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”?