice to all Canadians.

Federal institutions spent more than $64 million in 2015-16 to cover the direct cost of administering the act, and this government wants those resources spent efficiently and effectively. Our intent is to ensure that no government, ours or any future government, can abuse this provision. Let me be clear. A large or broad request, or one that causes the government discomfort, does not of itself represent bad faith on the part of a requester.

We need to get this right. We recognize that while this tool is needed to significantly improve the system, everything from sound policy to proper oversight must be done to prevent its abuse. I have faith that this House and this Parliament and the work that will be done at the committee can help us achieve that objective.

We are not stopping there. The proposed amendments would also give the Information Commissioner new powers.

These include the ability to order the release of government records. This was a power long sought by successive Information Commissioners. We are also giving her office more financial resources to do its job.

This is a significant step forward.

We will change the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority, with the legislative power to order government institutions to release records. These are significant reforms to our ATI system, but there will always be more we can do to strengthen the trust between citizens and their government.

That is why the reforms being proposed are only the first phase of our modernization of access to information.

In fact, the amendments legislate a review of the act every five years so that the law never becomes as outdated as it is today. The first review would begin within one year of this bill's receiving royal assent. In addition, through policy, we will require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act. This is important because the trend analysis that we conduct on an ongoing basis will help us understand and increase the kinds of information that should be made more easily available, including through proactive disclosure. This analysis would also inform the five-year reviews and future changes to strengthen the act.

After 34 years, we are the first government to significantly revitalize Canada's access to information law and system. It is the most comprehensive access to information reform in a generation. As I said, these reforms are only the first phase. It is a work in progress to strengthen access to information and openness and transparency in Canada, not just for our government but for future governments. With the support of the House, we can continue to work together to modernize our access to information law and system and to make governments today and in the future more open, transparent, and accountable to Canadians.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 10:30 a.m.
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Conservative

Tom Kmiec Conservative Calgary Shepard, AB

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.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 12:15 p.m.
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NDP

Murray Rankin NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-58, the access to information reform legislation. It is with considerable disappointment that I must, on behalf of the NDP, be opposed to the initiative. However, I am also pleased to hear the President of the Treasury Board acknowledge that at committee, there might be a possibility for improving the legislation to give it some credibility.

If I may be permitted at the outset to make a personal statement, access to information, freedom of information, has been one of my passions. I did graduate work on this topic. In law, I worked with the Government of British Columbia in drafting the legislation there, as well as in Yukon. Back in the early eighties, I worked on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association to try to get the first access to information act through in a credible way. The former member of Parliament for Peace River, Conservative member Jed Baldwin, gave me an award of merit from the House for my work on freedom of information. Therefore, I come to this with a passion for the topic.

Three things are necessary for any credible law and, after 34 years, we all agree that this law needs modernizing. I salute the government for finally doing something in that regard. First, it has to have a clear statement that information is a right. Second, there have to be exceptions to the rule of openness that are narrow and have to demonstrate some harm from the disclosure. Third, there has to be an umpire, someone neutral, who can order a government that does not wish to provide the information to make it public. Those are the three things by which any reform must be evaluated. Sadly, this bill comes up short.

People sometimes have their eyes glaze over when we talk about access to information. That is usually the end of a conversation. People go back to doing something else. I want to tell Canadians who may be watching this why it is important. How many times have we read an article that starts with “Information released today under the Access to Information Act” reported thus and so? The answer is frequently.

The Globe and Mail used the Access to Information Act for its April 2016 investigative series “Unfounded”, which revealed that police had been dismissing one out of every five sexual assault claims as baseless. It took a year to get the information. The delays were ridiculous, and I will come back to that. That was the tool that was necessary for Canadians to understand what their police were and were not doing about sexual assault.

Just last week, the CBC reported that the Prime Minister's controversial Bahamas vacation cost Canadians over $215,000, far more than was initially disclosed to Parliament. That came about through a document released under this act.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to hear that after a year, reporters finally obtained the original contract from the Phoenix pay fiasco, once again thanks to this act.

Transparency is important. It was a major theme for the Liberal Party during the 2015 election. In fact, before that, the Prime Minister introduced Bill C-613, an act to amend the Access to Information Act. I would invite all Canadians to look at what the Prime Minister wanted to do with that bill while in opposition compared to what is being proposed today. I think they will see a yawning divide. What he said, though, in introducing that legislation, was that “a country's access to information system is at the heart of open government”. He is right.

Our Supreme Court also said that what we are talking about today is in fact quasi-constitutional in nature. This is not an ordinary act. It is something that the courts have recognized as essential to an open, modern democracy.

The New Democratic Party has introduced private members' bills to modernize the act so many times I do not want to list them all, but in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2014, this is something we tried to fix. Every time, the Conservatives and then the Liberals voted them down.

In March of 2015, the Information Commissioner released 85 recommendations to modernize the act. I invite Canadians to look at that list of recommendations and what we are left with today.

The point is that this is essential to fix, as the President of Treasury Board properly pointed out.

When we introduced this bill in the early eighties, computers were hardly a fact of life, email did not really exist in the public service, and record-keeping was very different than it is today. Clearly this is long overdue. It is too bad that the government has not taken the opportunity to do the job properly. Almost all civil society groups that have studied this have been outspoken in their opposition, some angry, but most simply sad and disappointed that this is what we are left with.

Let me talk about what the government did not do. That is how we have to assess this exercise. The exemptions to the rule of disclosure, the list of the things that the government can properly withhold, are very badly drafted, very discretionary, do not even have to show a harm. However, there is one that is different from all the others.

Back when this bill was introduced under the former Prime Minister Trudeau regime, it decided to cut out a category of records called “cabinet confidences”. It does not even apply to cabinet confidences. Everyone who has ever studied this has said that this is the Mack truck clause. In fact, some of the more humorous commentary describes this as “cabinet laundering”. All the government has to do if it does not want something disclosed is to slip it into a cabinet briefing book, and voila, the black hole. It never gets to be seen. It is not even subject to the act. One would have thought that after 34 years, job one would have been to maybe talk about that. It is not even mentioned. The black hole remains. Cabinet laundering can continue.

Information delayed is information denied. Every journalist in the land understands that. I had a journalist stop me on the street the other day, and she said that when she is asking for information, she usually gets something on the very last day of the 30-day period. Day 29 she is told that there is going to be a delay, and then the government asks for another delay. If she complains to the Information Commissioner, she is told that the office is swamped and it might take several months to get the story out. Even then, if the government does not want to do it, the Information Commissioner would recommend that it can say no.

Information delayed is information denied. That will not be fixed by this bill in any meaningful way.

The other thing is that we live in an oral culture. In fact, one of my colleagues refers to it as “the Post-it culture”. I will explain. If a government member has a record that they know is going to be subject to disclosure, maybe they put a little Post-it note on the document that says what the juicy bits are. That happens. I know that the Speaker will be surprised to hear that.

The duty to document decisions is not even part of this bill. I talked earlier about computers where we can delete transitory records and the like. However, the fact is that an oral culture is alive and well and living in Ottawa.

Let me get to the bill. What does Bill C-58 do, and why can we not support it? I would first like to quote from the Centre for Law and Democracy which said:

the Bill is far more conspicuous for what it fails to do....

It fails to expand the scope of the Act. It does place a number of proactive publication obligations on various actors – including the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices...but this falls far short of bringing these bodies within the ambit of the Act.

Certain types of information have always been available, at least in recent years, such as travel expenses, contracts over $10,000. By policy, these have been available for years. Now it is put in the bill, and the government thinks it should get a gold star for doing that. I am not sure why.

Again, quoting from the Centre for Law and Democracy:

While more proactive disclosure is always welcome, as anyone who has used the Act knows, it is absolutely not a substitute for the right to be able to request the information one is interested in from public authorities.

I think that is clear.

Today the minister made a lot of the notion that there is to be order-making powers under this bill. It is true that if we look closely, we can see that it is, in the words of a colleague, a chimera. It does not really do that.

Let me talk about how it works in the provinces. Let us take British Columbia, for example. The Information Commissioner makes an order: “Disclose that record, government. I know you do not want to do it, but it is not able to be withheld legitimately under the exceptions.” That is it. If the government wants to seek judicial review of that decision, it does so.

Let us compare that to the convoluted order-making power that the minister was so proud of in this bill. It seems to say that if the government agrees with a decision of the commissioner to release the document, it will be released. So what? If the government disagrees with the commissioner's recommendation, then the government could take him or her to Federal Court. Imagine how expensive and litigious this would all be. The government has created, in my submission, an unwieldy, unnecessary, and unaffordable system.

I wish I had time to go into the section that deals with this. It talks of the ability to make an order, but in the interest of time, suffice it to say that it is beyond complicated and likely unworkable. It would not really do what the minister has said it would do. I wish the Liberals had followed the simple route that most provinces have followed.

Though it is true that there would be proactive disclosure of a number of kinds of information from ministers' offices, the point is that Canadians would still not be able to request the information they want from those offices, appeal to the commissioner, and get an order to release it. It is just not there. The promise made in the election that we would have open offices and that people would get the information is not what is happening. That is very disappointing.

The Liberals also talked about the five-year review that is a feature of this act, and thank goodness it is there. That is nothing new. However, it is not like the Bank Act, for example, under which the legislation would sunset if that review did not take place by that time, so who knows how long it will actually take before we get to the review that is promised? That is very different from what the platform promised.

The Liberals talked today about something new, which is the ability to go after bad-faith, long, frivolous, and vexatious requests. That is a new restriction, not a change for the positive. I can appreciate why it is necessary, and, yes, it exists at the provincial level, but here is the punchline: this bill would give the final decision to the government to decide whether the request is too big, too long, or frivolous. Everywhere else, of course, it is the commissioner who gets to decide. Do members remember what I said about an umpire in the game who is neutral? I do not think the minister who does not want the information to be disclosed is in the best position to do that. I cannot believe they think that is a significant reform that we should be proud of.

The government is probably going to pat itself on the back for this bill. It is probably going to say, “We promised openness and transparency, and openness by default, and that is what we delivered.” The truth is far from that. I want to be optimistic—I always try to be—and give the government the benefit of the doubt. The minister stood in this place and said, “We will be open to amendments at committee”, and we are certainly going to be there to try to give him the opportunity to make this credible, because it is not credible now. It is kind of like the promise the Liberals made in 2015, when they said that 2015 would be the last election that would be fought under the first-past-the-post rules. That was a different promise. That was a different time and place.

The Prime Minister came to my riding when he was running in the election and said that he would have a full review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal. Do members remember that promise? That kind of did not happen either. There was one about mail delivery. We were going to be open to mail delivery, I think. That was another promise.

Canadians deserve better than this bill. It is a start, to the extent that it adds exemptions; it does not go after the big changes and exemptions. Members heard me talk about cabinet confidences; the other nice one is the policy advice to the minister. They did not touch it. All they have to do is put all these documents into something that they give to the minister, and that is policy advice to the government. That massive loophole remains.

Once again, what they did not do is how we judge their reform initiative. It actually adds a loophole that would allow the department to refuse to process a request if it deems it to be overly broad, deems it would unreasonably interfere with the operations of government, or deems it to be made in bad faith. It is quite remarkable that the Liberals are patting themselves on the back. By simple comparison to the other legislation in the country, it is obvious that this bill does not pass muster.

The bill also ignores so many of the recommendations made by the Information Commissioner, as I pointed out, and by the ethics committee that also studied this legislation. It appears the government did not even read those. Much like the Harper government, the Liberals continue to disregard the recommendations made by the non-partisan watchdog. One sympathizes with the Herculean efforts made by Ms. Legault over the years to try to get both sides of this place, Conservative and Liberal alike, to take seriously the citizens' right to know. I salute for her efforts, futile though they have been to date.

I want to say by way of conclusion that the New Democrats have long advocated for giving the Information Commissioner real oversight and order-making powers. We believe that proactive disclosure is important and offer congratulations for putting into legislation what has been the practice to date so far, but I point out that the commissioner does not have oversight powers with respect to that proactive disclosure, so I guess we have to take the government's word for it.

Even if the Liberals were well intentioned, let us remember that we are making legislation that applies for future Canadians, for future generations of Canadians. How long did it take to get to this place with a new bill? It has taken 34 years. We have to get it right. We cannot say, “Don't worry; we are going to have a review in five years, or maybe another year or two after that”, because they do not have to do that if they do not want to. That has been our history, excepting the Bank Act.

We have to do it better. We can do it better, and I am not the only one saying this. The Centre for Law and Democracy, which has been cited already, has made the same point. Democracy Watch has explained it. Professor Mark Weiler, the web and user experience librarian who testified, wrote to our critic, the hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, on this file, as follows: “I am greatly concerned that Bill C-58 will actually diminish the capacity of Canadians to access unpublished materials held by the government. The Access to Information Act should enhance the ability of Canadians to access information the government chooses not to publish.... Bill C-58 would actually make the Access to Information Act more difficult to use.”

What are we going to do about this? To go back to the basics, there has to be a strong statement of the right to know, and there is some verbiage to that effect in the new law. The exemptions have to be narrow, and they have to be about injury, not just in a box, a particular category of records, such as policy advice. It has to be shown that disclosure would harm some government interest. The Liberals did not do that; they didn't touch any of them. They only added one.

The third thing is that there has to be real order-making power when the umpire says the government has got it wrong. That did not cause a revolution in British Columbia when we did it, and that order-making power led to something like 90% of cases being mediated without the need to have a formal order-making hearing. Very, very rarely do we go to court; it is statistically insignificant.

There are ample precedents for doing this right. The order-making power that is in the bill is beyond comprehension. It will be expensive and it is totally unnecessary. Why do we have to make it so complicated when the principle is so obvious and when there are so many examples across the land?

I want to end on a positive note. We hope the government was serious when the President of the Treasury Board stood in the House earlier today and talked about the need to modernize this law and said that this is only the first phase and it is only a work in progress. He said he welcomes reports at committee, including amendments.

Trust me, we will have many of those amendments. We can do better. We must do better for Canadians.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 12:40 p.m.
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NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Victoria for his very enlightened speech, which helped us understand why Bill C-58 does not really address ethics issues.

This only adds to the cynicism that already exists around politics, when the government says it want to modernize legislation to give Canadians access to information, when in fact, transparency is not enhanced at all, since ministers' offices, including the PMO, are not obliged to report to the commissioner.

Right now, it can take up to 200 days to get crucial information. For instance, according to the Globe and Mail, in April 2016, the RCMP took over a year to forward some statistics it had requested for an investigative report called Unfounded.

When the police declare one in five sexual assault complaints unfounded, this creates further hardships for the people already going through a very difficult situation following a sexual assault. One in five complaints is dismissed as unfounded, and it took a year to provide that information. I find that completely unacceptable, and this bill does absolutely nothing to address this problem.

What are my colleague's thoughts on that?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 12:45 p.m.
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Halifax Nova Scotia

Liberal

Andy Fillmore LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Democratic Institutions

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Vancouver Quadra.

I am proud to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Our government was elected on a promise to reinforce public trust in our democracy, and over the course of our time in office, we have put action behind our words. For example, we are reforming campaign finance laws to make one of the world's most respected democracies even more transparent. We have introduced legislation to make Canada's democracy more accessible to all Canadians. The debate today is about another of the fundamental concepts of any modern democracy.

We know Canadians cannot meaningfully participate in democracy when they are in an information vacuum. Access to government data is vital. Without it, neither the public nor the media are able to hold governments to account. That is why our government promised to firm up one of the key pillars of our democracy: access to information.

We told Canadians we would make information open by default, and in formats that would be modern and simple to use. Canadians pay for the information that is assembled in the Government of Canada, so why should they not have access to this data? This greater openness in turn will lead to greater confidence in our democracy, which is why this government has put such a great emphasis on amending the Access to Information Act with Bill C-58.

This is the first major overhaul since our predecessors in this very institution voted in favour of the current act 35 years ago, so it is long overdue.

The act, which was enacted in Parliament in 1982, and took effect the following year, came long before anyone had ever heard of the Internet. Governments in those days had far more administrators and clerks, because there was so much paperwork to file and record. One could not just flip a written message to a colleague by email. If one wanted to send an interesting news article to a counterpart in another department, one could not just forward a link. One's options were limited to things like a fax machine or an inter-office courier.

Today, technology has dramatically changed how governments operate, and we need to align our laws to take into account this new reality. We have a responsibility to make it easier to obtain information and once Canadians get it, that information should be in easy-to-use formats. We can think of the graduate students, like those at Dalhousie University or Saint Mary's University in my riding of Halifax, who are out there doing groundbreaking research but operating on tight timelines. We want them to be able to, when possible, obtain an electronic version of government records so they can more easily navigate and analyze the documents. Think of the time that will be saved if they do not have to go through hundreds of pages to find what they are looking for.

Now Bill C-58 has many components, but for now I would like to focus on how it impacts parliamentary institutions. I am talking about the Library of Parliament, the parliamentary budget officer, the Parliamentary Protective Service, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer, and the administration of the Senate and of the House of Commons. These institutions are foundational components of our democracy, and Bill C-58 proposes to bring them under the Access to Information Act to make them more accountable. The proposed legislation will require these institutions to publish each quarter their travel and hospitality expenses as well as disclose over the same timeline any contracts with a value above $10,000.

Another important component of Bill C-58 is the new powers it would give to our Information Commissioner. This is of particular interest to me, both in my role as a Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Democratic Institutions as well as the member of Parliament for Halifax.

Not too long ago, I met with representatives from a group based in Halifax called the Centre for Law and Democracy, whose mission is to:

...promote, protect and develop those human rights which serve as the foundation for or underpin democracy, including the rights to freedom of expression, to vote and participate in governance, to access information and to freedom of assembly and association.

Some members may be familiar with the centre's work on the right to information rating, or RTI, which is developed along with Access Info Europe to calculate and rate the overall strength of countries' right to information laws.

The topic of the Information Commissioner was one I discussed with representatives of this group in my office during a meeting in the spring. They believe, as I do, and so too does our government believe, that the Information Commissioner ought to have the ability to order the release of records, or so-called “order making”. I am proud to say that Bill C-58 would give the Information Commissioner that power. I would like to congratulate and thank the Centre for Law and Democracy on its strong advocacy on this point, and for its ongoing work in Canada and across the world to strengthen democratic institutions.

It is important to note that the legislation would also give government institutions the ability to decline requests that are excessively broad or requests of information already in the public domain.

The government has limited resources, and this will free up government institutions to respond to other requesters. Of course the applicant subjected to a decision like this would be able to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

Bill C-58 would also oblige members of Parliament and senators to publish all travel and hospitality expenses, and all service contract amounts. In both cases, this information would have to be made public on a quarterly basis.

We know senators and members of Parliament already publish travel and hospitality expenses pursuant to their own internal rules, and senators disclose service contract information, while MPs publish the total costs of awarded service contracts.

Importantly, Bill C-58 would enshrine the current practice of also requiring additional details on the service contracts and travel costs of MPs.

This legislation will require a review of the act every five years, starting in 2019. This will give Canadians an opportunity to look for further improvements.

We believe Canada deserves a vibrant democracy that is transparent, open, and accountable, but our efforts do not begin and end with changes to the Access to Information Act.

We have been relentless since taking office to look for other ways to improve our democratic system. For instance, Bill C-33 would amend the Canada Elections Act to increase voter participation and improve the integrity of our electoral system. Bill C-50, meanwhile, if passed, will make important changes to the same act to make political fundraising more open and transparent. We are also taking action against cyber threats and the danger they pose to our electoral system.

We live in one of the most respected democracies in the world, but our government will remain relentless in ensuring that any weaknesses are dealt with. Bill C-58 is a major part of this effort, and I am proud to work with the Minister of Democratic Institutions to advance it. With that, I welcome any questions from my colleagues.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 12:55 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 welcome the opportunity to speak to Bill C-58, a comprehensive set of amendments to the Access to Information Act that would deliver on our government's key commitment to improve openness and transparency in government. If passed, these amendments would make progress in bringing Canada's access to information legislation in line with the communication advances of the last three decades.

The act has not been significantly updated since it came into force 34 years ago, when fax machines were cutting edge and information was stored in huge filing rooms. As we all know, however, the world has evolved considerably since then. Today, it is smart phones and social media, big data and high-speed Internet.

Canadians seek out information through digital channels, and government can now interact with the public through the web and social media. Moreover, the volume of information the government manages has dramatically increased.

I think we can all agree that the current act needs to be brought up to date.

We have certainly been hearing that so far in the debate.

This is why the government committed to reforming Canada’s access to information program. This modernization began with early action to improve access to information.

In May 2016, the President of the Treasury Board issued an interim directive that enshrined the principle of open by default. He eliminated all fees, apart from the $5 filing fee, and directed the release of government information in user-friendly formats wherever possible. Fees for processing large-volume requests could run into the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars and sometimes deterred people from having access to public information.

Those were good first steps. Today we are maintaining that elimination of fees, and we are bringing forward transformative measures to enhance Canadians' access to government information.

Let me begin with one of many ground-breaking features of our proposed legislation. For the very first time, the Information Commissioner would have order-making power. No access to information regime is complete without powerful and meaningful oversight. We promised Canadians that we would find ways to empower the Office of the Information Commissioner to order government information to be released.

The bill before us today would do just that. This is something that has come up again and again in the debate as one of the key things that are a necessary change, and we are making that change. This change would strengthen the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with a legislative ability to order government institutions to release records.

The legislation also proposes to entrench in law, for future and current governments, an obligation to proactively publish a broad range of information on a predictable schedule and without the need for anyone to make an access to information request for that information.

The amendments would create a new part of the act on proactive publication which builds on current best practices, applies consistent requirements across government institutions, and seizes on the opportunities of our digital age.

These amendments would result in the proactive release of key information throughout government.

This is a process that would take place across literally hundreds of offices and departments of the government. It would allow our citizens a greater understanding of government and would demonstrate effective stewardship of public funds.

Here is another first. Through this legislative system of mandatory proactive disclosure, the act would, for the first time ever, include ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's Office, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges of the superior courts.

This system of mandatory proactive disclosure puts a strong emphasis on increasing the information that is open by default and making information that is of interest to Canadians freely available on the web.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few more features of the reforms we will make to our access to information regime.

Having just spoken about the proactive publication that is key to our commitment to openness by default, I also want to mention a few other things we are doing in the bill.

We will develop a new plain language guide that will provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions. The rationale for these exclusions will be laid out, a rationale that will be in the public interest.

We would invest in tools to make processing information more efficient. That is an important way to address one of the key weaknesses of our current system, which is how many access to information requests are not responded to in a timely way.

The bill would allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request processing services for greater efficiency and timeliness. It would support the new legislation with government training. There are many things we would do.

It is important to note that many of our changes were initiated at the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

It would be subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner. The bill proposes that if a department decides to decline to act on a request, the requester will have the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner, and the Commissioner could use the new order-making power to resolve the issue.

This is a new authority that could significantly improve the system, but it needs to be implemented with care.

We look forward to debating the proposed provisions with parliamentarians in a thoughtful way. All these changes were designed to address criticism from Canadians about delays and inconsistencies in the current request-based system and recommendations from stakeholders, such as the Information Commissioner and our colleagues at the ETHI committee.

We can never become complacent when it comes to openness and transparency. That is why the reforms before us today are the first legislative phase in what would be an ongoing review and modernization of the act.

The legislation would require a review of the act every five years, and as I pointed out earlier in the debate, the first review would start no later than one year after royal assent, so this is really an ongoing improvement process. These five-year reviews would provide an important opportunity for Canadians to have their say on access rights and would help us make sure that the system met their needs.

These reviews will assess what is working and how, and ensure that the act is never allowed to become so outdated again. Today, I am proud to be part of the first government to bring significant change to the Access to Information Act since it was first introduced over 30 years ago.

I encourage all members to support this work and this bill, and in doing so help us take a great step forward in updating the Access to Information Act.

I also look forward to continuing to work with Parliament, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, and other stakeholders to further strengthen our access to information regime.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 22nd, 2017 / 1:10 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Pat Kelly Conservative Calgary Rocky Ridge, AB

Mr. Speaker, Canadians deserve a government that is accountable and open by default. For that to be possible, Canadians must have access to information about government decisions and practices to hold their government to account. While the Liberal government pays lips service to those ideals of openness and accountability, it has consistently fallen short of implementing them. We have seen this in a variety of areas, particularly with the statement by the Prime Minister on open and accountable government.

The stated aim of Bill C-58 is to update the Access to Information Act with necessary reforms. However, as with many Liberal promises, it fails to achieve them. We have heard them invoking flowery language and buzz words and making grand-sounding claims as a substitute for action in many instances in this Parliament. This bill is no different in many respects, and I will get to some of them.

An open and accountable government requires citizens to have access to information about decisions made by Parliament and government entities. Since the first Access to Information Act was introduced in 1983, the act has provided Canadians with the means to request information about themselves, or decisions affecting them. However, because of significant changes in information technology and in government operations and the passage of time, the act has not been meaningfully updated since it was first introduced, and many critics across all party lines have identified the need for reform.

The Conservatives introduced the idea of openness by default in the previous parliament. In 1983, it was originally a Liberal government that introduced the act. However, successive Conservative and Liberal governments have neglected to update it as required. Although I guess the current Liberal government is to be commended for undertaking the task in the first place, we see many shortcomings in the resulting bill. Bill C-58 does not adequately address many of the flaws in Canada's current access to information regime that we heard about in detail at committee.

When I was a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, we conducted a detailed study of the act and the issues surrounding it. We heard from numerous witnesses, from accountability watchdogs to ATIP officers in government departments to Canada's Information Commissioner, and others. We reviewed the commissioner's comprehensive report on the state of access to information in Canada and adopted many of her key recommendations in our own report. All three parties on the committee co-operated to draft a thoughtful report, with sensible recommendations for access to information reform. However, the government's response to our report is both late and underwhelming. The Liberals promised that phase one of the ministerial level review of Canada's access to information regime would be completed in time to produce legislation in early 2017. Here we are in late September and just beginning today to debate the bill, which many critics consider to be a half measure.

One of the primary flaws that witnesses at committee pointed out is the culture of secrecy throughout government. Such a culture runs contrary to both Liberal promises and Conservative initiatives. This has run across party lines over time. For example, the Conservatives hold that Canada's government should be open by default. In the last parliament, the Conservative government released a study titled “Canada's Action Plan on Open Government”, in which the Conservatives recognized the following:

The key challenge for governments is how to shift to an environment where data and information are released openly to the public by default while respecting privacy, security, and confidentiality restrictions.

Such an environment represents a fundamental change in government culture that requires government-wide direction to drive the release of federal information and advance overall objectives for transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement.

Such an environment of disclosure would be a stark departure from what witnesses at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics described as a culture of secrecy among government entities.

According to witnesses like Sean Holman, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the general attitude of the public service is one of withholding instead of disclosing information, and one of caution instead of candour. This attitude flows from the act and from cabinet. Mr. Holman put it clearly when he said:

We have a cultural problem when it comes to secrecy....Fixing the Access to Information Act is only one part of addressing those problems....the problem with the Access to Information Act when it was introduced was that it was grafted onto a secretive political system. We did not deal with the actual problem; we instead introduced legislation that conformed to the system as it currently existed.

He was referring to the adoption of the original act in 1983, which has remained virtually unchanged since then.

This is not to criticize Canada's public servants, since they respond to direction from the top. Those that enter the public service walk into a culture that already exists. Bringing about a culture of openness by default requires buy-in from ministers, the Prime Minister, deputy ministers, and senior managers among all departments. Culture cannot be changed overnight and simply by adopting a new law in Parliament.

Openness and accountability require timely responses. Witnesses at committee complained bitterly about the delays in the service standards for responding to ATIPS. They mentioned that extension after extension can take response times of up to over a year in some cases. This diminishes the news value of information for journalists. It puts people's lives on hold in some circumstances when they need vital information, and brings to mind the adage that justice delayed is justice denied.

Bill C-58 includes some of the committee's recommendations, the most significant of which is granting the commissioner the power to issue binding orders for the disclosure of particular information. Although it should increase the public's access to information, such order-making power is not a panacea for solving a culture of secrecy. Also, it was not uniformly endorsed in witness testimony, although it was the final recommendation of the committee.

The committee heard from witnesses like Professor Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and access to information and privacy lawyer. He argued that switching to an order-making model is unnecessary because the issue and the problem that existed was the culture in government and the lack of openness in which departmental ATIP officers responded or operated in.

If within a department the ATIP officers and other members of the public service have a mindset and a culture to openly disclose information and to think first of ensuring that it is released on a timely basis, we might not be arguing about whether or not order-making power is necessary to compel disclosure. Delay is the biggest failure perhaps, which will not be solved by merely establishing order-making power for the commissioner.

We are glad to see that Bill C-58 requires the minister to undertake a review at least within one year of royal assent and every five years thereafter. Hopefully, that will prevent us from going another 34 years without a review of the act. It is important, because we know that the pace of change in information technology and the evolution of that technology is very fast, and as long as political will continues to exist to review the act in the future, it is good to have the built-in provision for review.

The provisions in Bill C-58 requiring proactive publication of materials related to Parliament, ministers' offices, superior courts, and other government institutions are a welcome addition to the access to information regime and should contribute to the culture of openness by default, but there is certainly a long way to go to establish that change of culture.

Proactive disclosure of sought after information should increase democratic accountability and pre-empt many requests, but proactive disclosure by various parliamentary and governmental entities is not the same as extending the scope of the Access to Information Act to cover them. It is not what the committee recommended nor what the commissioner recommended and not what the Liberals promised in their 2015 election platform, and it is not what the Prime Minister ordered in the mandate letter of the President of the Treasury Board.

The minister's mandate letter instructs him to lead a review of the act and implement certain reforms, such as ensuring that “the Act applies appropriately to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.”

Ensuring that the act applies to the prime minister's and ministers' offices requires more than proactive disclosure of a limited list of useful information, but this is not the only recommendation that the bill either ignores or only partially addresses.

Our report suggested several matters that the government should consider or consult on during the second phase of its review. I welcome an update from the government on the state of those considerations and consultations.

Open and accountable government requires an access to information regime that ensures timely responses to ATIP requests. This applies to all elements of the Government of Canada, with a few important exceptions, namely, to protect parliamentary privilege, cabinet confidence, and national security. This prevents government entities from wiggling out of disclosure obligations. That is why the committee recommended that the minister consult the organizations that support Parliament, such as the clerks of the Senate and the House of Commons, and the parliamentary librarian to determine how to effectively protect parliamentary privilege and create an independent review process for such provisions.

To improve timely response to ATIP requests, we recommended limiting extensions to only those cases where strictly necessary, and even then, only for a maximum of 30 days. We also recommended repealing exclusions in the act and replacing them with exemptions as needed. As Ken Rubin mentioned, when responding to a question at committee, we cannot expect to change a culture of secrecy just by giving order-making power to the commissioner, and especially not if all the carve-outs remain in place through the retention of an extensive list of exemptions.

Eliminating exclusions, which are stated areas that the act does not cover, and replacing them with exemptions, which would allow government entities to refuse requests on specific grounds, would provide greater oversight of Canada's access to information regime. It would also shift the culture of the public service more toward openness by default.

To protect the vital governance work of Parliament, the committee recommended adding a mandatory exemption for cabinet confidences when disclosure would reveal the substance of cabinet deliberations, except when such discussions cover a period of factual or background information when there is consent for disclosure of the information, and so forth.

For ease of understanding, to reduce the volume of requests received and to contribute to a culture of openness by default, the committee recommended that institutions respond to ATIP requests by providing information in open, reusable, and accessible file formats, such as pdf, Word, Excel, and similar formats, instead of obscure and highly specialized ones.

Although useful in their own right, the measures the committee recommended would not create a comprehensive access to information regime with great swaths of government entities that are not subject to the act.

Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pointed out at committee that “as a general principle the federal Access to Information Act should cover all of the federal government, including both government-controlled and government-funded areas.” The principle here is quite simple: where taxpayers' money is being spent, the public deserves accountability and transparency.

To address such an extension of the act, the Information Commissioner stated that “The use of criteria as a way to determine which entities should be subject to the Act is a rational approach to coverage, as it promotes predictability with respect to which entities are subject to the Act.” Moreover, it guarantees that institutions performing similar functions are also subject to it. Her criteria included whether an entity is covered because it is publicly controlled in whole or in part by the government; whether it performs public functions under federal jurisdiction because it has power to regulate and set standards under federal jurisdiction because it is charged with executing federal policy; whether it is established by federal statute; or whether it is one of the many covered by the Financial Administration Act.

The government has undertaken a review of Canada's access to information regime and has made a first attempt at updating the act. We are disappointed that the President of the Treasury Board has ignored many of the committee's recommendations. What could have been a good start on a worthy project has become something of a disappointment to the members, witnesses, and the Information Commissioner herself, who contributed to a detailed study on the topic. The President of the Treasury Board seems to expect extraordinary credit for these meagre steps that do not seem likely to fix all of the problems in an access to information system that is widely described by critics as broken.

This morning, the minister made it out as if Bill C-58 would instantly transform Canada into a world leader in access to information. That is simply not the case. Many of the problems will remain in place. Comparatively, we have a country like Serbia, which was not even a sovereign nation but part of a federation under a communist dictatorship in 1983 when our act was brought in. It is ranked ahead of Canada by international observers. This is not a credit to the current system. As well, we can compare to countries like Sweden that have had access to information law for 250 years. Witnesses could not believe that in Canada it would take months and months to get information that would routinely be released in 24 hours in countries like that.

The government is trying to take far too much credit for this reform. I urge the minister to reconsider Bill C-58 and correct its many deficiencies. I encourage the new members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to take advantage of review stage and amend it. Canada indeed deserves an open and accountable government, with a sensible and comprehensive access to information regime. We deserve better than Bill C-58.

I will not support this bill. To do so would be to reward the government for breaking its election promises and taking credit for window dressing, which it has described as a grand and comprehensive solution.