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

Sponsor

Scott Brison  Liberal

Status

Second reading (Senate), as of Dec. 7, 2017

Subscribe to a feed (what's a feed?) of speeches and votes in the House related to Bill C-58.

Summary

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

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

(a) authorize the head of a government institution, with the approval of the Information Commissioner, to decline to act on a request for access to a record for various reasons;

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

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

(d) authorize the Information Commissioner to make orders for the release of records or with respect to other matters relating to requesting or obtaining records and to publish any reports that he or she makes, including those that contain any orders he or she makes, and give parties the right to apply to the Federal Court for a review of the matter;

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

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

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

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

It amends the Privacy Act to, among other things,

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere

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

Votes

Dec. 6, 2017 Passed 3rd reading and adoption of Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts
Dec. 5, 2017 Passed Time allocation for Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts
Nov. 27, 2017 Passed Concurrence at report stage of Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts
Sept. 27, 2017 Passed 2nd reading of Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts

Bill C-58—Time Allocation MotionAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 10:15 a.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, this time allocation motion is for a highly imperfect piece of proposed legislation that deserves much greater debate and consideration by the Liberal government. It has been condemned by Canadians across the spectrum, by those who would demand the right to know how they are governed through access to information. It has been dismissed by the Information Commissioner herself as a regressive piece of legislation. She indicated quite clearly that the status quo would be preferable to the proposed law, which is being debated at third reading today.

The President of the Treasury Board has made excuses, and he urged Canadians, with a slight Churchillian twist, not to allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. Well, there is very little good in Bill C-58, which came through committee with some significant, but very few, amendments to correct a poorly written piece of legislation.

This piece of proposed legislation is beyond redemption. I would ask the President of the Treasury Board why he does not simply withdraw Bill C-58 and go back to the drawing board.

Bill C-58—Time Allocation MotionAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 10:35 a.m.
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Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the words of my colleague and friend, the President of the Treasury Board. Unfortunately, the bill he is reflecting on would not do what he purports it would do. Let me give a couple of quick examples.

First, when the ethics committee was studying this bill, it made 28 recommendations. However, the Liberal-dominated committee only accepted one of those recommendations.

Second, the bill purports to strengthen the act by allowing the Information Commissioner to order access to information from ministers' offices, as well as the Prime Minister's Office. However, what the minister has not mentioned is that while the Information Commissioner may have the ability to order such requests, it does not make it mandatory for a minister or the Prime Minister's Office to respect that order.

In fact, as the Information Commissioner has already pointed out, quite rightfully, had the current version of the Access to Information Act, which the government says strengthens the act, been in place during the sponsorship scandal, we would have never found out all of the illegal goings-on by the former Liberal government. Information Commissioner Legault said that if Bill C-58, in its current form, has been passed, it would have meant that journalist Daniel Leblanc, back in the early 2000s, would have been unable to get the information, which eventually led to the sponsorship scandal being unveiled to the Canadian public.

How can the minister possibly state, with any veracity, that the bill would actually strengthen access to information, when in fact all the witnesses pointed out it would do exactly the opposite?

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:05 p.m.
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NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I seriously doubt that Canadians or Quebeckers are still listening to this debate, which is only fuelling the cynicism we often find in politics. However, we are currently debating a very important bill that deals with access to information. It is becoming more and more obvious that this government is all talk and no action.

For example, the new Bill C-58 introduces a new loophole that will allow any minister to decline to act on a request if he or she deems that it is too general, that it will seriously interfere with the government's activities, or that it was made in bad faith.

Here we have one of the dozens of statements of principle that are in this bill but have no real application.

My question is very simple: how does the government intend to guarantee that the rules are interpreted in the same way by all ministers?

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:10 p.m.
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Conservative

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-58. Actually, that is what I was supposed to talk about, but the government has given me yet another opportunity to talk about its closed-mindedness and lack of transparency by moving another time allocation motion, this one for a bill that has to do with access to information. How ironic.

I am very glad to have the chance to speak after my colleague, the parliamentary secretary, who chose to talk about things that happened in the past. His eloquence and his legendary speaking skills in Parliament are well known to us all. There is a reason he has said more words in the House since the beginning of the session than any other member. He has been more vocal than anyone else during this Parliament as well as during the previous one. I believe that, more often than anyone else, he condemned the Conservative government's time allocation motions, which it did use to get its legislation through. The parliamentary secretary once had some choice words about democracy, the work of parliamentarians, and how outraged he was about time allocation motions.

This government was elected on a promise not to use time allocation motions, in order to allow for full debates. It was elected on a promise of basic openness and transparency. It promised it would be open at all times and would sometimes say no. The parliamentary secretary was the spokesperson of that election campaign.

What have we here today? In two years, this government has broken the previous government's record on using time allocation motions. It has used them on a number of very important files, including marijuana legalization, a subject that Canadians wanted to hear more about. Canadians represented by members on this side of the House wanted them to take the time to express their views on the matter. I am also convinced that many people represented by members across the way would have liked them to speak and fully explain their thoughts on Bill C-45 about marijuana legalization instead of repeating government talking points. Unfortunately, the government has used time allocation yet again, as it has done in so many other cases.

Speaking of flashbacks, the parliamentary secretary should also flash back to the eloquent speeches he gave in the last Parliament. They might inspire him to add to today's debate on time allocation motions. In his presentation, he also talked about the past Conservative government that saw the light on proactive disclosure. The Conservatives in government at the time adhered to that policy. Unfortunately, today's Bill C-58 takes us back to the dark ages. I am not the one saying this, it is the Information Commissioner. I will come back to her in a moment.

If the Liberals saw the light while they were in opposition, the light has unfortunately gotten steadily dimmer since they came to office, and we are heading for total darkness. The parliamentary secretary boasts that Bill C-58 will be open to periodic review. This morning I heard it called a “living document”. However, I wish the government had given life to something better, because right now, its living document seems doomed to a worthless existence.

We can already expect this bill to go nowhere in terms of delivering on the objectives and intentions that the Liberals announced during the last election campaign. It will not meet any of its objectives. Sadly, as far as those objectives go, this document is stillborn. Bill C-58 is not a living document. If it were, the government would have accepted the committee's recommendations. It would have agreed to amend its so-called living document from the outset in order to improve it and eliminate its dark and murky aspects by listening to the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Unfortunately, all of the committee's recommendations were rejected.

That is not what I would call a living, open, and transparent document that can be improved upon. The government had already made up its mind, and it refused to amend and refine the bill into something that we on this side of the House could support.

The Liberals' approach is nothing new. Every time the Liberals introduce a bill on which we could have all worked together to move certain files forward for the good of Canada and Canadians, they find a way to sneak in some totally unacceptable legislation. They know very well that there will not be unanimity and the opposition will vote against the bill. They put things in that go too far or that do not make sense. Then they say that there are good things in the bill and they wonder why the opposition does not support it. It is because the Liberals overlook all the bad things. That is how the Liberals see things. They speak in general terms and have a massive public relations campaign, but when we start getting into the details, when we look beyond all the pretty words and pretty pictures, we find that there are many flaws. The quality and the resolution of the image are not always very good.

We have become accustomed to seeing a lot of shenanigans from the Liberal government. Since I was elected in 2015, I have seen that there are all sorts of ways of using the legislative process. The Liberals are trying to do things and they are especially trying to get out of the promises they made to Canadians in order to get elected in 2015. The Liberals realized that they could promise just about anything but that it is not so easy for a government to keep such promises.

I think the Liberals are going through a tough time right now because they made all sorts of promises in order to get elected. They promised Canadians just about anything, but now they are unable to keep those promises, so they have to find a way to get out of them. They decided to introduce a bill that does not accomplish what it is supposed to accomplish, thinking that would at least get people talking about the issue.

However, talking does not change anything. If all the government does is talk about an issue, if it does not change the laws, if it is not really held to account, and if it does not keep the promises that it made to Canadians, then Canadians end up with a government that does things that people did not elect it to do. That is what is happening today.

A number of things in Bill C-58 do indeed reflect Liberal promises. The Liberals made the following promise: “We will make government information more accessible.” Clearly, based on my reading of the bill and in light of what members of this cabinet have been doing, this government has no intention of increasing government openness and transparency. Instead, Bill C-58 actually undermines access to information in Canada. There is a great deal of opposition to Bill C-58.

This government claims to be open by default, and yet, the fiercest opposition to Bill C-58 is coming from the most loyal defenders of government transparency and access to information. What is wrong with this picture? We are talking about journalists, civil liberties groups, and yes, even the federal Information Commissioner. Indeed, the individual responsible for enforcing the legislation we are debating here today has criticized much of what is in Bill C-58.

In a report released in September, Ms. Legault said that Bill C-58 fails to deliver the fundamental reform the Access to Information Act needs. She said that the government's proposals actually introduce new barriers to the process Canadians must go through when requesting government documents. One would expect to hear that kind of thing from the opposition Conservative Party because our job is to criticize the government. However, that message is from the Information Commissioner, who is responsible for enforcing Bill C-58.

The report is entitled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”. The title says it all. Here is what the report says:

In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver.

The government promised the bill would ensure the act applies to the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices appropriately. It does not.

The government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. It does not.

The government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.

Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.

It is the sad story of a government that promised things it had no intention of doing, or a government that improvises and was clearly not ready to govern. Two years after the election, I think that any political observer can confirm what I am saying. The government was not ready and, now, it is improvising and trying to look like it is keeping its promises, which it is entirely incapable of doing.

Let me get back to the Information Commissioner’s special report. The tables at the end of the report are impressive. They include a comparative summary, as well as information about improvements to Bill C-58, the current situation and other items. In short, we can see whether the various elements of the bill are positive, or whether they constitute a regression.

On the topic of making requests, we have a regression; declining to act on requests, regression; declining to act on requests for institutions, positive. Let us be fair, there are positive elements. The Prime Minister’s Office and mandate letters are neutral; ministers’ offices, regression; government institutions, regression; Parliament, regression; courts, regression.

With respect to fees, the process was to be streamlined and the fees abolished, but the changes still constitute a regression. On the topic of oversight model, we have a regression; seeking representations from the Privacy Commissioner in the course of an investigation: regression. That is a lot of regression, and this is not just my opinion. Mediation will be positive if added. The publication of orders will be positive if added.

The examination of solicitor-client privileged records is a positive. We are not being partisan: the impact of the purpose of the Access to Information Act is unknown. On the transition to a new oversight model, we have a regression; and the impact of the mandatory periodic review is unknown.

I can see why the impact of a mandatory periodic review is unknown. Since we began considering Bill C-58, several good suggestions have been made to improve it. The government did not take any of these suggestions into account. I understand why the commissioner has certain questions concerning the purpose of the mandatory periodic review.

The report ends on a negative note. The changes to Info Source, or the requirement institutions have to annually publish certain classes of information, constitute a regression, and lastly, on the topic of institutions’ annual reports on the administration of the Access to Information Act, we have yet another regression.

We are not the ones saying this. It is in the report of the Information Commissioner of Canada, whose title speaks volumes: “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”. This document made recommendations to the government for improving Bill C-58 so that it would meet the openness and transparency needs not of the official opposition, the NDP, the Bloc québécois, the Green Party, independent members of Parliament or Liberal backbenchers, but of Canadians.

Unfortunately, “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency” is the report card for Bill C-58. That is why the Liberal government had to put forward a time allocation motion today, to silence the hon. members of every opposition party here in the House. It does not want us to spend time repeating that the Information Commissioner said that it was way off the mark.

Mr. Speaker, if you knew everything that people were saying and all the articles that were being written about Bill C-58, you would also have a hard time understanding the government's intention. According to the cofounder of Democracy Watch, the bill constitutes a regression in that it allows government officials to decline requests for information if they believe that the request is frivolous or in bad faith.

Let us put ourselves in the shoes of a member of cabinet who is being asked questions about his villa in France and who decides that the request is frivolous or made in bad faith, since where he spends his vacation is no business of Canadians. This person would refuse to answer the questions. That is what Democracy Watch is denouncing.

Also, well-known defender of Canadian democracy Mr. Conacher says that public servants should not have this power, because they will likely use it as a new loophole to decline giving the public the information to which it is entitled. That is exactly what I have been saying since the beginning.

Bill C-58 also imposes new obligations on people requesting information. The act currently requires government institutions to make every reasonable effort to assist a person making a request, regardless of the information requested. However, under the proposed legislation, people requesting information will have to provide more specific information about the exact type of document they are looking for, the period in question and the exact subject.

In other words, if I want to know more about the elimination of a tax credit for diabetics and I do not give the exact name of the tax credit and the form, the people across the aisle may decline to give me the information. Still, as far as I know, Canadians have the right to know why the government eliminated the tax credits for diabetics. When a major change affects the lives of those who are the most vulnerable, Canadians have the right to know why the change was made and why the minister did not inform the opposition and all Canadians. I think that is logical.

It is as if the government wanted to find more ways of hiding the truth from Canadians. I do not dare say it, but this bill looks like another attempt at a cover-up on the part of the government, and yet, all it is doing is revealing to Canadians just how unprepared it was to govern. That is our assessment of Bill C-58.

It is probably for that reason that the government does not want to have to answer questions about tax reform, the Morneau affair, Netflix taxes, the small deficits they promised, NAFTA, China, home mail delivery, and the Prime Minister's vacation on a private island, which was talked about a lot. It is probably the reason why Bill C-58 is before us today and why we are subject to time allocation.

The promise of openness and transparency is a failed public relations exercise, and I would remind members that, according to the Information Commissioner, the government has failed to meet its goal to be transparent.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:30 p.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for his comments.

I agree fully with his observation that the Liberal government promised much. It promised transparency, accountability, but did not deliver it, spectactularly. The Liberals claim they consulted widely and they did, but they did not listen.

The Liberals characterize Bill C-58 as living legislation. Unfortunately it is not quite dead but it should be; it is on life support. We know that because of the Liberal majority and the heavy-handed imposition of time allocation, now cutting short debate, which should be much longer, the bill will pass, will become law, and will take Canadians backward in their legitimate right to know how they are governed, their access to information.

Does my colleague share my great and deep disappointment that this vitally important debate has been cut so short?

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:35 p.m.
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Conservative

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

Mr. Speaker, I think that this is a missed opportunity. The title of the Information Commissioner’s report is “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”. It speaks volumes.

In fact, I think that the government is missing a good opportunity to act openly and transparently, by not answering the official opposition’s questions during question period.

I do not know how many times I have heard them say, “We will help the middle class and those working hard to join it”, or “We want a good agreement, not just any agreement”. For the government, it is as if this constant repetition were more important than reality and the answers we are waiting for on this side of the House.

At some point, Canadians will tire of the prepackaged comments they are hearing from government ministers. What Canadians want are answers. Not only do the Liberals not want to provide answers here in the House but, with Bill C-58, they are making it even more difficult for Canadians to get real answers from the government.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:40 p.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Richmond—Arthabaska.

As we have heard many times today, again, the legislation before us, Bill C-58, which the Liberal government is steamrolling to pass through the heavy-handed imposition once again of the legislative guillotine of time allocation, has been characterized in many ways.

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association dismissed the so-called proactive disclosure provisions as a bizarre sleight of hand.

Democracy Watch calls Bill C-58 a step backward.

The Canadian Association of Journalists ridiculed the President of the Treasury Board for “outstanding achievement in government secrecy” and conferred on the Liberals a “code of silence” award.

La Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec said that rather than the promised greater openness from this Liberal government it was a false alarm, too good to be true.

The Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University says Bill C-58 is little more than a cosmetic touch-up.

The Algonquin Nation Secretariat, on behalf of the National Claims Research Directors, rejected Bill C-58 as it was originally written for installing “significant new barriers for First Nations” trying to access historic information for their land claims. They have a right to access that information.

From experts on open government principles across the country there has been condemnation of the parts of Bill C-58 that allow the government to deny access to documents the government claims contain confidential cabinet information, which the experts characterize still today as the deepest black hole in Canada's access to information system.

As well, there are any number of other negative characterizations of the flawed legislation before us, but the most telling comes from the Information Commissioner herself.

After the Liberal majority ignored the unanimously negative votes from this side of the House at second reading by Conservatives, the NDP, the Bloc, and the Green Party, Commissioner Legault sent her own strongly worded message to the government, to members of the House, and to all Canadians. It was titled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency—Recommendations to improve Bill C-58”. It is relevant to read just a few of the commissioner's remarks into the record.

Commissioner Legault reminded us that, “The Liberal government was elected on a platform of openness and transparency... promising to renew Canadians' trust in their government....to lead a review of the outdated Access to Information Act to enhance the openness of government.” Commissioner Legault concluded, “In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver.”

She said the government promised the bill would ensure the act applies to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices appropriately. “It does not”, she said, with emphasis.

She said the government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. Again, with emphasis, she said, “It does not”.

She said the government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner, to empower her, to order the release of government information. Again she said clearly, “It does not”.

The commissioner summed up her assessment of Bill C-58 with telling finality, “Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.”

She then, across some 45 pages of detailed criticism, marked the government's proposed legislation section by section, paragraph by paragraph, as a disappointed high school teacher might mark an under-fulfilling student. There are 12 red-line failures, regressive elements, in the commissioner's assessment, a couple of neutrals and a couple of positives.

When the commissioner came before our committee, she reiterated her conclusion that Bill C-58 is overwhelmingly a regressive piece of legislation that diminishes Canadians' right to know.

She spoke again to the fact that Bill C-58 does not truly empower her to order the disclosure of information while, at the same time, it adds burdensome stages to the investigation process.

The Information Commissioner effectively said that should the government fail to accept her top 28 recommended amendments, the status quo, what we have now as access to information legislation, as imperfect as it may be, would be preferable to Bill C-58. Her most telling example of the glaring flaws of Bill C-58 was to explain to our committee that if passed as originally tabled, it would have blocked the journalistic requests that exposed the notorious sponsorship scandal.

Now, this example gave the Liberal government pause and moved the Liberals to retreat somewhat. Therefore, one of the few improvements or amendments accepted by the government for the current form of the bill before us was the removal of what the commissioner termed “massive regression” in terms of excessively specific criteria in any access to information request.

This removal is to be welcomed, but it seems some government departments and individual officials are nonetheless already implementing its stringent provisions. The commissioner revealed in her testimony before committee that she had a newly documented case where one institution was applying criteria in Bill C-58, which is not law, and thanks to the government retreat in this area will not be in the law. However, at least one institution is already using those now deleted criteria to deny legitimate requests for information. Therefore, I think that any reasonable person has to wonder how officials in departments and agencies across government will respect and follow the letter of the law in this very slightly amended but still deeply flawed piece of legislation.

The government has not only ignored and rejected the wise advice of the Information Commissioner, journalists, stakeholders, human rights advocates, and ordinary citizens who would like to see meaningful improvements to access to information, but the current Liberal government has also ignored almost all of the recommendations made by the Liberal-dominated committee of the House that carried out an exhaustive study of the law a year ago before Bill C-58 was written and tabled.

Members probably already noted that I have not addressed the false advertising of the Liberals' 2015 election promises on reform to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. Members may recall the then leader of the third party of the House making promises across a spectrum of tax cuts, modest deficits, electoral reform, restoration of home mail delivery, the United Nations peacekeeping, revenue-neutral carbon prices, just to name a few. The Liberal leader also said “...we're going to have to embark on a completely different style of government”. He then added an interesting metaphor when he promised, “A government that both accepts its responsibilities to be open and transparent, but also a population that doesn't mind lifting the veil to see how sausages are made”.

I am not sure whether members can see the Prime Minister or the President of the Treasury Board as sausage makers, but if they do, then they must truly see Bill C-58 as “the wurst”. This is not a great pun, but I think it appropriate in this situation.

The President of the Treasury Board, a loquacious and good-humoured individual, asked us when he appeared before committee to recognize the government's daring in attempting the first meaningful updating of the Access to Information Act in 34 years. He had spoken abroad at the summit of Open Government Partnership extolling the virtues of the Liberal government's commitment. However, in the face of overwhelming criticism of the deeply flawed Bill C-58, the minister has rejected virtually all of the recommended improvements and amendments from our committee, from the commissioner, and from Canadians. He effectively said not to worry, be happy, and that this aromatic sausage may not be perfect, but he will look at it again in a year and perhaps consider improvements. He said, “Don't let perfection be the enemy of the good”. However, as I said earlier today, there is very little good in Bill C-58.

We recognize on this side of the House that Bill C-58 is a classically regressive piece of legislation that is about to be steamrollered into law by the Liberal majority. Shame on Liberal backbenchers. As I have said, they are using the legislative guillotine of time allocation, cutting short debate on an issue that is at the heart of the our democracy, which is the right of Canadians to know how they are governed.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:50 p.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, I must again say that this living document, which is on life support, certainly in the court of public opinion, will be imposed on Canadians by the Liberal majority.

I want to speak positively about the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, because it is a productive committee. Members work well together. A year ago, before this bad law was written, the committee, with a Liberal majority and chaired by a Conservative, voted unanimously to advise the government on what should be in Bill C-58. Those suggestions were completely ignored. When the bill, under attack from all quarters, went to committee recently and all of the recommended amendments by the NDP were rejected, we Conservatives saw the government's mood and did not submit any proposed amendments because we believed, and still believe, that Bill C-58 is beyond redemption, though at least one member of the Liberal committee voted for changes. The Liberal numbers on that committee meant that the direction of the PMO prevailed and all but a very few of those amendments were accepted by the government.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 12:55 p.m.
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Conservative

Alain Rayes Conservative Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

Mr. Speaker, before explaining why I am so pleased to speak in the House to Bill C-58 on reforming the Access to Information Act, I will read a quote to put things into context:

When I was getting ready to appear [before the committee], I came back to the request made by journalist Daniel Leblanc [from TheGlobe and Mail], the request that uncovered the sponsorship scandal. That request would not have met the requirements [of the bill, which] would be a major setback [for information rights].

That person is referring to the bill we are talking about today, the one that the Liberals want to pass. Who said that? It was not an opposition MP, it was Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada.

That is why the bill to amend the Access to Information Act, 1993 is so highly anticipated. As hon. members know, that legislation affects anyone wanting to obtain information from federal government institutions.

Ever since the Access to Information Act reform was unveiled there has been no end to the criticism and disappointment. First, this reform does not keep the Liberals' promise to extend the legislation to ministers' offices, or to the Prime Minister's office. That is the first broken promise.

Second, the government will now be able to decline any access to information request if it believes the request is vexatious, is made in bad faith, or is otherwise an abuse of the right to make a request for access to information. In other words, the government is leaving itself enough leeway to turn down any request that could be harmful or embarrassing to it. God knows there are plenty of files that meet that description.

Third, we know there is currently a major backlog of access to information requests. Sadly, this bill does nothing to tackle the backlog, which has already reached unacceptable levels and serves to further impede access to information.

Fourth, the government promised that the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts, but as it turns out, that will not be so.

Fifth, the government promised that the bill would create an oversight model that would give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of government information. However, needless to say, this bill contains no such reforms.

According to the Information Commissioner, whom I quoted at the beginning, if this bill had been in force in 1999, it would have prevented journalists from accessing the information that made it possible for them to uncover the Liberal sponsorship scandal, better known in some circles as the Gomery commission.

Ms. Legault has voiced several criticisms regarding Bill C-58. Basically, no one is satisfied. Everyone is disappointed in this version of the bill.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of the Evidence for Democracy group, has said that by ruling out the possibility of obtaining information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the Liberal government is breaking its promise. She also argued that the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government that is open by default. She believes the possibility to arbitrarily refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes government transparency and openness.

The Liberals are going to great lengths to protect the Prime Minister.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, believes that the bill represents 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. Mr. Conacher has also indicated 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 has a right to know. We saw this with the minister of the Canada Revenue Agency, especially in recent weeks.

Stéphane Giroux, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec—these are not the mean, old Conservatives the Liberals make us out to be; Robert Marleau, former information commissioner from 2007 to 2009; the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association; some first nations groups who noted that some provisions in the bill would make it harder for them to get access to justice and information, all these people oppose the bill. That is a lot of people; they are starting to add up.

This all means that not only the members of the opposition, but also civil liberties groups, journalists, and the Information Commissioner, who is neutral, all oppose the bill and prefer the status quo. That says something when we prefer the status quo, with its many flaws, rather than this Liberal reform presented today. We understand that there is work to do to improve the situation. All these people share a common belief that Bill C-58 does not implement any of the requested reforms to the Access to Information Act, and furthermore, that it introduces new obstacles to the process that Canadians will have to follow to make legitimate requests for government documents. After this, we still wonder why the population is so cynical about politicians.

The reform therefore does nothing to address the enormous shortcomings of the act, as the Liberals promised during the election campaign. In fact, it is a step backward. Governments in power, regardless of the party, constantly introduce bills to improve the situation. As I was saying earlier, it is unbelievable that so many people see only regression in a bill that should improve the situation.

This is also double talk: the Liberals say that they are open and transparent, but they missed a great opportunity to prove it. They must be totally disconnected to believe that Canadians will not see through them, particularly when we consider the scandals that have emerged every day for two years now.

As the reform currently stands, the government will be able to choose which information it will make public and protect the information it wants to hide from Canadians. It will be free to decline requests for access to information for obscure and arbitrary reasons.

My colleagues can rest assured that no information that could be even minimally embarrassing will be disclosed. We know how the Liberals work. By choosing to disclose only what makes them look good—and we know how much our Prime Minister likes to look good, no need to mention the selfies—I think that everyone knows exactly what the Prime Minister is doing: the Liberals are now turning the Access to Information Act into a new communications strategy. What we are talking about is serious.

This act is one of the very few tools that citizens, journalists, and members of all official opposition parties, who have the responsibility to monitor this government to prevent the types of breach of trust we are seeing today, have to exercise their right to information and do their jobs properly. Make no mistake, the Liberal government is centralizing power around the Prime Minister and his cronies, who control even the various ministers’ offices, despite what it is letting on with its nice words and pretty pictures, while publicly condemning such acts.

Lastly, when we look at the bill as a whole, what we take away is “do what I say, not what I do”. It is a sad state of affairs.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:05 p.m.
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NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his speech.

I think the French title of the Information Commissioner's report had something to do with a missed target.

I have never before seen a watchdog of Parliament, an officer of Parliament, hold up government legislation, compare it to the government's promises and mandate letters, and so thoroughly eviscerate that legislation, as in the case of Bill C-58.

We heard in testimony from the commissioner that her department and her office already were receiving complaints about government agencies employing the tactics imagined in Bill C-58, which has not even passed Parliament yet. Government agencies are denying access to information requests from Canadians based on these terrible articles in the bill, which would allow a government agency to deem a request from a Canadian as being vexatious or too problematic for the agency.

When it come to information, some things Canadians want from the government may seem vexatious to the government but are important to Canadians, like missing and murdered aboriginal women, like the number of sexual assaults that go unreported to the RCMP in Canada, like the sponsorship scandal, and like the Afghan detainee situation. All of those came to light only because Canadians, journalists, and NGOs were able to gain access that information from governments that did not want to give them.

My question for my friend is this. If Bill C-58 already is being applied, denying Canadians access to the information to which they are legally entitled, what kind of future can we imagine for first nations groups, environment groups, and journalists, those people who simply are trying to get information from the government to which they are legally entitled?

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Alain Rayes Conservative Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for asking a relevant question that ties into the statements made by everyone I quoted in my speech. Opposition members are not the only ones crying foul. When people listen to the rhetoric in this place, they may get the sense that we are here just to oppose the government no matter what it says. In this case, as my colleague astutely pointed out, officers of Parliament are the ones saying these things, not us. They are the ones who are responsible for keeping us in line because we are all human and we can all make mistakes. They are saying the same thing as journalists and opposition party members, who want to do a good job of representing their citizens.

Members on this side of the House were elected by the people, too. The people decided to give the Liberals a chance to govern, but they also elected us to keep a close eye on the Liberals. As such, I believe we have the same rights as them. If I submit an access to information request, I, like any journalist, opposition member, or citizen frustrated by what has been going on these past two years, should have the privilege of getting the information requested. Bill C-58 does just the opposite. This government is protecting itself by implementing a new communications management system.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:10 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 am thankful for this opportunity to speak to Bill C-58, and to perhaps set the record straight with respect to some of the remarks of my colleagues opposite. They love to quote criticisms of the bill that took place before the committee study, before amendments were made to address those very issues, and before the bill was even further strengthened to build on the historic improvement to access to information.

Our government is firmly committed to being open and transparent. That is the kind of government Canadians expect and deserve. These reforms were made with that in mind.

We remain committed to upholding this principle, which was first applied in the 1983 Access to Information Act.

Now, 34 years later, our proposed reforms advance the original intent of the act in a way that reflects today's technologies, policies, and legislation, and keeps this an evergreen process as well.

I am proud our government is the government to finally update this act. This is in contrast to the government of the members opposite, the Conservatives, who promised to reform this act in their election platform, spent 10 years in government, and failed to do a thing.

I experienced the former government's control tactics around access to information first-hand as an opposition member of Parliament. I filed an access to information request to find out more about the process for building Canada's pavilion for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games. The pavilion was to be built in Vancouver, and there were questions about it in the media. Lo and behold, when I received the response from the government, every line in the document had been blacked out. There was not a scrap of information. I would contend that Canada's Olympic pavilion was hardly a national security issue that had to be protected.

That is what the Conservative government of the day was doing instead of fixing the Access to Information Act. Perhaps it was also too busy becoming the first government in not just the history of Canada but the history of the Commonwealth to be found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide information to Parliament.

Let us not forget the extent to which the New Democrats were hesitant to join the trend when the Liberal MPs became the first party to begin a practice of proactive disclosure of expenses. They needed to be dragged along with that. However, I digress.

Our government is acting. We are following through on our election promise to reform the Access to Information Act.

Our efforts started over a year ago. In May 2016, we issued a directive that enshrined the idea of a government that is “open by default”.

Open by default means having a culture across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course, unless there are specific reasons not to do so.

Now, with the amendments proposed in Bill C-58, we are taking the next step.

Bill C-58 would advance the Access to Information Act in some key areas. It would give the Information Commissioner the power to order government to release records. She has been asking exactly for that. That is a significant increase in the power of the commissioner. No longer is the office of the commissioner simply an ombudsperson. It would now have the power to compel government to release records.

The bill would put the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices inside the act for the very first time, as promised, through legislative requirements for proactive disclosure. It would also legislate proactive disclosure for administrative bodies that supported the courts, Parliament, and other government institutions. This dramatically broadens the reach of the Access to Information Act.

The bill also mandates five-year reviews of the act. Therefore, it is an evergreen process of improvement. What is more is that it would require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act.

This will help us understand and increase the kinds of information that could be and should be proactively published.

We are also developing a guide to provide requesters with clear explanations for exemptions and exclusions. We are investing in tools to make processing information requests more timely and efficient. We are allowing federal institutions with the same minister to share request processing services for greater efficiency. We are also increasing government training to get common and consistent interpretation and application of ATI rules.

We are moving to help government institutions weed out bad faith requests that put significant strain on the system.

By tying up government resources, such vexatious requests can interfere with an institution's ability to do its other work and respond to other requests. However, let me be clear. We have heard the concerns expressed about how we must safeguard against abuse of this proposed measure. In particular, we have heard the concerns raised by indigenous groups regarding land claims.

As the President of the Treasury Board said during second reading debate, “A large or broad request, or one that causes government discomfort, does not, of itself, represent bad faith on the part of the requester.” Broad requests, particularly historical records to substantiate indigenous claims, are legitimate and consistent with the spirit of the act.

However, it was not enough for our government to clearly state our intentions in the House of Commons. Therefore, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics further strengthened Bill C-58 by amending the bill to make it explicit that no department could refuse a request simply because the subject, type of record or date of record was not specified.

The bill was also amended to give the Information Commissioner veto power in advance over whether a department could reject a request. The committee also passed an amendment that would give the Information Commissioner the power to publish the results of their investigations and orders, giving further leverage to the commissioner's new powers, as was intended by the President of the Treasury Board and requested by the commissioner. Our government firmly supports these amendments.

In addition to the government's duty to assist, which is a fundamental obligation built into the Access to Information Act, our government is fully committed to fulfilling Canada's fiduciary obligation to assist first nations in furthering their land claims.

After 34 years, Canada's ATI system needs updating, and this will be a work in progress.

I am disappointed that the members opposite in both the Conservative Party and the NDP have been playing politics with this very important bill. They have been raising issues that were already addressed at committee, where amendments were passed to put to rest the concerns that were raised.

The Conservatives, who never did anything for 10 years even though they solemnly promised in their platform to update access to information, are acting as though this is a step backward. In fact, it is a step in forward in many respects. It would broaden the scope of the act, respect the commissioner's request to have additional powers to determine if a department could refuse to fulfill an access to information request. It also includes order-making power to ensure the order is published and publicly available to review.

A great number of key steps have been taken to advance the openness and transparency to the Canadian public with respect to information to which they should and will have access.

Members opposite are pretending that no amendments have been made, that the commissioner's report is still valid when it was written before the amendments to respond to her concerns were debated and voted on by committee members, including the New Democratic Party members and Conservative members, and wholly supported by the Liberal President of the Treasury Board and Liberal members. The fact that those are being ignored, that those parties are aiming to confuse and confound the public debate, and mislead members of the public listening to their speeches and questions and answers is very discouraging and disappointing. This is one of those kinds of policy measures that everyone agreed needed to be improved. That is exactly what we are doing, for the first time in 34 years.

To try to confuse the public into thinking that this is a step back, when it is a major leap forward, is doing a disservice to the public. It is providing inaccurate information to the public. It is raising unnecessary fears around individual access to information and around indigenous people's access to information in pursuit of potential land claims. These things have been addressed. We have a great deal of respect for the importance of reconciliation with indigenous peoples right across this country, and one part of that is to support and aid individuals and groups that are seeking access to information to pursue the reconciliation, partnership, and co-operation our government is so committed to.

Therefore, I would request that the members opposite stick to the facts, reflect what happened in committee in terms of the amendments that were made, and reflect the ways in which the commissioner's requests and others were actually built into those amendments by committee. Let us have a debate on the merits of this policy using the actual up-to-date, factual information. That would be a public service on the part of members opposite.

As I said at the start of my speech, I am very proud that it is our Liberal government that is finally following through and giving the Access to Information Act some much-needed reform. There would be a review just one year after the coming into force of this bill so that we would be able to have continuous quality improvement of this very important piece of legislation. This very important aspect of our public policy, whereby reviews are done and improvements are made in a timely way, is built into our new act. We are looking forward to continuing our work to help make government more open, transparent, and accountable.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:25 p.m.
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Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am not clear on what the member considers to be draconian about a law, Bill C-58, that would broaden access to information across the Prime Minister's Office, ministers' offices, and many other offices. What is draconian about giving order-making power to the commissioner, enabling the commissioner to determine whether a request can actually be blocked by a department?

I will just add that the previous government had ministers countermanding the provision of information by a department and actually taking the political power themselves to block access to information requests. It was shocking at the time. The sanctimonious comments I hear on the other side of the House are quite surprising, given that record.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:30 p.m.
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Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, let us talk about reality. The reality is that the commissioner asked for order-making power and would be provided order-making power. In the amendments, that order-making power was strengthened in ways the commissioner had indicated would make it even more effective.

Let us talk about reality with respect to the Prime Minister's office and the minister's offices. For the first time ever, the act would apply to the ministers' offices and the PMO. This would lead to better public understanding of government decision-making, fostering more participation and public trust in government. That is advancement.

For the first time ever, the act would apply to 240 federal entities, from the courts to the ports. That is advancement.

This is not just a one-off exercise. It is an evergreen, ongoing rejuvenation. The member opposite, from Skeena—Bulkley Valley, continues to quote comments made before a committee process that vastly improved the bill, with the cooperation of all parties. I would ask him to update his narrative and reflect Bill C-58 as it is today in this House.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:30 p.m.
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NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Victoria.

“All-party co-operation” is what the Liberals call it. This is what happens to this bad piece of legislation, which the Information Commissioner said, unless it was fundamentally amended would be a regression in terms of access to information. That is what she said, so we tried to fundamentally amend it. Based upon what? It was not about the notions we came into the meetings with. It was from the testimony that we heard at the committee from the Information Commissioner, who is the lead on access to information in this country. It was from first nations groups, who are seeking settlement with the government over land treaties, residential school inquiries, with the government, by the way, still in court with first nations. It might be shocking, but the Liberal government is taking first nation kids to court, taking the generations that followed to court, to deny them access to documents that happened in residential schools. My friend can walk away from the conversation, but the reality will follow her right out of Parliament and into her home constituency in Vancouver.

I imagine that most of my Liberal colleagues came in with good intentions, wanting to open up government, wanting to make information more available to Canadians, because it is their information. They paid for it. When the Department of National Defence does something, when Indigenous Affairs does something, and they file some documents on it, the documents do not belong to the Government of Canada, they belong to the people of Canada. That is who paid for it, and that is what is required under law. However, there are tricks around providing that information.

My friend from the Liberals just said that we should celebrate because access to information now applies to the Prime Minister's Office and the minister's office. That, on the surface, would seem like a really good idea, and that is what the Liberals promised, but what is the reality? Can people write an access to information request to the Prime Minister's Office after Bill C-58 becomes law? No, they cannot. What will happen is that the Prime Minister's Office will self-disclose the information, such as mandate letters. They are going to make mandate letters mandatorily disclosed to Canadians. Well, let the angels sing on high and pop the champagne corks. Big deal. They break half of the promises in their mandate letters anyway, so making them public means exactly what? It is a mandate letter. We wanted access to how the Prime Minister's Office operates. That is what the current Prime Minister promised when he was not Prime Minister.

Now that he is Prime Minister, he does not want that access to information to apply to him. He wants it to apply to somebody else at some other time. We went through this. The Assembly of First Nations is meeting today, and they have an emergency resolution on the floor from the chiefs across this country to reject this piece of legislation. The Liberals love the notion and the symbolism and the gestures toward first nation people. Hand on heart, they say that no relationship is more important to them. Then, we find out when it comes to important things that native people care about, like getting access to information, who attended residential schools, who went through that brutality, and can they get the names from government, that they cannot, they have to take it to court. Will Bill C-58 make things worse or better? According to first nation groups who testified, it will make it worse as first nations seek to settle land claims. Oftentimes documents are needed to settle a land claim. Who has those documents? The crown has them. Will Bill C-58 make things worse or better? It will make them worse.

The Liberals talk about working collaboratively. They stood in the House and said they are going to work collaboratively with the opposition. We took them on their word. We took the information given to us from these expert witnesses, from people in the media who use access to information all the time, from first nations, from environmental advocates, from Democracy Watch, and we put them into amendments. What did the Liberals do? En masse, they voted one after another to shoot them all down. They said they worked with us, they collaborated with us, they co-operated with us. I have no idea how they define those terms, but my idea of collaboration and co-operation is to listen to expert testimony and then to properly consider it.

The Liberals moved some cosmetic amendments at the end of the process. I asked Liberal colleagues who were moving the amendments if they could explain them, because clearly they must understand what they were doing. However, they had to huddle, they had to get together, time and time again. This is a travesty. If we look through our history as a country since the access to information laws have existed, some of the most important stories in our country have only come to light because someone was able to apply an access to information request. The Prime Minister says again and again that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The enormous power that the federal government has must be held in check. That is the way that democracy works, if it works at all. The way to hold government in check is to have information to counter, particularly when government is lying, misleading Canadians, misappropriating funds, or conducting itself in a way other than what it promised.

If we go back through our history, how did we learn about type 1 diabetics in Canada being rejected? That was an ATIP request. The government did not say it had changed policy, that people with type 1 diabetes will now not get their disability tax credits. No, it was an access to information request that found that Revenue Canada was going to describe that policy in a new way and go from accepting 90% of applicants to rejecting 90% of applicants who have type 1 diabetes. That was an access to information request.

Robyn Doolittle from The Globe and Mail gave an incredibly comprehensive analysis of sexual assaults in Canada, on what the situation is with under-reporting and reporting. How did she find that out? It was through access to information. With regard to the Afghan detainees, Canadians in Afghanistan, possibly contrary to international law, were transferring prisoners to the Afghan government. That was discovered through access to information. How did we find out about the sponsorship scandal, where millions and millions of dollars, which was purported to sponsor ads and promote Canada, was ending up in the pockets of Liberal political operatives in Quebec. How did we find that out? Did the government self-disclose and say, “By the way, we have been stealing millions of dollars”?

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:35 p.m.
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NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Yes, say the Liberals. Oh, my, what delusional sense of history do the Liberals have? That only came to light because Mr. Leblanc from The Globe and Mail dug and dug into government information. He used a part of the Access to Information Act and asked for the documents between this date to that date from a certain department. Under Bill C-58, that would not be allowed anymore. Who told us that? The Information Commissioner told us that. She said that if the same request had come in after this bill becomes law, we would have never learned about the whole sponsorship scandal. We would have never learned that Liberals in that part of the country were padding their pockets with public money. People went to jail over this, a government fell over this, as it should have, because it was stealing. It was stealing money under the guise of some sponsorship program, and it was only because of access to information that we found this out.

The residential school survivors have been fighting with government for decades for the simple acknowledgement that they or their parents attended a certain residential school at which they were abused horrifically, and for which the Government of Canada was dragged, finally, to apologize for. That only came to light because of access to information. Government does not disclose these things. The Liberals say that they are going to self-disclose and that should be good. We heard from the Information Commissioner's office that complaints have been rising since its new disclosure policy.

We have also heard from the Information Commissioner's office that with these terms, if a request is deemed vexatious by the government, it can deny the request. What does that mean? It is vexatious to whom, to some department that has been badly handling public funds? Yes, I bet that information would look vexatious. The government is going to tell Canadians it is sorry, they cannot have the information they requested because it thinks it is vexatious. It is going to hurt its feelings, and someone might get fired for doing bad. We want to be able to shine light on these things, not go in the opposite direction.

The Information Commissioner asked for order-making powers, and the Liberals promised this. The Information Commissioner would have the ability to demand documents from government and not have government delay and deny. With the amendments in this bill, the commissioner was asked how this would affect order-making power. She said it would not be a true order-making power, and may in fact delay the process for Canadians even longer because they will end up in the courts more often.

Lastly, we asked the Information Commissioner, the watchdog, an officer of Parliament who works on behalf of all of us, if the government consulted with her and if it offered more in the way of a budget, because enforcing this is going to cost a lot more money due to going to court a lot more often. The answer was no.

Again, the Liberals are talking about how they like to consult, how they like to include, how they like to be collaborative. With every proposal we made to change this bill, to try to save this bill from itself, to help Liberals keep a Liberal promise, one of the hardest things to do in politics, they rejected every single one. They allowed the technical amendments from their side and changed a comma here and moved a period there. Congratulations.

However, the fundamental DNA of this bill is designed to make access to information more difficult for Canadians. That is not me talking, that is the Information Commissioner, aboriginal groups, and advocates across the political spectrum who say that things will get worse under this law.

This is the sense of entitlement. This is a hypocritical approach to politics that discourages Canadians so fundamentally. If Liberals are sincere about working with the opposition, they would amend the bill based on the evidence we heard, rather than their own world view, which will make it so much more difficult for Canadians to hold truth to power.

Third ReadingAccess to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 1:50 p.m.
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NDP

Murray Rankin NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to follow my impassioned colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley. I wish I had the same level of anger. I should, but today I really come to this debate with absolute sadness at the missed opportunity before us in Bill C-58.

When the Liberals introduced this legislation, they called it in their press release “the most comprehensive reform of Access to Information in a generation”. It sure was not.

I want to talk about what the Civil Liberties Association has said, what first nations have said, what trade unions have said, what journalists have said, all of which has been to pan this effort as an appalling waste of time.

I could not do better than to quote my colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley, who in turn quoted the Information Commissioner, who has the most expertise of anyone on the bill. She said has said it is “regressive”. She has said to Canadians that if the bill were not significantly amended, “I would much prefer to keep the status quo”, namely, the Stephen Harper version of access to information than the one before us. That must be so galling for Liberals to hear. Then we heard today in the House, “Oh, no, that was before the wonderful amendments we brought in, which have made it all better so we should not be concerned”, referring to all those people who had concerns.

They have not made it right. They have made cosmetic changes to minor parts of the bill that make no difference to the main event, which has always been the exceptions to the rule of disclosure, the exceptions that carve away the right that was given in the main section of the bill, and those exceptions were not touched.

In committee I introduced on behalf of the NDP a dozen or more amendments to the exceptions, and not one was accepted. There were 20 amendments in total, but in regard to the exceptions, there were about a dozen amendments that many activists have talked about. This is not radical stuff. The Information Commissioner told us to suggest those amendments, not to make the bill regressive, but to make it better. How many of those were accepted? Zero.

The government has the gall to stand here before Canadians and take credit for something that is such an absolute farce. I find it appalling that we are in this position.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity, indeed the honour, to stand with five chiefs from across this great country who do research on residential school settlements, on grievances involving specific claims, on land claims generally, including cut-off land claims. Every single one of them said they were not consulted and that this law would make things worse. I thought no relationship was more important to the Prime Minister than with first nations. One could have heard a pin drop in that press conference as one after another stood up to castigate the Liberal government for yet another broken promise.

This is not just another bill. This is what the courts have termed “quasi-constitutional” legislation, in this case dealing with the essential right to know in a democracy. If we do not know what is going on and cannot find out, we live in a totalitarian state.

Back in the 1980s, the government at the time finally introduced an access to information bill, and a generation later it has ossified. It is legislation that no longer does the trick. The government did not even have computers in active use back then, so clearly things needed to change, and yet the changes the current government has proposed involve things like getting access to ministers' mandate letters.

Moreover, now the government can tell us what we want to know under something called “proactive disclosure”. Far be it for me to criticize making more information available, but proactive disclosure will involve the government letting us know by what it puts on a website, as if that were somehow the same as a person making a request to the Prime Minister's Office for information, as was done during the sponsorship scandal when The Globe and Mail and Daniel Leblanc told Canadians about the abuses of their tax dollars. That is because they had the right to make a request and, finally, ATIP delivered.

The government therefore wants to conflate access to information and proactive disclosure, a doctrine that has been around for many years in most provinces and in the federal government. It has been put in a statute and we are supposed to think it is the most comprehensive reform of access to information in a generation. It is just absurd.

I care deeply about this. I did my graduate work on freedom of information. I drafted the B.C. legislation and the Yukon legislation. I know when Canadians are being hoodwinked, and they are being hoodwinked by the bill before us. I think it needs to be withdrawn, and we need to do it right for Canadians. The experts are unanimous that the bill is in dire need of reform because the bill basically only codifies existing practices.

British Columbia and most of the provinces have a very simple way of enabling an information commissioner to order the disclosure of information. After a few days, if the government does not choose to judicially review the order of the commissioner, it is the law, and the government shall disclose it. I invite members to look at the so-called order-making power in the bill to see if they can figure it out, because the Information Commission does not believe it to be anything like what the term “order-making powers” would suggest.

Interestingly, I believe that the only private member's bill the Prime Minister sponsored when he was in opposition was on reforming the access to information and privacy acts. On the Access to Information Act, one of the specific things he wanted to do was to make ministers' offices open, which is to say that one could make a request and the office should respond, and likewise the Prime Minster's Office.

I will say it again, the government is conflating proactive disclosure, namely what it wants to tell us, and the ability of any citizen to ask for information and have the Information Commissioner order it disclosed. That is how it works in my province of British Columbia, and it works very well. Most of the time, cases are settled. Ninety-some percent of cases over the decades have been resolved through mediation. This need not be expensive. It need not be convoluted.

However, the government has provided something like a camel invented by committee. A horse invented by committee is a camel, and the bill before us is a camel. What if people wanted to know, for example, about the Prime Minister's Christmas vacations or whether a minister's villa were held within a private company? Would they be able to ask for that information? Well, it would not be proactively disclosed, I do not believe, which, of course, is one of the crucial difficulties with the proposed legislation.

Canadians also need to know that the government has not abolished the $5 fee, which is a tollgate on citizens' right to access. How much does it cost to cash a cheque for $5? It is $55. This is our government in action, which is why Canadians are basically paying millions of dollars to deny information to other Canadians. There is no duty to document, as requested by the commissioner. The exemptions have not changed, as I indicated, and every academic and every researcher comes down hard on this legislation. We know we are in trouble when the Canadian Association of Research Libraries comes down hard on a bill like this.

I want to end by saying, would it not be nice if quasi-constitutional legislation involving privacy and our rights to information were somehow taken more seriously, that we had an opportunity to really engage in debate at committee and, as a generational change, to get it right? Unfortunately, the government is about to deprive us of that right. The Liberals have used time allocation to bring down the guillotine so that we will not have any more opportunity to discuss this quasi-constitutional legislation in this place. It is a travesty. It is appalling. Canadians deserve better.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 3:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the good member for Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo.

It is often said that image is everything. I share that observation because never before in modern day Canadian history have we witnessed a prime minister who is as image conscious as the member for Papineau is. I am not here today to debate the merits or lack thereof of that point, but rather to point out how that branding exercise led us to Bill C-58.

For those who were not here in the previous Parliament, I shall indulge a little. Shortly after becoming the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the member for Papineau was creating his brand. Part of that brand, and we hear it all the time, was the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” routine. It played well in the Liberal narrative that the former prime minister led the most secretive government in Canada's history, so the member for Papineau introduced a private member's bill to highlight that.

As some will know, during the last election the Liberals again made many of the same open government style promises, similar to what was in the Prime Minister's earlier private member's bill. As usual, these promises used many of the correct buzzwords. They looked good. They sounded good. There was only one problem: the Liberals got elected and now those promises have to be fulfilled.

That leads to our second problem. Bill C-58 does not do exactly that. In fact, it fails so badly that the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada stated in the headline of a news release that “Bill C-58 results in a regression of the rights to access to information”. If we think about that statement for a moment, it is not by a member of Her Majesty's loyal opposition, or the third party, but from the office of an independent officer of Parliament.

Not only that, the bill actually breaks the Prime Minister's own commitments. Despite the commitment to apply access to information laws to the Prime Minister's Office and his cabinet ministers, they all get a pass. It is yet another example of there being one set of rules for everyone else, but a look-the-other-way clause when it comes to the most senior Liberal insiders. That is a growing problem with how the Prime Minister and his small, elite inner circle does things. Many of our constituents are becoming tired of it.

I was not a supporter of the Prime Minister's earlier private member's bill. As I was the parliamentary secretary to the president of the Treasury Board at that time, I was aware that some of the proposed measures were administratively problematic, and I came into this place and said as much.

The problem here is that those challenges were always well known, but in spite of them, the Prime Minister was happy to campaign on them and promise them anyway. Therefore, like many of those priorities and promises, they get thrown by the wayside now that the Prime Minister and his small inner circle control the levers of power.

That is not principled leadership. To promise things one can deliver on, but chooses not to do so is a betrayal. There are other words to describe that, but I would never want to be unparliamentary.

Here we are. We have a bill that the Information Commissioner essentially condemns. Virtually all of those who frequently make access to information requests and use the ATIP legislation have also widely condemned the bill. In fact, during my research, I could find no significant support for the bill whatsoever. If there is, I would really like to hear government members say so. Basically, all expert opinion gives it a fail. It does not meet the promises the Prime Minister made.

In fact, The Globe and Mail reports that Canada's access to information system has become worse under the Liberal Prime Minister. We all know that the bill would not fix that. Many experts suggest that it will only make things worse.

I will not suggest the last government was perfect on the subject either, but we were on the right track. In 2013, the former government released nearly six million pages of information to Canadians, an increase of over a million and a half pages over the preceding year.

Under Bill C-58, we will have a law that says the Prime Minister's office and his ministers can tell Canadians to pound sand when it comes to access to information requests. Keep this in mind. This is the same Prime Minister who was happy to build his brand and score points after promising he would do the exact opposite.

I will again ask the question I recently asked. The Prime Minister, as we all know, came into this place and said “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Why did he say that? Did he say it because it was politically convenient to do so at the time? Did he say it because it showed the principle should only apply to everyone else but himself and his ministers? Did he say it because it happened to be true?

Before I close, I will ask a question. Right now we have a very serious situation where single parents, primarily single mothers, are being unfairly targeted by the Canada Revenue Agency. As a result, in many cases, their Canada child benefits are being delayed, denied, or even clawed back in some cases. We also know that those with type 1 diabetes are also being disturbingly targeted by CRA.

I will credit many backbench Liberal MPs who I know are just as concerned about this situation as I am. I also know that several of them are reaching out to try to help some of those who are being unfairly targeted by this. Some have even stated publicly that they are also concerned.

The ultimate challenge is this. What is the minister going to do to solve this problem? Ultimately that is where the problem is. Thanks to Bill C-58, we will never know. That may be good enough for some. It certainly was not good enough for the member for Papineau, when he was handing out gift bags of election promises, a continued pattern of broken promises that results in one level of rules for senior Liberal insiders and another set for everyone else not the sunlight of disinfectant the Prime Minister promised.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 3:15 p.m.
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Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Madam Speaker, I heard the member during question period, and he asks a great lob question.

In 2009-10, we invested in access to information. It was a 10% increase, which saw, by the time 2013 came around, a reduction in the amount of time it took to get access to information requests. We were improving that record.

The bill would make it easier for someone to call it vexatious request and to deny the request for that reason. When he was a member of Parliament in the third party in the corner, the Prime Minister put forward a swath of propositions to improve the system, campaigned on them, and, in his own mandate tracker, has said that the Liberals are on track to do them, when the bill would do nothing for it.

By the Liberals' standards of transparency, the mandate tracker and Bill C-58 leave much to be desired.

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:15 p.m.
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Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Madam Speaker, first, I would like to point out the quote I gave from the Information Commissioner, an officer of this Parliament. She says, “Bill C-58 results in a regression of the rights of access for information.”

No credible third parties have said that Bill C-58 will deliver specifically on what the member and his government campaigned. If he wants to say that Bill C-58 will revolutionize access to information, we would think someone out there in civil society would support the government. I do not see that. I do not hear that. Could it be because there is no one?

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:20 p.m.
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NDP

Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet NDP Hochelaga, QC

Madam Speaker, there have been discussions among the parties and I believe you would find unanimous consent for the following motion:

That, notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practice of the House, at the conclusion of today's debate on the motion for third 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, every question necessary to dispose of the said motion shall be deemed put, and a recorded division deemed requested and deferred until the expiry of the time provided for Oral Questions on Wednesday, December 6, 2017.

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Madam Speaker, I rise to add some comments to the debate today. I am not pleased to rise to add comments, because, again, we have before us legislation that certainly does not live up to the standards the government has set for itself, and is significantly flawed.

One of the most concerning things about the legislation is this, and it is important for the listeners to hear is this. If the Liberals think the legislation is right, they should also listen.

This is from Suzanne Legault, the Ethics Commissioner. She said:

When I was preparing for this committee, I went back to the request that was made by Daniel Leblanc, the journalist who uncovered the sponsorship scandal. That request would not have met the...requirement under Bill C-58.

As people might recall, the sponsorship scandal was a Liberal scandal. Millions of taxpayer dollars were diverted. Therefore, for the Liberals to have legislation before us that they are saying is adding benefit and value, when Suzanne Legault says that about it, we wonder what they are trying to do and what they are trying to hide.

The amendments to Canada's Access to Information Act will affect every organization that shares information with the federal government and every individual who wants access to that information. While the Liberals are claiming to improve the act, the content of the bill is not only deficient in truly bringing the act forward, but it also opens a lot of loopholes for the Liberal government to refuse to process certain information.

I will look at something that has been happening over the last few days.

This morning I was at the AFN conference and I listened to the minister speak. She talked about how long comprehensive and specific land claims took and how that was unacceptable to the government. She talked about needing a process that moved forward in a more robust way to recognize aboriginal title rights and to resolve these long-standing issues. On the other hand, and this was quite ironic, she said this to the assembly of chiefs, that today we were debating this legislation in the House.

This is what some very important indigenous organizations have said about this.

The National Claims Research Directors stated:

Bill C-58 will greatly impair the ability of First Nations to document their claims, grievances, and disputes with the Government of Canada and will significantly impede First Nations’ access to justice in resolving their claims. The Bill...significantly undermines First Nations’ existing rights of access to information.

That hardly sounds like the commitment the minister made this morning to the chiefs, to have a bill before the House that would significantly impact their ability to do the very thing that she said needed to move forward in an expeditious way.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada recently conducted an audit of Canada's specific claim process. The OAG report, released in November 2016, concluded that Canada's Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs introduced numerous barriers that hindered the resolution of claims, including by restricting information.

Therefore, if passed into law, Bill C-58 will impose substantive new barriers to the resolution of first nation claims. It will also provide legislative authority for the suppression of evidence, which first nations require to pursue their claims against Canada. Revisions to the act will enshrine into legislation overly prescriptive and inappropriate requirements for applicants seeking records, as well as providing legislative grounds for government bodies to deny access to records that are vital to first nations.

Therefore, it is important to look at what the government has said it will do and what it actually does when it puts legislation forward. This is truly another broken promise by the Liberal government.

During their election campaign, the Liberals claimed they would extend the act so it applied to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. However, that will not be the case.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, has stated:

By excluding the ability to request information from ministers' offices and the PMO, this government falls short of meeting their campaign promise to make government “open by default”.

Moreover, this legislation would enable the government to refuse any access to information requests if it believes they are vexatious, made in bad faith, or a misuse of the right to request information. Refusal to respond to a request will be subject to a right of complaint to the Information Commissioner. The Information Commissioner will have the power to force communication of every document or part of it under the control of federal institutions.

A government that chooses what to publish and when is not democratic and cannot be accountable to its citizens. That is fundamental. For all their talk about sunshine being a disinfectant, the Liberals have introduced darkness through the back door.

In a democratic state, a government should be open and transparent to its citizens, so why are the Liberals going out of their way to hide behind closed doors and refusing Canadians the right to fundamental information?

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, states:

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.

I am going to tell the House about a personal situation closer to home. I have a constituent who faced a significant small business challenge, and while he was in Ottawa he met with a number of different folks within the government, including some policy advisers. He needed to get some information from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. He was facing a difficult situation, and when he looked into getting information, he was told that it would take 479 days to obtain what he needed. He would have to wait one year and 4 months to obtain information that was critical for his business, and not only his livelihood, but the livelihoods of his many employees.

Despite the promise to be more transparent, the Trudeau government is failing. As the Toronto Star has stated:

The national freedom of information audit found the federal access system is bogged down to the point where, in many cases, it simply doesn’t work....

The researchers found the federal system continues to be far slower and less responsive than provincial and municipal freedom of information regimes....

Just one-quarter of requests to federal government departments, agencies and Crown corporations were answered within the 30-day limit. One-third of the requests had not received a response by the end of the audit, which means those requests were outstanding for three months or more, with most closer to four months. The RCMP, Health Canada and National Defence were three institutions that cited large backlogs of requests, leading to bottlenecks and delayed responses. Information on pages eventually released under the federal access law can be blacked out for a variety of reasons including national security, legal privilege and commercial confidentiality.

They would get stuff that was totally blacked out.

Clearly the system is not working. The Liberal government committed to fixing the system and, quite frankly, it has made it much worse.

The Liberals issued their own mandate tracker, which has been quickly derided, but gave themselves an A+ for moving this legislation forward and telling Canadians how valuable, important, and great it would be in terms of new transparency. That is completely inaccurate.

I started my remarks by saying if this were in place and if it had cut off the initial investigation of the sponsorship scandal, then it is clearly not a piece of legislation that should pass through the House.

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:30 p.m.
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Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, to follow up on the exchange between my colleague on the Liberal side and my friend from British Columbia, the Liberals seem to be saying that these changes in Bill C-58 will increase transparency and assist Canadians in getting more information from their own government. In fact, it seems to be far more regressive than anything we have seen in the last 34 years.

Does my colleague from British Columbia think that if the changes in Bill C-58 are legislated, it would mean that the government would, on its own volition, be able to determine what information it chooses to give to Canadians?

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:35 p.m.
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Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

Madam Speaker, I recently became chair of the access to information, privacy and ethics committee, where this bill was brought. We talked about all of its positives, which were few, and many of its shortcomings. The shortcomings were highlighted by the many witnesses we heard from.

I think the most significant would be the commissioner herself, who said:

When I was preparing for this committee, I went back to the request that was made by Daniel Leblanc, the journalist who uncovered the sponsorship scandal. That request would not have met the new requirement under Bill C-58.

That highlights what I want to speak to today. We have heard many talking points. It is one thing to actually be in committee and hear all the testimony exposing all of the problems with Bill C-58, but another to hear other members regurgitate talking points that just demonstrate their lack of knowledge of the opposition to the bill.

That is what I want to point out today, the contrast between that and a government that came in with sunny ways and wanted to have sunlight shining on problems to highlight issues.

I neglected to announce that I will be sharing my time with the member for Kitchener—Conestoga.

What I think people watching this debate today need to understand is that they have been sold the idea that the government is more open and accountable, and that what is really happening is the opposite. What is happening through Bill C-58 is actually more cover-up, from ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's staff, etc.

We are going to see more cover-up and more protection of information. Frankly, as the commissioner mentioned, access to information is why we found out about the sponsorship scandal, and why a previous Liberal government failed and did not get re-elected, because of that particular scandal and the really bad things that were happening that we found out about as a result of that information.

I am just going to read through a few quotes for the benefit of those watching today, from a few of the people who oppose the bill. It is not just Conservatives who are opposed to this, or New Democrats, although both parties are. It is groups outside this place who have spoken against it. I will first cite one particular quote by Mr. Marleau, the information commissioner from 2007-09:

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 further stated:

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.

Again, let us let that sink in a little. Liberals give the illusion that they are moving forward on the issue, and, really, they are moving backwards. It is deliberate, because they want to cover up or have the ability to cover up some things being communicated in the Prime Minister's Office.

Again, I have another quote, this time from Vincent Gogolek, another individual speaking against this bill:

All they have to do is claim it’s a cabinet document, and then with her new improved powers she still can’t look at it, which is ridiculous.... So, when in doubt, call it a cabinet document. That’s the big problem, and that remains untouched.

All that needs to be said about a particular document in government is that it is a cabinet document, and therefore black ink will go across it whenever it is requested. Again, it is one thing to say this about any particular government that does not make claims about being more open and accountability, but another to say it about a government that campaigned on being more open and accountable. This is what the Prime Minister's schtick was about: sunny ways and shining a light where there previously were shadows. It is is simply a bait-and-switch. It is saying one thing and doing another.

I have another quote, this time by Katie Gibbs, executive director of the Evidence for Democracy Group, who said:

By excluding the ability to request information from ministers' offices and the PMO, this government falls short of meeting their campaign promise to make government 'open by default'....

Moreover, the possibility of refusing certain access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and openness of the government.

Once again, another person outside this place is saying that the proposed legislation is supposed to be doing one thing, but it is doing completely the other. It is causing more cover-up to be possible rather than exposing the truth.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said that the bill proposes good amendments by requiring a more proactive publication of some information and 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 was promised by the Liberals. Therefore, we need more changes to have a government which is transparent and open by default.

Let us think about the sponsorship scandal and the evidence that was being put forward, and the government just saying no, that it is not going to talk about it.

Mr. Conacher says the bill is “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 servants should not have this authority, because “they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know.

I will speak as chair of the access to information, privacy and ethics committee. Some of the information that was brought before committee really attempted changes based on the recommendations. It was our party's position to support the recommendations of the Information Commissioner, and there are several. It was our position to see those go through. Well, the bill was not changed. The bill has not been significantly changed, and therefore it is still a problem for us.

I was hopeful that the Liberals would take the Information Commissioner's recommendations and understand that maybe it was a flawed document initially, which they would now fix. However, that did not happen in committee, and I want Parliament and people watching today to understand that. Again, the government is saying one thing and doing another.

An article in iPolitics by Steve Mayer is entitled “Liberals shockingly timid on access-to-information reform”. This does not sound like a government that wants to change access to information in a positive way. It sounds like it is going the other way, as I said before. However, the article reads:

We don’t really know, though, because the emails that would tell the tale are in the inboxes of the prime minister’s staff, and the Access to Information Act does not apply to ministerial staff...What the government has decided to do is not what Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault recommended, which is to have Access-to-information officers determine whether emails and memos from ministerial staff are political or parliamentary (in which case they would remain confidential)

The commissioner does not even have the ability to decide which is which. It is all in the hands of the Prime Minister's Office and ministers.

The article continues with:

or pertain to running a department (in which case they would be releasable). Instead of doing that — which is what they promised —

Again, this is an article talking about what the Liberals said they were going to do in Bill C-58. It continues with:

[the minister's] changes to the act would provide for the proactive disclosure of documents — briefing books and notes for question period — that until now have been released only in response to requests.

This means many useful documents will be released routinely, and it follows similar measures that Trudeau began in opposition, when he unilaterally released personal financial information and got his MPs to start posting their expenses online.

Again, the article is not criticizing him for the positive steps that he has made, but certainly the cover-up continues.

As chair of the committee, there was a hope that this would be something that the Liberals would follow through on and take the recommendations of the Information Commissioner. However, we saw quite a different story. We saw a government that would talk one game in front of the cameras and one game on the campaign trail, but when it came to making solid legislation that would expose those shadows that I had mentioned, it did the complete opposite and would give the ability for ministers to shadow even more information.

Sadly, this is what we are debating today. I hope the government does see sunnier ways and votes against Bill C-58.

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:50 p.m.
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Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

Madam Speaker, I have said that it is not doing what it is purporting to do in exposing those shadows. That is the biggest thing that let me down. I have always said in past campaigns that if it is a good idea, it is a good idea regardless of whether it comes from an NDP member, a Liberal member, or a Conservative member. If it is a good idea, it is a good idea. If there is truly this open and accountable government and we want to shine a light where it needs to be shone, I am absolutely supportive. We are deeply disappointed it did not go where the government promised it would go in Bill C-58 and that is unfortunate.

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December 5th, 2017 / 3:50 p.m.
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Conservative

Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Madam Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-58 and, in the words of our Prime Minister, shed some light on this less-than-true statement that members opposite have been making regarding this legislation.

Let us look at the mandate letter that was given to the Minister of Finance in November 2015. The Prime Minister wrote:

We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change – in both what we do and how we do it.

That sure has changed. The Information Commissioner has been clear: this bill sets us back decades in terms of openness and transparency. I will share more of the Information Commissioner's thoughts a bit later in my remarks.

The Prime Minister went on to write in his mandate letter to the finance minister:

I expect Canadians to hold us accountable for delivering these commitments, and I expect all ministers to do their part....

We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government.

There has never been a more perfect example of how the current government is all style and no substance than this one, focusing on rhetoric and platitudes more than actual substance. This has to take the cake. The Liberals love to throw around terms like “openness and transparency” when in reality they are, through this legislation, making it harder for Canadians to access information under the current government. As members know, often the debates here in the House can be tainted with partisan political positioning, so rather than sharing my thoughts on the legislation, please allow me to read into the record parts of the Information Commissioner of Canada's report, titled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”. The commissioner stated:

The Liberal government was elected on a platform of openness and transparency, promising to renew Canadians’ trust in their government. At the beginning of its mandate, it committed to lead a review of the outdated Access to Information Act to enhance the openness of government.

Initial policy changes from the government, such as the elimination of all fees except the $5 application fee, were early indicators of positive change. Like many Canadians, I was hopeful that the government would follow through on its promise and introduce significant improvements to the Act.

Just before Parliament’s 2017 summer break, the government tabled Bill C-58, which amends the Access to Information Act.

In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver.

These are the Information Commissioner's words, they are not mine. I hope that members of the Liberal government will not be disregarding the comments of an independent, non-partisan officer of Parliament.

The commissioner went on to write:

The government promised the bill would ensure the Act applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices appropriately. It does not.

The government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. It does not.

The government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.

Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.

It imposes added obligations on requesters when making a request, adds new grounds for institutions to decline to act in response to requests, reintroduces the possibility of various fees, and, for some information, replaces the right of access and independent oversight with proactive disclosure. It allows the government to decide what information Canadians can obtain, rather than letting Canadians decide for themselves.

I might add that this is the Liberal philosophy: Government knows best what is good for Canadians. It is insulting, it is elitist, and it is arrogant.

More from the Information Commissioner's report:

It also introduces an oversight model where the Commissioner is not truly empowered to order the disclosure of information, and adds burdensome stages to the investigation process that may lead to delays. It does not take advantage of any of the benefits of a true order-making model.

Recent reviews of the Access to Information Act from myself and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics...have proposed amendments that are required to modernize the Act. These recommendations have largely been ignored in Bill C-58.

So much for consultation. So much for openness and transparency. So much for sunny ways. So much for sunshine being the best disinfectant.

Had the changes that the Liberals are ramming through today been in effect in the early 2000s, we would never have found out about the Liberal sponsorship scandal. It makes one wonder what exactly the goal is of the current government in introducing such archaic legislation. What does it have to hide today?

The government acts as if the measures it is taking regarding proactive disclosure in this piece of legislation are somehow groundbreaking. The reality is that the majority of information was already available either online or through access to information under previous governments.

The Liberals are trying to buy off Canadians with promising to proactively disclose how much a minister's steak dinner costs, while taking away their right to request information that could be embarrassing for the government. They give the rights to departments to deny access to information requests that they find to be vexatious or made in bad faith. Who gets to make the judgment as to what is vexatious or made in bad faith? Why, the Liberal government, of course.

I have been serving in opposition for over two years now, and one does not have to look too far into the past to see how thin-skinned the Liberal government is when it comes to asking it tough questions. We can look at the finance minister as an example. For the past several weeks, we have been asking on this side of the House for the finance minister to open up and be honest with Canadians regarding his assets. What does the finance minister do? He threatens to sue members of the opposition. One has to wonder how many journalists and Canadians will be threatened similarly by the finance minister, if he thinks their access to information request is vexatious or made in bad faith.

However, enough about Liberals, let us look at our Conservative government's accomplishments regarding access to information. On November 6, 2014, our government launched the action plan on open government 2.0. The action plan specified ways that the federal government was working toward creating more open and transparent government while maximizing the sharing of government information and data.

Key accomplishments include, one, the next generation open data portal that was launched in June 2013. This new portal was built based on broad public consultations with users to define new capabilities. Enhancements were made to expand the availability of high-value data, improve data integrity, enrich the usability of the site, facilitate intuitive discovery of data, and increase user engagement.

Second was on modernization of access to information services. These online services were launched in 2013 to enable Canadians to search completed ATI requests across all federal departments through a single search interface, and to submit new access to information requests via the web.

Third, in 2013, we issued a new open government licence for all levels of government in order to remove barriers to the reuse of published government data and information, regardless of origin. This licence has also been adopted by several provincial governments and municipalities across the country.

Fourth, we introduced a new government-wide web portal at Canada.ca that improved intuitive navigation features to help Canadians find information they need more quickly and easily. The portal enables users to quickly complete tasks, features government-wide search capabilities, better use of social media, and optimizes content for mobile devices.

In February 2014, we held the largest competitive open data hackathon in Canadian history, bringing together over 900 developers, students, and open data enthusiasts from across Canada to develop over 100 innovative applications using federal data.

Our Conservative government was also promoting transparency in public institutions and supporting taxpayers and hard-working Canadians through our support for private member's Bill C-377, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations). This important legislation would help to ensure greater transparency and accountability for labour unions by requiring them to publish their financial disclosures online for Canadians to examine. However, we know that these changes have been reversed.

No government is better at patting itself on the back than the current Liberal government. However, it is clear that while the government has been pumping out talking points about openness and transparency, the reality is that it is taking Canada down a very dark path.

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December 5th, 2017 / 4:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Todd Doherty Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Madam Speaker, it is an honour to rise on Bill C-58, and to go down this path once again on how we got to where we are today. To those in the gallery and those listening at home, it probably seems like we hit pause, rewind, then play, time and again. This debate is back again, and we will hear some of the same arguments we have had time and again.

I want to refresh, for those who are in the House today, as well as those listening, how we got to this point. I believe it was day 10 of the 2015 election campaign where the member for Papineau, now our Prime Minister, made a campaign pledge that, under his leadership, the Government of Canada would become the most open and transparent government in Canadian history. A mere two years later, we have slid backwards. Now we have a bill such as Bill C-58 that not just the media, but former information commissioners are saying is a step backward, a sign of decline in this government's transparency.

It is interesting. There are some things I will discuss along the way, and what do they have in common? What they have in common is that if access to information were not available, Canadians would not have found out about these issues. The access to information process is there.

Again, I will remind the House of why we are here. We seem to always have to remind our friends across the way, the government, that the House does not belong to them or to me. The House belongs to Canadians, those who elected us to be here, to be their voices, from the 338 ridings across Canada. We are here to deliver their voices to Ottawa, not the other way around.

If Canadians have questions about what the government is doing, access to information is a tool that the opposition and the media can use to find out some of the real answers. We get talking points but not a lot of answers during question period, and access to information allows us to dig deep and find some of the answers.

I will give a few examples that we have dealt with over the last two years. About a year ago, around this time, maybe a little later in the month, there was a holiday trip taken by our Prime Minister and his family. Again, I will be on record to say that I never begrudge anyone spending time with their family and going away and enjoying time. We work very hard. However, when the taxpayers pay for it, Canadians should know how much money is being spent. There are costs incurred along the way. The only way that the real costs of the Aga Khan trip were made public was through access to information. If Bill C-58 had been in place, would Canadians have found out what the costs had been, or that our Prime Minister perhaps had some bad advice along the way? He blames others, of course. It is not ever his mistake or problem, it is others who are giving him bad advice. Therefore, access to information has protected us there.

That same year, in 2016, we found out that another cabinet minister had a preferred choice of transportation when she was back in her riding. Again, the taxpayers were on the hook for that. It was a limo, or sedan, or whatever it was called, that we were talking about.

How did we find that out? How did Canadians find that out? It was through access to information.

The other one that came up was the government's plan to introduce a carbon tax. Many people, including experts who are in the field, said that the carbon tax would not be revenue neutral. It would be a cash grab, and even at $50 a tonne, it would not allow Canada to reach its target. How did we find that out? An internal departmental memo highlighted that for us.

If we listen to the talking points the ministers spew during question period, and indeed in their media scrums, everything is fine, and we should trust them, because they know what is best for us. However, when we dig deeper and have that opportunity to really look at some of the departmental information, we really get the truth.

Another one we have been dealing with over the last few weeks is the ethical conundrum the Minister of Finance finds himself in. The information that has come out is from the opposition a bit and from the public and the media that have done some digging, through access to information.

There is another one that came out. Shortly after the 2015 election, the Prime Minister was building his team and was perhaps moving some high-priced friends here to work in Ottawa. Moving here from Toronto, the GTA, would appear to be fairly expensive, because I believe the costs were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple of staff members. After that information came out and was made public, I think most members in the House, and perhaps the people in the gallery, will remember that some of those dollars were paid back, because the Liberals said they erred in their ways, or perhaps, as the finance minister has said in terms of some of his challenges, it was an administrative error.

I am going to use a very recent issue that has come to light. The Minister of National Revenue has denied, a lot, over the last couple of weeks that there have been changes to the diabetic tax credit, despite all the letters and the meetings we have had with constituents. On this side of the House, I believe all of the opposition is on the same page with this one. Diabetics right across Canada are having challenges getting their tax credit. However, despite this revenue minister standing up, banging her fist on the table, and vehemently denying that there has been any change, guess what? Through an access to information request, we have now found out that indeed a memo has gone out. Not only has it gone out within her department, it has gone out to other departments, letting them know that there were indeed some challenges and that this tax credit has changed.

If Bill C-58 was in place today, we would not know about those ideas and issues I just brought up. It would be great for the Prime Minister, his cabinet, and his team, because they would not have such long-looking faces on the backbench. It is not sunny ways across the way anymore. It is cloudy ways right across the front bench. The poor backbench and the parliamentary secretaries are having to come in and answer all the questions for the ministers. I think some of those parliamentary secretaries, not all of them, are really earning their keep, because they are having to answer these questions for these ministers who keep making these ethical mistakes. Only through access to information are Canadians really finding out about them.

For those who are tuning in, Bill C-58 is not really about opening up and being more open and transparent. As a matter of fact, it is a step backward. When the Prime Minister was campaigning, he said that his government would be the most open and transparent government in Canadian history. Let us pump the brakes a little on that, because once he got in, once he had 39% of Canadians' votes, he changed that.

He said he was just kidding. He did not really expect to get in. They could not have Canadians knowing what they are doing or what their ministers are doing and that they are not going to have access to that.

Maybe they have made some amendments to Bill C-58 that are good, but they are failing Canadians on their biggest promise, which was to make the government more open and transparent, including the Prime Minister's Office and the cabinet ministers' offices. As it sits today, if Bill C-58 passed, the minister of a department could decide that a request was vexatious and frivolous. A minister could see that a media outlet or a member of Parliament or an opposition member had signed numerous access to information requests and could decide that perhaps he or she was unfairly targeting that department, so that minister would deny them.

That is unacceptable, because we are not here for ourselves. We are here for the Canadians who elected us. They are the electors in my riding of Cariboo—Prince George. I feel so fortunate to be here, and hopefully we have made them proud as we stand up every day and fight. We fight hard in delivering the voice of the Cariboo to Ottawa, not the other way around. I know that my constituents want us to make sure that we are fighting all the time, that we are holding the government accountable, and that it cannot do the unethical things it has done to this point.

The Liberals want to rush Bill C-58 in. I am sure that as we move forward, this is really a stopgap. I remind members that for the first time in Canadian history, we have a Prime Minister under investigation. We have a finance minister who has two investigations. I think there could be more coming down the wire.

Despite their standing up, hand on heart, saying that the finance minister has followed the letter of the law and what the Ethics Commissioner told him right from day one, we know that it is not true. I have not been up in question period very much on this. That is the job of other members of our team. If they had followed the Ethics Commissioner's rules, would the finance minister have two investigations going? Would he have been fined any money? Would he have been told, “You made a mistake”? He blamed it on an administrative error, saying, “Oops, I forgot my French villa.” I do not know about other people here, but if I had a French villa, I would not have forgotten about it.

That brings me to another point. When members of Parliament are elected, we all are held to a higher account. We all have to go through the same process. For the most part, that is right. In the mandate letters, the Prime Minister tasked his ministers to go above and beyond to withstand even the closest scrutiny. We all have to go through the steps and declare our assets and do what we have to do to satisfy the Ethics Commissioner's rules and guidelines. They are absolutely right about that, but ministers of the crown are actually held to a higher standard, especially those like the finance minister, which is perhaps one of the most powerful positions in Canada. It can influence markets through the policies the finance minister introduces. The Liberals say that he followed the letter of the law and always worked with the Ethics Commissioner. I think there is a bit of funny business going on, because if the minister had done that from day one, the Ethics Commissioner would not say that something does not smell right here and fine him. She only fined him a small amount, but she still fined him.

Essentially, he was found guilty, because he was fined for some form of unethical transgression--

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 4:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Todd Doherty Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

We are not sure if he paid the fine.

The Liberals always blame the governments that have come before them for all the issues they have. They claim that the Conservatives did this or that or that the NDP is just as bad. They are always blaming people. They never take full responsibility. The other thing they say is to trust them.

Members may remember last spring when the Minister of Justice was in Toronto meeting with some high-priced lawyers. There was a bit of a conundrum there. There were questions about whether she was there as a member of Parliament or there as the Minister of Justice who was looking to make some appointments. It was a pay-to-play event. The minister had to come before us. I do not think we got an apology.

My grandmother used to say if it looks like a duck, smells like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck.

There are some things we have seen over the last two years with the Liberal government that are just odd. Arrogance is one. We have a millionaire Prime Minister. I do not know whether our finance minister is a millionaire, a multi-millionaire, or a billionaire. Both are embroiled in some ethical scandals. That they sit there smugly is disappointing.

I know that there are good people on each side of the House. There are government members on the backbenches. When those two were up and the questions were going on, and it came up that the finance minister's father even sold shares at one point days before some legislation was tabled, we could see the members' faces. Oh no, not again. The reason Bill C-58 is so important and why the Liberals are rushing it is so Canadians cannot find that out. The government wants to shut it down. They want to pick and choose what Canadians see and hear. That is disappointing.

I am a first-term member of Parliament, and I have enjoyed every minute of my time here. There are great people on all sides of the House. One learns a lot from every member of Parliament. I really believe that members on the front bench of the government, cabinet members, have let the backbench down. They are the leaders within that caucus. We just heard one minister today make some terrible comments to some thalidomide victims. Time and again we see these missteps.

During the campaign, the Liberals said they were ready. They made promises. Let us talk about the one big promise they made. They said they were going to have only a $10-billion deficit. Where are we now with that? It is gone. It went right out the window. Does anyone remember their promise about electoral reform? That is another promise that is gone.

I have 29 seconds to go. I know I am going to get some great questions, because members opposite have been listening to me intently. I am ready for them.

Bill C-58 is not open and transparent. It is not sunny ways. It is cloudy ways. The cabinet and the Prime Minister are doing everything they can to slide back into a decade of darkness. They do not want Canadians to have the information they deserve.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 4:30 p.m.
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NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, BC

Madam Speaker, having heard the previous Liberal question about this great bill, I will ask the member about four snappy quotes.

The first is, “The proposed reforms are just not good enough,” which was said by Toby Mendel, the executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy.

The second is, “The bill take a step backwards”, which was said by Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.

The third is, “Bill C-58 would actually make the Access to Information Act more difficult to use”, which was said by Mark Weiler, a distinguished librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Finally, Bill C-58 “would result in a regression of existing rights.” Who said that? The Information Commissioner.

In the hon. member's somewhat broad-ranging remarks, he expressed his discontent with the bill. However, the Conservatives did nothing in 10 years in power and did not even introduce any amendments at committee. Have you no faith at all in the Liberals' ability to accept amendments, or are you reverting back to your pattern of not acting on this?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 4:30 p.m.
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Conservative

Todd Doherty Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Madam Speaker, first, I would invite my hon. colleague to visit my riding. My constituents are quite disappointed in the Liberal government. They know full well that Bill C-58 is under the guise of ensuring the Liberal government, the Prime Minister, and his cabinet are not going to be open and transparent with Canadians.

There are some things that Bill C-58 captures, but the Liberals can already do that. They do not need Bill C-58 for those.

Bill C-58 is a present wrapped up with a shiny bow and all that stuff. The sole purpose of it is to ensure the ministers and the Prime Minister have a say in what is made public. That is it.

For the hon. colleague to stand, which he does every day and I welcome his comments, and say that this is more open and transparent and that my constituents would be very happy with it, I welcome him to come to my riding and we will meet with the constituents one on one.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 4:35 p.m.
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NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, it is always a pleasure to be in the House when you are presiding.

I participated in the debate at second reading, hopeful that for once the government would be open to amendments. As I recall, the President of the Treasury Board promised they would be open to amendments. Regrettably, every amendment tabled by my colleague was rejected.

Why is that important? As the representative for the Conservative Party stated, great promises were made by the Liberals when they ran for office, a new world of openness and transparency and sunshine. What are they offering? Like many of the bills they have brought forward, they tell us not to worry, that they have not made those changes they promised, that in five years when we review the bill again, they will think about whether they will bring those forward. It is getting very tiresome.

It is time for the government to deliver on its promises and on requests by Canadians, by experts, and by its own commissioners to open access to information.

I have shared in the House that in my 40-plus years as an environmental advocate, I championed the cause for the rights of citizens to have a voice in environmental decision-making. Critical to that is having the opportunity to participate in the review of standards and the review of projects, policy, and trade deals. For the public to constructively participate, it is very critical they have ready access to information. The government has failed on that.

The Liberals have said that they will have a proactive disclosure, but then it is up to the government to decide what the public will receive. Yes, it would be nice if the government were more open with access to information, but let me give a concrete example of where it has abjectly failed to deliver on this promise.

We are in the middle of negotiations on a “modernized” NAFTA. Very late in the day, the government suddenly remembered it would have strong provisions for environment in any NAFTA deal, yet there is no environmental adviser to the foreign affairs minister who is negotiating the deal. To her credit, she has industry representatives and representatives from labour, but no representative with environmental expertise.

Very late in the day, at the eleventh hour, the environment minister established an advisory committee. We have no idea what role it is playing, whether its ideas are passed on to the negotiation table. We have no idea whatsoever what the government is proposing for environmental provisions in the NAFTA deal, unlike the Americans. We can criticize the Americans as much as want, but they tabled and made publicly available all the provisions they were intending to seek for environment in a negotiated trade deal. So much for openness and transparency.

Nothing in Bill C-58 will improve that, because the government has made its own decision that it will not disclose that information in advance to the public. To make matters worse, the Liberals issued a call for public comments on a revised NAFTA, when we did not even know what a revised NAFTA would say. I do not know what the outcome of the consultations were but I heard from a lot of Canadians who asked how they could comment on a trade deal when they did not even know what it would include. The Liberal Party's idea about open access to information and timeliness is a bit of Russian roulette.

Why is it important for Canadians to have access to information? From my perspective, as the environment and climate change critic and as an advocate for environmental rights for over 40 years, these are the kinds of things the public wants. They want to know in advance, before they are consulted, if they are consulted, what the planned routes are for pipelines. They want to know the locations of chemical plants before they are approved. They want information on the potential or known impacts of toxins on their health. That request was made very strongly by very many people who testified before our parliamentary committee.

The government has been in power now for over two years. What was one of the Liberals' big election promises? They promised they would immediately restore all federal environmental laws. Well, there is nothing stopping them from tabling today or tomorrow a revised Canadian Environmental Protection Act to extend these kinds of rights. We had a review by our committee with all kinds of recommendations to amend the act, but there has still been no action, and we will not hold our breath for a response.

We want to know about the safety of consumer products before they are made available for sale. Again, it is a specific request made by experts to our parliamentary committee. We are still waiting for action to make that information available. It is a vacuous offer to increase and improve access to information when, in fact, the Liberals bring forward a bill that provides very little.

As my colleague did, I will also share from the Information Commissioner's report on Bill C-58 entitled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”, which reads:

In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver.

The government promised the bill would ensure the Act applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices appropriately. It does not.

The government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. It does not.

The government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.

Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.

That is from the report of the Information Commissioner, and it is a scathing review, yet members of the government stand and defend the bill they have brought forward.

The bill could have been strengthened if the government finally delivered on the undertaking in this place by the President of the Treasury Board that he would welcome amendments to strengthen the bill, and yet the government refused every single amendment brought forward by my colleagues. This is not open and constructive government. It is not listening to experts. It is not listening to its own commissioners. It is not listening to the public.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 4:50 p.m.
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NDP

Daniel Blaikie NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I am going to speak to Bill C-58. Prior to its tabling, it offered a lot of promise to Canadians, who have been concerned for a long time about the access to information regime in Canada.

Unfortunately, I do not think my remarks will differ from those I made early on in the debate about Bill C-58 before it went to committee, because not a lot has changed substantially about the bill. We are still largely confronted with the same issues as when the bill was originally tabled.

The main point is a sense of lost opportunity. That is clear, not just to members of the NDP caucus, but to a lot stakeholders who have criticized the bill, as well as the stakeholders within the access to information community who testified at the access to information committee during what was a long and thorough study of Canada's access to information laws.

There have not been any real changes to the Access to Information Act since it was first brought introduced in 1983. I am sure that members of the House will appreciate that the way government does business has changed radically since 1983. If we think of the technologies that were available in 1983 versus the technologies available now, and the way those have become part and parcel of the way that government conducts its business, it is clear that reform of the access to information laws is necessary.

With changes being proposed to the laws, there was a great opportunity to address a number of problems. What were some of those problems? One of the important problems in my view is that cabinet ministers can say that whatever information is being requested falls under the purview of cabinet confidence. If it said to be advice to a minister, it cannot be touched. Fine, I think there is a legitimate space for some advice to ministers to be protected, except there is no ability for anyone, including the Information Commissioner, to assess whether that information has been denied properly, under the rubric of advice to ministers, or whether ministers were just making it up or saying that it was advice to ministers when it in fact it was not really advice to ministers.

Canadians must have confidence in the access to information system to know that when they are being told that something is advice to a minister and cannot be shared because it would hurt the public interest, this is true. I do not think we are in a situation in which Canadians have that confidence. I do not think Canadians had that kind of confidence in the last government, that is for sure, and I do not think Canadians have that kind of confidence in the current government.

Let us consider one of the important themes in question period for months now, indeed throughout the fall. It is about whether or not the Canada Revenue Agency made a deliberate decision to change its interpretation of a policy in order to deny the disability tax credit to people with diabetes. It turns out, as we found out this week, that in fact there was a memo circulated within the CRA back in May of this year that said very clearly that CRA staff who were evaluating those applications ought to err on the side of denying those applications, regardless of the advice of a physician or a nurse.

What has the minister said in the House? The minister has denied that a decision was made to this very day, despite the evidence that a decision was indeed made. What confidence can Canadians have in a system that might have allowed that minister to say that the memo was covered by a cabinet confidence? If she had invoked the exclusion, and I do not want to give them ideas, that would assume that the memo came through the access to information process. I am not sure that one did.

The point is that had someone made an access to information request and the minister's office had decided to call the memo an excluded document because it was advice to the minister or something else, no one would have been able to circle back and evaluate whether that was true or not. I think it is pretty clear that a memo to employees is not advice to a minister.

However, the point is that the Information Commissioner would not have been able to circle back, look at that document, and make an assessment as to whether or not that exclusion was rightfully applied. Canadians would still be in the dark about that very clear decision by the CRA to change the way it interprets its own policy.

While it is true for the minister to say that the policy on paper has not changed, it is misleading. Clearly, there was a directive given on how to interpret that same policy that radically changed the balance of acceptance and denial with respect to people with diabetes who are applying for that tax credit. That is the kind of thing that Canadians want to have access to and demonstrates why Canadians would want to know. Canadians want to know as it has a real and material effect for people who are living with diabetes, on their taxes, and what comes back to them from their tax return.

People also want to know because that document contradicts what the minister has been saying. They want to have that evidence and be able to follow through, to see if what the minister says is true and borne out within departmental directives.

One of the important things coming out of the study on access to information was the idea that an independent third party needs to verify a minister's use of that exclusion. Otherwise, it just becomes a huge blanket by which ministers can snuff out all sorts of information that would be politically inconvenient for them but important for Canadians to know and assess the government's performance. That is one of the ways that this legislation has failed.

Another obvious failure is with respect to the black and white commitment by the Liberal Party in the last election to have this apply to the PMO and ministers' offices. We did not make that up. It is not a partisan statement. That was a real commitment. It was part and parcel of the Prime Minister's own private member's legislation in the last Parliament. However, that is not in this legislation or something they chose to do.

Whether we think it is a good idea to have those things apply to the PMO or the ministers' offices, it was a very clear commitment of the Liberal Party that they would do so. The question is why is it not borne out in the legislation? They created a real mandate for openness and transparency and have the backing of Canadians, to the extent that they want the government to be more open and transparent.

They could have done a lot of things to help Canada be a model for openness and transparency. The problem is that is not what Bill C-58 delivers. It does not deliver that because it does not address serious problems that have come out of other jurisdictions.

It was in the news for some time that B.C. had an issue with documentation of government decisions that could be accessed through access to information. Government staff, and particularly political staff, responded by simply not documenting the outcomes of important meetings where decisions were made. That rightly created quite a stir. It was, and continues to be, a strong recommendation of the information commissioner that a legal duty to document needs to be established so that the political staff of ministers cannot get around accountability by not writing down the substance of important decisions made in private meetings. Eventually, it would be accessible under access to information. The government has not done that, and it is disappointing.

I do not want to sound naive or silly. When I first became a member of this House I was a member of the access to information committee and we had the President of the Treasury Board come a number of times. He repeated that one of the things he was looking forward to doing and glad that he had a mandate to do, was to change Canada's access to information laws. That was a real priority for him. He gave timelines, which he ignored.

Bill C-58 came much later than originally promised. When it did finally come, it did not honour what critics and stakeholders said we needed as an ideal access to information regime in Canada or the Liberals' own concrete, black and white election commitments. If that is what it means to be a priority of the Liberal government, Canadians should think twice about being on their priority list. There is a lot of other stuff being done that was promised in the last election. Those things are being done and this is not.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 5 p.m.
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Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, I would like to ask my colleague from Winnipeg a very simple question. He alluded to it during his remarks of just a few moments ago. It seems that Canadians have been misled in the intentions of the Liberal government with its stated purpose of improving access to information when in fact, what we know now about the details of Bill C-58 demonstrates quite clearly that it is more difficult right now for the average Canadian to access information from the current government. I would like to hear my colleague expound a bit about why he thinks that is and what might be done to try to improve this badly flawed bill.

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December 5th, 2017 / 5:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my good friend and colleague from Edmonton West.

All through today's debate, I kept reflecting on an old proverb that we have all heard many times before, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The government at one point in time actually had some good intentions about reforming the Access to Information Act. At one time, the Liberals might have been genuine when they said they wanted to improve the Access to Information Act, but somewhere along the line on that road, something went terribly wrong because the bill we have before us now, Bill C-58, is far more regressive and prohibitive to Canadians seeking to access the government's information than any access to information bill before its time.

I should say at the outset that I believe that over the last 34 years, ATIPs have proven to be extremely helpful to Canadians. Clearly they have been helpful to politicians who are trying to find out more information about the government of the day, particularly opposition politicians. These access to information requests have also been extremely helpful to journalists, because we have seen over the last number of years journalists break stories about some unethical action of the government of the day. Has that improved the ability of Canadians to learn more about their government? It certainly has.

Now Bill C-58 tends to want to reverse some of the strides that may have been made over the past several years. One of those strides was made by our government, when we were in power, to reduce the amount of money it cost the average Canadian to file an access to information request. We reduced that to $5, meaning that any Canadian who wanted to get more information about a government department could fill out a form and with only a $5 fee, receive an answer from the government department they were querying. That was a good thing and one of the things that helped Canadians become more comfortable with their own government.

However, ATIPs have been invaluable not just to Canadians, to politicians, and to journalists, but also to society as a whole because they have allowed Canadians to learn more about their government in a fashion that gives them confidence in the government of the day. We know of many ATIPs that have been successful and have been newsworthy. The one that most Canadians recall was the sponsorship scandal. It is ironic that we are debating Bill C-58 today, because the sponsor of the bill was, in the early 2000s, a minister in the Liberal cabinet, I believe as minister of public works, who day after day during question period had to stand and defend his government against opposition attacks as we found out more information from the Gomery commission and its investigation.

I recall vividly, as some of my colleague will too, the minister of the then public works department standing and saying in response to opposition questions, “Let Justice Gomery do his work.” That was his standard talking point. He would not answer any direct questions. He would simply say let Justice Gomery do his work. At the end of the day, Justice Gomery did fine work because he exposed the ethical shortcomings of the Liberal government of the day. He exposed the rampant corruption within that government and, frankly, the stench of that corruption stays with me today because I recall how the government abused the trust of the Canadian people when it came to the sponsorship scandal, particularly how Liberal ministers ignored the very fact that their own party operatives were charging for work that was never done and pocketing the money themselves, to benefit themselves financially.

How did we find out about that corruption? It was through an ATIP, through one reporter, Daniel Leblanc, who studiously examined what he thought was a corrupt system in the Quebec government of the day and started asking questions.

Finally, his request for information was answered. That was the start of the sponsorship scandal.

The point I make today is simply this. If the changes proposed by the government on Bill C-58 are enacted, reporters like Daniel Leblanc and others who expose such clear wrongdoing by the government would be the unable to access that information. That is simply wrong. That should never be allowed to happen. Any government, whether it be a Liberal government, a Conservative government, a New Democratic government, or any government in this country, should not be allowed to deny access to Canadians about information of their government.

We all know that governments are a servant of the people. We serve the public. We are supposed to be serving the public's interest. The public's interest in this case will be denied simply because we have a government that is embarrassed about some of its previous ethical lapses and frankly wants to cover them up. I can only point to the most recent example of what might happen if Bill C-58 is passed in its current form, and that is with the most ethical transgressions by the Minister of Finance.

We know now, thanks to an ATIP from reporters at The Globe and Mail, what the current Minister of Finance was hiding from Canadians and from the Ethics Commissioner. We know now, thanks to an ATIP, that the current Minister of Finance had a villa in France that he did not disclose to the Ethics Commissioner for two years, a villa that we can only assume is worth in the millions of dollars because of its locale in one of the wealthier regions of southern France.

We know now, because of an ATIP, that the same Minister of Finance had a numbered company in Alberta that was not disclosed to the Ethics Commissioner. It contained approximately $20 million in shares in a company called Morneau Shepell, which the Minister of Finance formerly used to run, a family-founded, family-run, very successful company, that had obvious direct ties to the Minister of Finance. We know that now, because reporters, journalists, requested access to information that uncovered those ethical transgressions.

If Bill C-58 is adopted, those opportunities will be lost. That should not be allowed to happen. Governments must be accountable for their actions. Governments must be accountable to the public. One of the ways to ensure that it is accountable is by allowing the public, whether it be opposition politicians, journalists, or advocacy groups, to gain information from their government without fear of retribution and without fear of censorship.

Bill C-58 is so desperately flawed that Canadians who have been examining this legislation and listening to this debate must feel that they have no more confidence in the government. In fact, what Bill C-58 does is to make information unavailable to Canadians should the government determine that it does not want to release what it considers to be sensitive information. That is right. It is not up to the government to release information upon request. The government feels that it is within its purview to deny information if it feels it might embarrass them, if it feels that the information is not in its best political interest. That is not only shameful, it is offensive, and should not be allowed to happen.

I know that my comments are falling on deaf ears when it comes to speaking to members opposite, but I beseech them to reconsider this flawed bill, take it back to the starting board, and if it truly wants to make access to information a reality, redraft and redraw this bill.

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December 5th, 2017 / 5:15 p.m.
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Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, once again, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader is trying to defend the indefensible. The reality is that contained in Bill C-58 is a provision that states the government determines whether or not it will give answers to an access to information request, and in what form. If the government feels that the request is either vexatious, frivolous, or made in bad faith, it does not have to answer. If it does answer, it can redact as much of the information that it feels is necessary. That is not true access to information, that is censorship. The member opposite knows it, and his government knows it. Shame on them for bringing forth a bill that is so regressive that most Canadians, should they understand the content of this bill, would rebel. I again ask the Liberals to do what is right for once in their lives, and to bring this bill back to the drawing board and redraft it. It needs a complete rework and overhaul.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 5:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, my colleague and friend from Regina—Lewvan is quite right. He and I, and my colleague from Edmonton West, sit on the government operations committee. We heard compelling testimony from whistle-blowers who felt they were being let down by their government because the information they would bring forward to expose wrongdoing within the government was falling on deaf ears. In fact, it was even worse. Sometimes they came with stories about being punished for bringing forward these legitimate exposés of government wrongdoing, and in some cases outright corruption.

Will changes in Bill C-58 help or hinder those who expose wrongdoing in the government? Quite clearly, it would hinder the ability of public servants to come forward. That is just one of many examples I can put forward in this place to demonstrate quite clearly how flawed Bill C-58 actually is.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 5:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, a lovely resort town, for sharing his time with me. W.C. Fields was famous for his comment about not wanting to work with children and animals because they showed him up. Following his speech, I feel the same way.

I am pleased to speak on Bill C-58 today, which would amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. I also call it another broken Liberal promise hidden behind talking points peppered with key words like “open by default”, “transparency”, “historic”, and “whole of government”, but that is just the working title. I threw in “whole of government”, because Liberals use that for every other bill, so I figured why not this one as well.

The last time I spoke about this bill, I mentioned how it demonstrates the lofty rhetoric of the 2015 campaign on the Liberals' plan for openness, transparency, and accountability, and it 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 with this bill.

The Liberals defended their poorly thought-out bill by saying they were open to amendments. The Treasury Board president appeared before committee and repeated his intention a few times, and then realized that repeating this again and again does not make it true, much like “open by default”. It is shameful that the Liberals continue to talk about being open to amending their terrible legislation, but when the opportunity presents itself to make decent changes, the Liberals almost always shut them down.

This bill has been roundly ridiculed by experts, and what is the Treasury Board president's defence? He likes to say this is the first reform in over 34 years. This is a laughable excuse. One cannot defend bad actions by saying that at least it is an action, but that is the minister's key talking point. It is a lot like the executives of Coca-Cola sitting around an office table, talking about the recipe for Coke, and saying they have not amended it for 35 years or 100 years, so rather than broadly consulting for modifications to the formula, they launch an entirely new brand. Some of my colleagues in the House do not remember new Coke, but I can speak from experience that it did not work out very well.

The minister goes on about the virtues of his work by saying that, for the first time, Liberals are making government open by default, except that they are limiting it to sanitized briefing books and mandate letters that even the Liberal government has shown no intention of following. When faced with public outcry over their ruthless willingness to abandon their principles and promises in favour of whatever is politically convenient, the Liberals refuse to own up to their shameless actions with openness and transparency, but rather, mislead, re-profile, re-label, or try to change the story.

The minister then repeatedly touts the new powers given to the Information Commissioner. He repeats this point so often because it is probably the only positive point of the bill. The minister seems to have stopped listening after that point, and conveniently forgets that the commissioner herself is one of the harshest critics of the bill. Specifically, she said:

After studying the Bill, I have concluded that the proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act will not advance government transparency. The proposed Bill fails to deliver on the government’s promises. If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights.

That statement is on her website, plain for everyone to see. Perhaps the minister should read it.

The person charged with carrying out and overseeing access to information considers this bill “regressive”, but like many things, because the commissioner's statement is counter to the Liberal message of the day, she does not need to be listened to, it seems. This is ironic. In defending their unending parade of scandals to members in this place, the Liberals claim to hold independent officers of Parliament in the highest regard. I can think of nothing more disrespectful than claiming to agree with the Information Commissioner, but then ignoring her thoughts on this disastrous legislation.

Let us talk about some of the problems with the current system. Timely access to information is key to a well-functioning democracy. 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 would not prevent requests from taking months or even years to be completed, but, amazingly enough, enables the process to take even longer.

I am an avid user of the Access to Information Act. In the two years since being elected, I have submitted over 60 ATIP requests. Take my word for it when I say that the Liberal government is unbearably slow in responding to ATIP requests. As I mentioned, since elected, I have filed over 60 requests, and only half of them have been completed. Some were filed in March of 2016 and remain outstanding over 20 months later.

I am now coming up to my second anniversary of this outstanding ATIP, and apparently cotton is the gift for second anniversaries. I am out looking for something to celebrate the two years outstanding for that ATIP.

Other requests include October 19, 2016, 18 months outstanding; September 2, 2016, 14 months outstanding; two filed at the very beginning of this year, almost a year old now; and April 6, 2017, 10 months outstanding. We also have over 24 ATIPs outstanding that were filed over half a year ago. For reference, I gave the same numbers the first time I spoke to Bill C-58 back in September. My office has not received a single one of them back yet.

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

What is the government's response to this? It wants to give heads of government institutions the ability to decline requests on the basis they are vexatious or made in bad faith. Who is going to define vexatious? Who is going to ensure 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 the public needs to know, such as our ATIPs on the Phoenix issue, which showed very clearly that the government was told two months before it pulled the trigger on Phoenix to clear the backlog before going ahead, 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 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 access to information, we would not have found this.

We asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board if ministers would be able to decline requests using the same clause. She said that she could not confirm that ministers would not have that power. This is ridiculous. Apparently, the government itself is stating that it will decide what is vexatious. I have no doubt it will use these new, poorly defined, and inadequately described powers to declare as much as it can to be vexatious or in bad faith.

“Never fear”, the Liberals would say. If a person disagrees with the Liberal denial, he or she can appeal to the commissioner or go to the courts. However, as we have heard repeatedly in this place, the court system is so bogged down with cases and understaffed by qualified judges, almost exclusively because the government is unwilling or unable to fill these roles. Because of that, we are now letting accused murderers off the hook. Imagine how tied up our courts will be when we add in all the appeals on DWI because of impairment for pot. We know we do not have a valid and proper way to measure impairment.

My point is that the system of denial, appeal, denial, appeal could take a process, which already takes upward of 18 months or more and counting, two years. It could take three years or perhaps four years. The beauty of the legislation for the government is that there is no upper limit on the timelessness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the public and opposition do not see beauty in this.

The government claims that it is ensuring it is open by default, and we know this is patently false. Open by default would include setting an upper limit, which the government would then release the requested information. This legislation ensures that the government can continue moving the upper limit as long as is politically convenient.

The Liberal government talks about all the published mandate letters. How does publishing mandate letters force the government to keep its promises? We remember the mandate letters referring to debt and deficit. 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. The promise to complete an open competition for fighter jets was blown off.

There is one mandate the minister can keep, which is to perhaps mess up the procurement, create a trade fight with Boeing and the U.S., and then further subsidize Bombardier.

What about the promise to modify the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act? That is also in the Treasury Board's mandate letter, and is also a failure.

John Ivison from the National Post sums it up very well. He said, “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.”

This is it. Apart from a few minor amendments, the legislation has done nothing to meet the campaign promise of the Liberals.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 5:30 p.m.
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NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, BC

Madam Speaker, I have to say that it is good to have the Conservatives onside in opposing Bill C-58, which rolls back access to information and would do nothing to eliminate delays.

However, being the festive season and to be charitable, I will say that the member for Edmonton West was not here in Parliament from 2006 to 2015 when the Conservative government did not take this issue seriously and did nothing to improve it. I know that the member was not here in 2011 when the Harper government got the lowest mark possible from Canadian journalists for free expression on access to information, which was an F.

I am being charitable to the member, because he was not here. I am glad to have the Conservatives onside, in some kind of conversion on the road to opposition from the Conservatives here, but, in this Parliament, if the bill is so bad, why did the Conservatives present zero amendments in committee?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 5:35 p.m.
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Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Mr. Speaker, I wish I had sat on that committee. It would perhaps have given me a break from explaining all the issues on Phoenix which the Liberals have inflicted on Canadians. I was not part of the committee, and I was not aware, but very clearly presenting amendments, just like the NDP did, would have had absolutely no effect. The minister made it very clear from the beginning that this was the world's greatest proposed law, which would bring in changes to access to information. The government would brook no advice or changes from anyone else. Why we did not, I am not sure, but it would have made no difference.

However, another colleague talked about the whistle-blower act. My party, together with the NDP and Liberals in the government operations committee, put through a unanimous report to protect whistle-blowers, presenting a lot of great suggestions on how we can make amendments and legislative changes to improve it. However, the same President of the Treasury Board, who shot down all the amendments in the committee on Bill C-58, took the whistle-blower suggestions and put them in the dustbin with all the other great amendments that were suggested by the NDP and other parties on the Access to Information Act.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 5:35 p.m.
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NDP

Erin Weir NDP Regina—Lewvan, SK

Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege to once again speak to Bill C-58, but it is a bit disappointing to have to make some of the same criticisms of it that we on the opposition side have been making throughout. Notwithstanding some of the comments we have heard from the government, the bill actually has not been significantly amended and many of the original problems with it persist.

I would like to address this legislation in terms of three headings: first, the scope of the act; second, exceptions to the act; and third, the difference between proactive disclosure and access to information.

In terms of the scope of the bill, it is important to note that the Liberals were elected on a promise to extend access to information to the Prime Minister's Office and to the offices of other cabinet ministers. Bill C-58 would not do that. It is really part of a litany of broken promises by the government. Here we think of electoral reform. We think of the promise to close the stock option tax loophole. We think of the promise to restore door-to-door mail delivery. The government is building up quite a track record of broken promises and, unfortunately, the commitment to extend access to information to cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, is another one of those broken promises.

I had an opportunity at the committee on access to information, privacy and ethics to ask the Privacy Commissioner whether there were any privacy reasons that the government could not extend access to information to those cabinet offices. He confirmed that there were no such privacy reasons and that as far he was concerned, it would have been and would be feasible to extend access to information to the offices of cabinet ministers. Our first major disappointment with the scope of the bill is the fact that it fails to extend access to information to the very cabinet offices the government promised to include.

The second heading I would like to address is exceptions to the act. There are already exceptions related to cabinet confidences and policy advice to ministers. These exceptions have proven to be quite troublesome, because it is easy for the government to define almost anything as policy advice to a minister or as somehow being subject to a cabinet confidence. It is a very broad-sweeping exception that the government can use to not disclose information. Unfortunately, Bill C-58 would not correct this exception.

The really bad thing about Bill C-58 is that it creates new exceptions that would allow the government to not disclose information that citizens are requesting. In particular, it empowers the government to deem that an access to information request is frivolous or in bad faith. It is difficult to put government officials in the position of having to try to define the motivations of people making access to information requests. This is a very poor criterion on which to accept or deny access to information requests.

What is this really all about? The example we heard from a couple of different government members throughout this debate is the case of “an ex-spouse [who] ATIPs his or her former spouse's work hours on a daily basis or their emails”. There is obviously a problem with that type of request, but the way to respond to that is through proper protections of privacy, not by deeming the request itself to be frivolous or in bad faith. It is obviously the case that the government cannot disclose certain information for privacy reasons, and the privacy protections need to be very robust in federal legislation.

However, the idea of protecting privacy is not a justification for giving the government broad, sweeping powers to deem that particular access to information requests are frivolous or in bad faith. We do need to have proper protections for privacy, but those in no way justify the new exceptions introduced in Bill C-58, which try to get into the motivation behind an access to information request, which is a very difficult thing for the government to ascertain, and a very difficult thing for citizens to trust the government to ascertain in an objective and proper way.

The third aspect of the legislation that I would like to address is the difference between proactive disclosure on the one hand and access to information on the other hand, because of course one of the aspects of Bill C-58, which the government touts, is the notion of increased proactive disclosure. We have the idea, for example, that the government will proactively disclose ministerial briefing books. A cynic might suggest that this provision will to result in government officials and ministers' assistants spending time drafting briefing books for public consumption. Knowing they will be proactively disclosed, they will just prepare documents that they are happy to have disclosed and that do not really contain a lot of sensitive or controversial information. We are very concerned about that, but even if we assume that would not happen and that everything would be done entirely in good faith, we still have to face up to the fact that proactive disclosure, as positive as it might be, is no substitute for access to information.

Proactive disclosure is about the government choosing to disclose certain things. On the whole, it is good for the government to proactively disclose more documents, but access to information is fundamentally about citizens being able to request information that the government does not want to disclose and does not think it should have to disclose. There is a very important distinction to be made here between proactive disclosure, which is a good thing and the government is touting, and access to information, which is what the bill is supposed to be about.

To sum it all up, I would like to conclude by reading a quote from the Information Commissioner's report on Bill C-58 entitled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”. She said:

In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver. The government promised the bill would ensure the Act applies to the Prime Minister's and Ministers' Offices appropriately. It does not.

The government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. It does not.

The government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.

Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ActPrivate Members' Business

December 5th, 2017 / 6:15 p.m.
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Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou for bringing forward his private member's bill, Bill C-262. I note his important contribution to the discussion on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I would also like to share my profound respect for my colleague and acknowledge the important work he has done over many years that has significantly impacted indigenous policy in this country.

Before addressing the private member's bill, I would like to make a general observation. Section 35 of our Constitution and Canada's existing laws has in the past, and will in the future, ensure that indigenous rights are protected in Canada. We only need to reflect on a number of historical court decisions to understand how section 35 is shaping these rights. From the 1999 Marshall decision that confirmed the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet treaty right to catch and sell fish, to the 2014 Tsilhqot'in decision that granted aboriginal title to more than 1,700 sq kilometres of territory, a first in Canadian law, it is clear that our understanding of indigenous rights is constantly evolving. Just last week, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a decision regarding the Peel watershed, which upheld aboriginal land use rights protected in treaties.

It might be suggested that the gap or problem in Canada is not our legal framework, but our frequent failure to live up to the obligations and the honour of the crown.

The bill before us today seeks to implement the 46 articles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as stated in the document, “a standard...to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect”. All parties in the House acknowledge the need for reconciliation, a better shared future, and the importance of the declaration. The 46 articles are essential guiding principles for that journey.

I do have some unanswered questions regarding how this international document will transpose into a domestic framework. In my opinion, we need some clear answers before we can move forward on Bill C-262. Let me share some general and specific concerns that need to be addressed.

In the past, the Liberals have argued vehemently that any small changes to the Indian Act and the Labour Code must only be introduced as government legislation, where there is an opportunity for comprehensive reflection and not just a couple of hours of debate. I would suggest that the bill before us today has more far-reaching implications than the right to a secret ballot for union certification. For the Liberals to support an NDP private member's bill to implement UNDRIP and not put it forward as government-initiated legislation is unfathomable. The debate will not be afforded the due diligence that it requires and deserves. Even today, members might have noticed that we did not hear from the minister. We did not have an opportunity under private members' business to even question the minister. In my mind, that is a problem.

To get into more specifics, first and foremost was the statement by the Minister of Justice in 2016, and I quote, “Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities.”

The justice minister, unlike many of us who will be speaking to the bill, has access to all sorts of comprehensive briefings and advice. The minister would not have made that comment lightly, so it is critical for her to explain why she made the comment at that time, and how she now reconciles that with her recent commitment to support the bill. I would note that because it is private member's bill, we are very unlikely to get a chance to ask her that question.

On Thursday of last week, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations was at committee. At that time, we had the opportunity to ask a number of questions, and I want to provide a brief summary of that testimony.

Article 19 suggests that the government ensure free, prior, and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative measures that may affect them. When the minister was asked if that would apply to laws of general application or only laws that exclusively impact indigenous people, she clearly indicated that there would be a broader application. That brings us to a question of what future laws of broader application in this country would require free, prior, and informed consent, and how will that be determined in a country as diverse as Canada. How will that consent be given?

The national organizations acknowledge they are not rights holders, they are not the authorized decision-makers, and their mandate is advocacy. The indigenous community has indicated that it has to do a lot of work in terms of nation rebuilding. Therefore, what government structure or consultation framework would be put in place to actually engage in these consultations? To what degree would this commitment around the laws of general application fetter the government's ability to move forward? I will give some recent examples.

We certainly know that with Bill S-3, the government is committed to engaging in a consultation process. Clearly, that is not a general application law, but the government is going to have consultations with bands across the country. I have no idea how the government members are going to determine when they have concurrence and how long they are going to have to spend in a process where there will be human rights competing in terms of consent, and at the very dichotomy of the many consultations they will have to have. In that case it is first nations, but we also have the Métis and the Inuit.

The marijuana law is another example of broader application that is clearly going to have an impact in indigenous communities. Under our current framework, the government only engaged in a general consultation process. Would that bill be subject to article 19, and if so what would it do to the government's timelines and how are the Liberals going to move forward? The answer to that question is unknown, but it is important.

Today, we have been debating in the House Bill C-58, which is the privacy law. Again, we have a number of indigenous communities whose representatives have said that they have grave concerns. They have referenced the UN declaration in terms of their right to have input, and free, prior, and informed consent, but we have no system or process in terms of how we are going to move that forward. That is important work that needs to be done.

Where a lot of people have focused, the laws of general application are something we need to pay particular attention to, but there is also the issue of free, prior, and informed consent as it relates to the development of the natural resources. The minister has suggested it was not a veto and the position was supported by National Chief Bellegarde. However, he noted on three occasions that free, prior, and informed consent means the right to say yes and the right to say no. A number of lawyers have said the whole discussion is really a bit of semantics and whether it is veto or consent it has the same effect. Again, it leads to a question in law. What is the difference between “free, prior, and informed consent” and “consult and accommodate”, which is what we have in law right now? Certainly there is no question that the declaration proposes that change in our law and we need to simply know what that is going to mean because it is important. From what I have seen, the legal opinions out there are as varied as they possibly could be. As members might imagine, it leaves confusion in the minds of not only the indigenous communities but Canadians in general. We have some work to do in terms of developing a common understanding before we commit to an implementation into our legal framework.

Article 29 talks about the right to territories, lands, and resources. In British Columbia alone, that is 100% of the province. What are going to be the practical implications for perhaps the tourism operators in the Chilcotin or the ranchers who have depended on crown land, as these decisions get made? We have not talked about impacted third parties and how, as we correct the injustices of the past, we should not create a new injustice.

In conclusion, as members can see from my 10 minutes of speaking, there are a lot of important unanswered questions. My first concern is the fact that the government has committed to implementing this as a private member's bill where we are going to be limited in the debate and our opportunity to create a shared understanding. The shared understanding of all these concepts is going to be critical in terms of moving forward into success in the future for all.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 4:50 p.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 third time and passed.

Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for this opportunity to speak on Bill C-58, which would amend Canada's Access to Information Act.

As we developed these reforms, we were guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves.

We remain committed to that principle, which was introduced for the first time in the Access to Information Act in 1983.

Now 34 years later, our proposed reforms would advance the original intent of the act in a way that reflects Canada's technologies, policies, and legislation. This is not a one-off exercise. Rather, we have kicked off a progressive ongoing renewal of the ATI system, one that will protect Canadians' rights of access to government information well into the future. Our efforts began over a year ago.

In May 2016, I issued a directive suggesting openness by default in government.

Open by default means having a culture across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course, unless there are specific reasons not to do so. Now, with the amendments proposed in Bill C-58, we are taking the next step. These amendments would create a new part of the act relating to proactive disclosure, one that effectively puts into practice the idea of open by default. Proactive disclosure would apply to more than 240 departments, agencies, and crown corporations, including the Prime Minister's Office, 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 also added to the legislation the proactive publication of information that we know is of interest to Canadians and that provides greater transparency and accountability with respect to the use of public money.

This will include travel and hospitality expenses for ministers and their staffs and 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 of ministers, briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers, lists of briefing notes for the minister and deputy minister, and briefing binders prepared for question period and parliamentary committee appearances.

Of course, this does not absolve us of our responsibility to strengthen the request-based system. We know that the access to information system has been the subject widespread and warranted criticism. In fact, demands on the system have grown massively in recent years. That is why we are developing a guide to provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions, investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient, allowing federal institutions with the same minister to share request processing services for greater efficiency, and increasing government training to get common and consistent interpretation of the application of ATI rules.

In addition, the proposed bill gives the Information Commissioner new powers, including the power to order the release of government records. This is an important advancement that was first recommended by a parliamentary committee studying the Access to Information Act back in 1987. Our government is acting on it and Bill C-58 would change the commissioner's role from an ombudsperson to an authority with the power to order the release of government records.

We are taking steps to help government institutions eliminate requests made in bad faith, which are detrimental to the system.

By tying up government resources, such vexatious, bad faith requests can interfere with an institution's ability to do its work and respond to other requests. Let me be clear. We have heard the concerns expressed about how we must safeguard against the abuse of this proposed measure. A large or broad request, or one that causes government discomfort, does not, of itself, represent bad faith on the part of the requester.

I would like to address the amendments made at committee. Our government believes in working with parliamentarians through the committee system for the good of all Canadians. I was happy to see that the committee passed over a dozen amendments, which serve to further strengthen and clarify our government's intent to strengthen and reform our access to information regime.

For example, one amendment removes the ability of departments to decline to act on a request simply because the request does not specify the subject matter, type of record, or time period. It gives the Office of the Information Commissioner the power to approve or reject upfront a department's request to decline to act on a request. It clarifies that a department can only decline to act based on the record already being available if it is the identical record.

These amendments address concerns raised by both the Information Commissioner and other stakeholders, including representatives of indigenous claims organizations. The amendments further underline the fact that we want to ensure that the system cannot be abused and cannot be used to decline to act on legitimate requests.

The committee also passed an amendment giving the Information Commissioner the power to publish the results of her investigations and to publish their orders. This is an important strengthening of the commissioner's powers.

The committee passed an amendment that imposes a 30-day deadline for the proactive disclosure of mandate letters.

This is just the first phase of our access to information modernization. In fact, Bill C-58 includes a mandatory review of the act every five years. The first review will begin no later than one year after this bill receives royal assent. What is more, it will require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act. This will help us understand and increase information that could be proactively disclosed.

After 34 years, Canada's Access to Information Act needs updating. This is going to be an ongoing work in progress as we have an evergreening, modernization and strengthening of the Access to Information Act. We look forward to continuing our work to help make government more open, transparent, and accountable.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 5:05 p.m.
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NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the President of the Treasury Board, but I cannot, because I do not know what bill he is talking about. Bill C-58 would do the opposite of what he just said it would do.

Here is what the Liberals promised would be in this legislation. They promised that access to information would apply to his office and to the Prime Minister's Office. It does not. They promised that the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. It does not. The government promised that the bill would empower the Information Commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.

That is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of the Information Commissioner who appeared before us at committee and moved recommendations to fix Bill C-58. It is somewhat offensive to hear the Treasury Board President talking about respecting the work of committee, because the Liberals struck down amendment after amendment. These were amendments that were based on the testimony we heard at committee, from not only the Information Commissioner, but representatives from first nations communities and the media.

The Liberals promised a number of things, one of which was to rely on evidence. On all of these measures that I just outlined, Bill C-58 is “regressive”, and that is also according to the Information Commissioner.

Who does the member expect us to trust, a government that will not answer simple and direct questions day after day, or the Information Commissioner who is the watchdog and works on behalf of Parliament and all Canadians to make sure we get the information we need to hold government to account?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 5:05 p.m.
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Liberal

Scott Brison Liberal Kings—Hants, NS

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague, the member for Vancouver Quadra, who has been doing a great job as parliamentary secretary on this and other files.

These amendments address concerns raised by the Information Commissioner and other stakeholders, including representatives of indigenous claims organizations. We have taken these concerns seriously and are open to moving forward with them. We want to make sure that the system cannot be abused and that a request cannot be declined when it is a legitimate request.

The call for a vexatious clause in this has come from the ethics committee in the past. In fact, the Information Commissioner has called for it in the past. It is important that it be properly and narrowly defined. There are eight provinces and the three territories that have a similar clause.

I also agree with the amendment that would provide the power of the Information Commissioner, up front in the process, to either agree with or reject the use of a vexatious clause in the denial of a request. I support that, and I believe it should be up front. That is why the parliamentary process informs and strengthens legislation. It is why I demonstrated very early that I was open to amendments that would help to strengthen the legislation.

Beyond that, within a year of the passage of Bill C-58, we would have a mandatory full review to assess these changes and inform future changes. This is a work in progress—

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 5:10 p.m.
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Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the minister speak, and as I sit in the House on a daily basis, as we all do, is it any wonder that we find it hard to believe that anything the government says it is going to do will actually come to fruition? We have seen broken promise after broken promise. If members do not believe me, just look at what some of those who are looking closely at Bill C-58 are saying. 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, the possibility to refuse certain access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of this government. That was from Katie Gibbs, the executive director of Evidence for Democracy group. However, there are more, and I will refer to more as I get through my speech today on Bill C-58.

I would be remiss if I did not go back a couple of hours, back to the future, and the egregious display of contempt for parliamentary democracy. It has been a practice in this place for many years that when opposition members ask questions directly and pointedly to the finance minister, as we did today, or to other ministers of the crown, that those answers are expected. They are expected on behalf of all Canadians. This is why we are elected to come to this place; it is to ask the type of hard questions that were asked today.

In the preamble to the movement of a motion to adjourn debate on Bill C-63, I will remind the House that we are talking about openness and transparency, which is something the government runs around saying. The Prime Minister stands up in front of microphones, posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat that the government is more open and transparent than any other government in the history of Canada. I would suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.

I would again remind the House of what I said before I moved the motion to adjourn debate. I said to the Speaker that before I resumed my comments, I wanted to go back to question period and what I thought, quite frankly, was an egregious display of contempt for our parliamentary democracy. This minister was asked multiple times whether he had sold his shares in Morneau Shepell in advance of his tax reform announcement, and he failed to answer the question on multiple occasions.

Therefore, in the absence of the minister answering those questions on a bill that, quite frankly, he has influence over, I would call into question the ability of Canadians to have confidence in him conducting further business on the bill. It is confidence, and not just on this bill, but any bill. The Minister of Finance was asked a minimum of 14 times today in question period whether in fact he had sold his shares in Morneau Shepell in advance of his tax reform policies being announced, and each time he skirted the question. He would not answer. He went on about the middle class and those working hard to join it. Well, right now, it is a matter of the middle class and those working hard to stay in it because of the policies of the finance minister.

We are expected to sit in the House and accept not just what the President of Treasury Board talks about in terms of openness and accountability, but there are multiple people, stakeholders, who have a vested interest in what the President of Treasury Board is promoting and proposing in terms of this access to information legislation, and they are being critical of it. They are being as critical as we are being on the finance minister, because he needs to answer the questions.

The government needs to force the finance minister to answer the questions as to whether in fact he had any vested interest or knowledge of the sale of those shares. It speaks to credibility, to transparency, to accountability, which the government is good at talking about, but when it comes to implementing or living by that, it does not.

What was funny about Bill C-63 and the motion we put forward was that every single person, save one, I believe the member from the Green Party, voted in support of adjourning the debate on that bill. They did that because they do not want to talk about it.

All we are asking is that the minister answer the questions that have been asked of him by those who represent Canadians in this House, every single one of us who are not members of the Liberal Party.

We are actually hearing about Liberal members who are questioning their confidence in the ability of the finance minister to conduct the business of the country. Why? It is because he has failed to answer the questions. He has answered, but in generalities. He goes back to the fetal position of saying that they are working hard for the middle class and those working hard to join it. However, he refuses to answer the questions.

If we are talking about openness and transparency, and this government is proposing Bill C-58, why is the finance minister not being open and transparent with Canadians? We can speculate that perhaps he knows that Canadians will not be happy with the answers. They will not be happy with the villa in France and why he hid that from the Ethics Commissioner, that he had complete control over Morneau Shepell shares and shares in various corporations, or that perhaps he was the one who sold that $10 million worth of shares just ahead of making that announcement. Openness and transparency: what an absolute joke.

I also want to talk about some other individuals who have concerns about what the government is proposing in Bill C-58. The bill proposes a good amendment, and I will give some credit here, by requiring 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 was promised by the Liberals.

We need more changes to have a government that is transparent and open by default. Again, the Liberals talk about openness and transparency, but they do not act in that way.

"The bill is 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 know.” Dale Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, said that.

Stephane Giroux, the president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec said, “The most interesting fact for us was to have access to documents from ministers' offices. False alarm. It was too good to be true.”

In spite of the fact that the President of the Treasury Board is standing up and saying that all these changes have occurred within Bill C-58, the reality is that there are still significant concerns. I think there is concern among Canadians. This past weekend, I had lots of events in my riding, and one of the things I kept hearing about is confidence in the finance minister to continue to do his job, given the circumstances and the besieged state he has been in over the last while. The fact that every single member of the Liberal caucus voted to adjourn debate on this issue calls into question not just Canadians' confidence in the finance minister but the Liberal backbenches' confidence in the finance minister.

The Hill Times today reported that there are concerns among Liberal backbenchers that this is going to affect them in 2019. Do members know the reason they gave for that concern? Many of them will have been here for one term of four years. They are concerned about their pensions. That is what it said in the paper.

How about being concerned about the process of democracy in this country and making sure that no one benefits from having holdings, in the case of the finance minister, that they have not brought forward and been transparent about?

Never mind pensions, we should be focused on what the finance minister is doing by not being transparent and accountable to Canadians and question whether some of the legislation he is putting forward, such as Bill C-27, actually benefits him.

I would remind the House as well that it is not just a matter of benefiting him. What about the benefit to his family? What about his wife? What about his kids? What about his father? How many Morneau Shepell shareholders, or anyone directly or indirectly associated with that family, are benefiting as a result of the policies the finance minister is putting forward? We talk about being open and transparent, but the finance minister has been anything but, and we certainly saw that egregious display today in the House.

As parents, we teach our kids about the difference between right and wrong. We tell our kids what they cannot do and explain it to them. We tell them what they can do and explain the reasons why. We talk often to our kids about character. School systems, through the policies of education, speak about character. They speak about honesty and integrity, yet the finance minister is showing none of those character traits to Canadians with his actions.

We are dealing with a piece of legislation, Bill C-58, that, quite frankly, is difficult to support for many reasons, the least of which is the government not showing any strong movement toward openness and transparency. It is a very top-down approach by the government.

The former information commissioner, from 2007 to 2008, said, “there's no one [in government departments] 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 parts of them had been blacked out], you had someone to appeal to.”

This is no longer the case with Bill C-58.

He went on, “We can't even go to a court. It's one step forward, two steps back.”

We have seen a lot of one step forward and two steps back with the government. My fear is that the openness and transparency the Liberals ran on are not there anymore. We have seen that the finance minister cannot even answer a simple question. He will not even answer a simple question. Quite frankly, after seeing this display we have been seeing over the course of the last several months to questions being asked, how can we have any faith? If the finance minister will not even answer a simple question, how can we expect the whole of government to be open, honest, and transparent?

I am saddened by what I see, quite frankly, as a new parliamentarian. I know the other side is going to say that there were circumstances in the past when similar issues happened. We are not talking about circumstances in the past. The Liberals were the same opposition that stood and talked about the egregiousness of the actions of previous governments. They ran to be different. They said that they were going to impose real change. We have seen nothing to suggest anything different. We are seeing a government that is more inward. We are seeing a government that is controlled from the top down. We are seeing a government where the Prime Minister's Office runs everything. Not just on this issue but on multiple issues, anything but what they said has come true.

Conservatives are not going to support Bill C-58. I certainly call into question the finance minister. I call into question his ability to manage the financial affairs of the country, given the circumstances we have seen over the course of the last several months.

Despite their campaign promises, the Liberals have failed to increase government openness and transparency with this bill. As I have said, it is no surprise. This is effectively a government that chooses to publish when it is accountable to Canadians. It is not being accountable all the time. It is going to pick and choose when it wants to be accountable to Canadians. In practice, what the Liberals have effectively done is give themselves the power to refuse to respond to access to information requests they find embarrassing. Under the principle of openness and transparency, should not everything be responded to?

I understand that there might be matters of national security that are not in the public interest, but this is something different from what they ran on, as far as openness and transparency goes. With the changes proposed by the Liberals, less information would be available to Canadians. Moreover, the Liberals would do nothing to address unacceptable delays, so we would continue to see that information punted down the field and would have unacceptable delays in when that information would be put forward to Canadians.

I spent some time talking about Bill C-58, but in the context of openness and transparency, I cannot emphasize enough the egregious nature of the issue we have been dealing for the last couple of months with the finance minister. Again today there was zero accountability, zero transparency, and zero openness. It is a pattern that has evolved with the Liberal government over the course of the last two years. It should concern all of us. It certainly concerns stakeholders who have an interest in this. However, it is not just a concern to all of us who are here to represent Canadians. It is a concern to all Canadians, because it is the small stuff that leads to the big stuff. If we cannot get simple answers to simple questions in this place of openness and transparency, how can we expect to get that information from a government that proves, day after day, that it is not interested in openness? It is not interested in transparency and accountability, in spite of the fact that it ran on that very thing.

They said they were going to be different. The reality is, and we have seen it over the course of the last two years, that nothing could be further from the truth. With the display of the finance minister over the course of the last couple of months, and certainly today, there is not much faith in the ability of the government to be open, transparent, and accountable. That is why Bill C-58 is flawed. We continue to be concerned about the actions of the finance minister and how the Liberal government and these Liberal backbenchers can continue to endorse the display we are seeing here on a daily basis.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 5:30 p.m.
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Vancouver Quadra B.C.

Liberal

Joyce Murray LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Madam Speaker, I must say I am disappointed. The member clearly does not have the intention of raising the quality of debate in the House. First, he barely spoke about Bill C-58. I am proud that we are the first government in 34 years to make major reforms to the Access to Information Act. Second, he was wrong in the few comments he made about the bill. He said it would deny access to information requests that are frivolous or made in bad faith. In fact, the amendments would give the commissioner up-front approval power over any department's request to decline to act on a request because the department believed it was vexatious or in bad faith. The member clearly did not even read the committee's changes and is not up to date on the bill. That is disappointing. It is not a priority for him, clearly.

I also want to note that in its 2006 platform, the Conservative Party made a clear commitment to update the access to information law, and the Conservatives did absolutely nothing in 10 years. Did they never intend to actually deliver on that promise, or did they just not care enough to do a thing about it in 10 years?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 5:40 p.m.
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NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Madam Speaker, as always, I am deeply honoured to rise in the House and speak for the people of Timmins—James Bay. I will be speaking tonight to Bill C-58 and to express my deep concern about the government's attack on the access to information system.

The folks back home may not pay a lot of attention to access to information because it is the stuff of journalists, researchers and opposition politics. However, access to information is one of the fundamental principles of an accountable democracy. In order to hold government to account, we need to know who is involved when the decisions in the backroom are made. We need to have some manner of light shone into the dark rooms where the power brokers are to ensure a level of accountability. That is the role of the Access to Information Act.

At one point, Canada was well-respected for the Access to Information Act brought in a number of decades ago. However, year by year Canada has slipped in its level of credibility. We are going to be talking about some specific examples of how that plays out tonight.

We are in a situation now where we have a Prime Minister who won so much support across the country because the very first step he took in offering his vision as a new leader was on access to information and open government. His vision for Parliament would be the opposite of the Stephen Harper government, which was considered so controlling and secretive. People put their trust in the Prime Minister. I remember thinking this was really bold, a leader who was willing to make the changes necessary for access to information.

I have grown increasingly concerned that more and more our Parliament has become a sideshow. It has become a Potemkin democracy, where MPs get to play out in the House, but the real decisions are made to benefit those who are not accountable. When the Prime Minister makes a promise on access to information and then undermines it in such a cynical manner, Canadians have a right to know how this happens and how it affects them.

With respect to Bill C-58, which is supposed to change the access to information laws in the country, the President of the Treasury Board says that we should not worry because Canadians will now have access to the mandate letters for the ministers. Is that not already public? He also said that we should not worry because Canadians would now get to know the travel budgets of various ministers. That is already public.

However, what we do not have is the ability in this case for the Access to Information Commissioner to ensure that all documents are posted. One thing we have found with government is that certain documents are not all that helpful to it. Remember when the Minister of Indigenous Services racked up all those thousands of dollars riding around Markham in a limousine? That was embarrassing to government and it did not want that information released. Therefore, if we allow government to release what it wants, it will not release what is embarrassing. However, we need accountability.

Therefore, I will talk about Bill C-58 in the context of a couple of specific cases so people will understand exactly what we are talking about. I am going to talk about the issue of St. Anne's residential school.

As the government is leading its attack to limit the ability of people to access information, I am dealing with the Access to Information Commissioner on the three-and-a-half-year obstruction by federal officials in the justice department to suppress and blackout who made key decisions regarding the justice department's response to the survivors of St. Anne's residential school. In telling the story, we begin to understand why it is so important to have an accountable system for access to information.

St. Anne's residential school was in the region I represent, the community of Fort Albany. If we look at the horrific history of the residential schools, the story of what was done to the children at St. Anne's year in and year out, generation upon generation, it stands among the most horrifying of stories in the country's history. It was a veritable concentration camp of torture and sexual abuse of children.

In 1992, the survivors of St. Anne's came together in Fort Albany to talk about their experience. For the first time, many of them began to talk about the levels of sexual abuse, rape, and forced abortions to which children were subjected.

Edmund Metatawabin, who is chief, brought this to the Ontario Provincial Police and demanded a major police investigation. To its credit, the Ontario Provincial Police, with Sergeant Delguidice in the Cochrane division, undertook a massive investigation of the crimes committed against those children. They identified over 180 perpetrators of rape, torture, and abuse of children. They gathered 1,000 witness statements of that abuse from the survivors and students who were there. They gathered 12,000 pages of police testimony and documentation, including subpoenaed records from the Catholic church in the diocese of Moosonee, to build a picture of what went on in that institution year in and year out.

In 2003, there was an effort with the survivors and the then federal government of Paul Martin, I believe, to try to find a solution. The survivors were shocked at the aggressiveness of the federal government to fight and deny every single case, no matter the evidence. At that time, all of the evidence the police had gathered in Ontario had led to a number of convictions in an Ontario court against the perpetrators of the abuse at St. Anne's, but let us face it: the big ones got away. The priests and bishops who were involved got away. Some of them were dead, some of the perpetrators could not be found, but a number of people were convicted in an Ontario court.

However, in 2004, the justice department wanted access to that trove of evidence to prepare the defence of the number one defendant, which was Canada. When it applied for access to the police documentation, it told the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that it would be unfair to Canada, which was in charge of this institution, in preparing its defence if it did not have all of the evidence. The key officials in the justice department were involved in the application to obtain those records, and they got the records, some 12,000 pages. They got the names of the perpetrators. They were preparing for the major civil litigation trials against Canada.

In 2007-08, the process for the Indian residential schools settlement agreement was set up as an alternative so that the federal government could escape these cases. The federal government agreed at that time to set up the independent assessment process, the IAP. The IAP was to be a non-confrontational process in which the survivors could tell their stories. That is how they told the survivors it would play out, but of course it did not play out like that at all for the survivors of St. Anne's. Therefore, the justice department wore two hats. The first hat was to obtain all of the evidence, prepared in so-called narratives, so that the adjudicators and claimant lawyers could use it to make it easier for the claimants. The justice department acted as the gatherer of evidence. The justice department's other hat was as lawyer for the defendant, Canada, and its number one goal was limiting the payouts.

In the case of St. Anne's residential school, the justice department had an obligation to prepare a list of all documentation, listing all the known crimes and sexual abuse that occurred in that institution, and it presented a document at the hearing stating that there was no known history of sexual abuse at the Fort Albany Indian residential school, St. Anne's. It said there was absolutely no documentation to show any student-on-student abuse at the Fort Albany institution of St. Anne's.

People told their stories, and their cases were thrown out because the justice department did not go there with a non-confrontational attitude. It went in loaded for bear and accused the survivors, who were victims of child rape, of not being able to prove their stories because they could not remember the day the priest raped them, that they could not remember little details. Yet the justice department already knew they were telling the truth because it had all of the evidence.

We had claimants, like claimant H-15019, whose case was thrown out, because the justice department argued there was no proof that a predatory pedophile priest was in St. Anne's Residential School when that child was in that building. That child, who grew into a man who asked for justice from the Government of Canada did not know that the justice department had a long list involving that pedophile priest. The department knew he had been in that building since 1938. From 1938 to 1974 he had free access to rape children, and the Justice Department of Canada lied about it in hearings, suppressed that evidence, and had that case thrown out. How could this have happened in 2015, 2016, and 2017 in Canada?

The greatest moment that I have seen since I have been here and the greatest moment in the history of this Parliament was when Prime Minister Harper stood up in the House and apologized. People in my region wept for days when they heard that apology. They never thought that justice would happen and after hearing the apology they thought it was possible.

People wept when the present Prime Minister gave a powerful speech at the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was listening to him. He said that Canada would make this right, that the obligation of the survivors to prove what they went through was over, that Canada would be there for them. That has not been the case with the survivors of St. Anne's Residential School. The justice department continues to take the brass knuckles approach to deny them basic levels of justice.

In 2013 I wrote to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and the justice minister at the time and I asked them who had made the decision to suppress the police evidence in testimony that had these cases thrown out. I asked them both what they were going to do to rectify this clear breach of legal duty. Those ministers said they knew about the evidence but that they were not accountable for presenting it, which was false.

In January 2014, the Ontario Superior Court ordered the previous government and the justice minister to turn over those documents to the independent assessment process to have those cases fairly adjudicated. The government refused. It continued to deny.

The survivors of St. Anne's Residential School had to go back to court in 2015, and this time the government was forced to turn over the documents. However, it had blacked out the names of the perpetrators and the witnesses to make the evidence functionally useless.

For what purpose in a nation like ours would the Government of Canada opt to protect pedophiles, rapists, and sadists by hiding their names? For what possible reason would justice department lawyers, the people who are charged with presenting the law for the people of Canada, go into hearings and challenge survivors who suffered horrific levels of abuse? For what possible reason would the Government of Canada decide to suppress this police evidence? I still have not figured out an answer to that, but it dogs me. I stay up at night trying to figure out what kind of person hired to represent Canada would do this.

In 2013, I applied a simple tool, a tool of all parliamentarians and of all Canadians, by making an access to information request regarding the political decisions that went into suppressing the police testimony and evidence that denied justice to the survivors of St. Anne's Residential School.

For the information of folks back home, when a government does not want to answer a question, it delays. We had a 300-day delay. We knew this was just an attempt by the department not to have to answer the question. The cases were closing down and the ability of survivors who had their cases thrown out to re-appeal the verdicts was coming to an end. It seemed obvious that the justice department would drag this out over three years, because it thought that the cases would be closed and all would be said and done. We waited 300 days, 600 days, then 900 days.

The new government came in and I thought it would change things. It had no reason to oppose survivors of St. Anne's. The new government took the position that it would not turn over any of the political documentation regarding the decision to suppress the police evidence. That was done by the new justice minister and the new Prime Minister.

Therefore, we approached the access to information commissioner, the tool that we use, to ask how is it possible that after three years of delay, they could deny and say they were not obligated to turn over this evidence. This documentation concerns who knew what in the minister's office. This is a question on a political issue that Canadians need answered.

The Information Commissioner and her office are one of the great institutions of our country. She understood the seriousness of this. It was not a vexatious request; it was about justice. She challenged the justice department. We were on the verge of being in court with the justice department to find out what was being said in those offices when they suppressed that police evidence. The justice department agreed to turn over four batches of information over a period of a year. The first batch of information was about 90% blacked out. The second batch of 3,000 pages we just received was entirely blacked out.

When the government says it wants the right to refuse vexatious requests, what it means by vexatious are the requests that would give it political grief. It wants to be able to turn those down.

The folks who survived St. Anne's Residential School, who were taken from their families, who had their identities stripped from them, who had their rights taken away from them, who were left in the hands of abusers and torturers, have a right to ask why Parliament failed them. They have a right to ask why the justice department of our country continues to deny and challenge them and obstruct their basic rights for redress. Part of those answers may lie in the courts, but part of those answers lie in the access to information request. We have a right to know who advised the politicians to do this.

I would like to say that the abuse of the children at St. Anne's has come to an end because of these beautiful apologies, but it has not. We now have, in the case of claimant H-15019 and claimant C14114, a case that was thrown out because she did not have any documentation. She was unable to prove that when she was assaulted in St. Anne's Residential School it was known by administration. Then, after her case was thrown out, she learned there were all these documents. She attempted to have her case reopened. The Government of Canada said she could not reopen her case because her case was adjudicated. We are talking about a child victim of rape. What possible reason would the Government of Canada have to suppress police testimony about child rape? What possible reason could it have to defy the Ontario Superior Court and black out the names of the perpetrators? For what possible reason would it black out all of the political documentation on what was said in the minister's office regarding this decision?

For what possible reason, right now, at this time, would they be in the hearing saying “Okay, we've been finally forced to hand over the police testimony, but it is inadmissible”. Why is it inadmissible? It is inadmissible because it has not been tested. What they are saying to the survivors is that it does not matter that we are having to present 12,000 pages of police documentation of the perpetrators, because the survivors have to find a witness to come in and be tested.

The trauma to the communities I represent is a direct highway from St. Anne's Residential School to the suicide crisis of our young people today. Talk to anyone in the community and they will say that trauma continues to kill children, and yet we have justice department lawyers saying that evidence cannot be used unless they bring forward a survivor to be re-challenged by the justice department.

I will close on this. We do have a survivor who is willing to come forward and verify the testimony. The justice department said she cannot be allowed to speak because she has already spoken. Can someone explain that to me? That is why we need access to information. It is to understand the perfidious nature of what is—

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 6:05 p.m.
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Madam Speaker, it is worth remembering that the Information Commissioner in an unprecedented response gave a full condemnation, top to bottom, of the bill. She basically said that Bill C-58 as it stood, notwithstanding the couple of tweaks and little turns that have been made, is a regressive piece of proposed legislation.

I would ask my colleague what he thought, and whether he agrees with me that the arrogance of the Liberal government is best reflected by the fact that some government departments are already using provisions of Bill C-58 to deny information properly requested which would have been provided under the existing status quo.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 6:10 p.m.
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Conservative

Gérard Deltell Conservative Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Madam Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise in the House, particularly at supper time.

I am very pleased to speak to Bill C-58. It is quite a coincidence that we are talking about consistency, transparency, and access to information—in short, giving clear answers to clear questions—when we saw exactly the opposite of that today in question period. I will come back to that a bit later.

This bill objectively seeks to make government more transparent and to give Canadians better access to government information. That is the objective, but it is still far from reality. I would not say that I am in a conflict of interest because that is a sensitive topic these days. However, as a former journalist and a current MP, I find myself walking a very fine line between the legitimate access to information requests that Canadians should be able to make to the federal government and the executive's ability to govern in order to carry out the usual business of a government, a country, while maintaining some level of confidentiality when it comes to debates and relevant information.

Let us be clear about one thing: if everything is made public and if there is access to everything that is said, and if everyone's views are known, at some point there will no longer be any real internal debate by cabinet, which is necessary to govern a solid state like Canada. Therefore, there is a very fine line that needs to be drawn and this government clearly did that when it was in opposition. When the Liberals made an election promise, they drew that line; today, the line is there, whereas before it was here. This is a regressive bill.

I listened closely to the President of the Treasury Board, who sponsored this bill. I hold the member in high regard and have great respect for him. He has been here for almost 21 years and, at another time, early on in his political career, he sat on the right side, with the Conservatives. He has the right to change his mind, as some have, but I just wanted to point that out, tongue in cheek. I will be a good sport. He made an objective statement that I will not challenge: this is the first time in 34 years that a government is overhauling access to information. Only that much is true. The overhaul is not going to provide more access to information. On the contrary, it will give more power to the executive, the ministers, the Prime Minister and his cabinet to restrict Canadians' access to information.

I will provide some examples. First, the Information Commissioner was rather scathing in her assessment of the first draft of this regressive bill and worse yet, she said that in her view, the sponsorship scandal, the legacy of the Chrétien and Martin governments—of which the current President of the Treasury Board was a member—would not have been uncovered without the excellent journalistic work of the Daniel Leblancs of this world. It is quite a positive development for transparency, right? It is truly a step forward for openness. It is truly a fundamental element of freedom of the press. No, it is not.

We recognize that a dozen or so amendments were adopted, but we think that those amendments do not go far enough when it comes to the Liberal ambition and even less so when it comes to the practice of journalism. I acknowledge that what I am about to say may be subjective, but part of our work as MPs is to be subjective. It may be subjective, but I have 20 years' experience as a journalist under my belt. We believe that the proposed amendments do not go far enough. As a result of these amendments, in a case like the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien and Martin Liberal governments, of which the current President of the Treasury Board was a member, it would still be difficult to get access to that information. It would not be impossible, but journalists' work would become even more difficult, and that is why we think this is a regressive bill.

In addition, it will be the government that chooses what can and cannot be disclosed from now on. It will be judge and jury. Of course it is in the government's interest to withhold certain information; that is only natural. I am not saying that is what it should do, but it could be a natural reaction for some government members. That is what I would call a step backwards.

The same is true when it comes to the proactive disclosure of certain documents. With this supposedly proactive approach, there is a risk that bureaucrats, policy advisers, and ministers will know which documents are going to be made public in a month or in six months. We can therefore expect a version A, which will be made public, and a version B that has the real information, which can be found in emails, for example, and might be a little more politically sensitive. The government might be a little less inclined to make that information public.

Of course, nothing is perfect in life, but we believe that the proactive disclosure of certain information falls short of what was said or aspired to in the Liberal Party's electoral platform, which is what people voted on two years ago.

Earlier, my NDP colleague mentioned certain amendments that the government flatly refused to consider. The amendments were substantive and in keeping with Liberal promises, but unfortunately, they were rejected. The same amendments had been suggested by the Information Commissioner, journalists, members of the media, and first nations.

The government says it cares so much about first nations and keeps talking about how they are its priority. However, as we have shown during a number of debates, including the one on the Prime Minister's unfortunate statement about religious belief, the government talks about first nations only when doing so suits its purposes. The same goes for this bill.

Even though the government made a dozen or so amendments, we feel that this bill does not go far enough in terms of ensuring the clarity, openness, and transparency everyone expects of the government. It is also a watered-down version of the Liberal promise. In short, this is yet another in what is becoming a very long line of broken Liberal promises.

This government got itself elected on a promise of a small $10-billion deficit for three years and a subsequent return to a balanced budget. Now we are talking $20-billion deficits, and nobody has any idea when the budget will be balanced. The government said it would aggressively raise taxes on seniors. As a result—

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

November 27th, 2017 / 6:20 p.m.
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Conservative

Gérard Deltell Conservative Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Madam Speaker, I welcome that happening for the first time while I was speaking. I was a little afraid, to say the least, but I am getting used to the rules of the House of Commons.

Earlier, I was speaking about this government's long line of broken promises, which keeps growing. I was going over the commitments it made and then ignored, especially the ones concerning deficits and the money it was supposed to give to the middle class. The Fraser Institute has reported that 80% of Canadian families are paying $840 more, mainly because certain tax credits our government introduced, such as the green tax credit for people who take public transit, like the bus, were eliminated. This represented two months of free public transit. The Liberal government, which claims to be a green government that is in touch with people, did the exact opposite by eliminating this tax credit.

It is the same thing when the government says that the wealthiest 1% of Canadians will pay more taxes under the Liberal government. This Robin Hood policy is completely false. It is not us Conservatives who are saying so, nor the Montreal Economic Institute or any other right-wing think tank. It is the Department of Finance itself that determined in a report issued just two months ago that the wealthiest Canadians are paying $1.2 billion less in taxes because of this government's tax policies. The government is saying one thing and doing another.

Fortunately, that information is public. It is found in a document that the government made public. We did not have to go through the Access to Information Act, which as we know will be weakened by the updated version of Bill C-58.

It is a rather big coincidence, to say the least, that we are debating access to information, openness, and transparency since, today, as we tried to get answers to our questions in the House of Commons, we saw an extremely ugly demonstration of what a government should not do in question period.

Let me be clear. We understand that in question period, we are talking about a question, period. It is to provide information. When I sat on the National Assembly, it was officially called a question and answer period. However, here, unfortunately we are just talking about a question period, we are not talking about answering a question. That would be very useful, because, today, not three or four times, but on 21 occasions in a row, we asked a clear and simple question of the Minister of Finance, and every time, on 21 occasions in a row, he dodged the issue. He refused to answer a clear question with a clear answer. That is sad. Therefore, it will be very interesting to see our colleagues on the other side say why it is important to have openness and transparency, and to give good information to the people of Canada.

In a government, the minister of finance is number two, not the last minister. In some cases, we could even say the minister of finance is number one; however, that is another debate. I do not want to put aside any other ministers, such as the global affairs minister, the transport minister, the Treasury Board President, and all of those important portfolios such as the defence minister and the first nations minister. All of them are very important. However, in life, there are those who are at the top, and then there are other people. When we talk about cabinet ministers, for sure the finance minister is at the top. I am quite sure that no one who is sitting here—and I see some hon. members from coast to coast who have had strong responsibilities in former governments—will be offended when I say that for sure Jim Flaherty was the number one cabinet minister under the Stephen Harper government. The same thing also goes for Joe Oliver. Everybody will recognize that, because the finance minister is the one who designs the financial and fiscal policies that apply to the financial and fiscal reality of Canada. Therefore, when we have what we could say is a conflict of interest, it is our responsibility to ask questions of the Minister of Finance. That is what we did today. We asked a simple question 21 times in a row, but, unfortunately, 21 times in a row, the Minister of Finance refused to give a clear answer.

That is why I think it is pretty ironic that we are debating Bill C-58, the goal of which is to increase government transparency and openness around information gathering. However, in our view, the bill is regressive and will make investigative reporting even harder. It also places the government in a conflict of interest by making it both the judge and the judged when journalists and citizens raise questions.

We think this bill is regressive. It is also ironic that we should be debating it on the very day that the Minister of Finance, the number one minister, refused to give a clear answer to a perfectly simple question not once, not twice, not three times, but 21 times in a row. He never gave a clear answer to the question in either English or French.

In conclusion, we are going to vote against this bill. We recommend that the Liberal members also vote against this bill, because it is never too late to do right. It would be a good thing if the Liberals voted against it. We could review the bill, which we believe to be a step backwards, not forwards, for press freedom and especially for access to information.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / 1:45 p.m.
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NDP

François Choquette NDP Drummond, QC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Gérard Deltell Conservative Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

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

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

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

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

The Liberals' specific objectives are, “We will ensure that access to information applies to the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.” That is where the problem lies, because the first of these objectives has not been met and access to information still does not apply to the PMO. That is a broken promise by the Liberals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy group, says that by ruling out the possibility to obtain information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's office, the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government “open by default”. Moreover, she says, that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.

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

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

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

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

It is the same thing for another important stakeholder.

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

The bill take a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith. Public officials should not be given this power, as they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

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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?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is that for transparency?

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Conservative

Alain Rayes Conservative Richmon