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

Sponsor

Scott Brison  Liberal

Status

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

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Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It amends the Privacy Act to, among other things,

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere

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

Votes

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Randy Boissonnault Liberal Edmonton Centre, AB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

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

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

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

We will ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Liberal

Joyce Murray LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

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

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

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

Yes, things—

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Dan Vandal Liberal Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, MB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

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

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

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

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

We will ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Luc Berthold Conservative Mégantic—L'Érable, QC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation 23 says:

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

All of that advice is ignored in this Liberal bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

September 26th, 2017 / noon
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Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Liberal

Peter Schiefke LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Youth)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Peter Schiefke Liberal Vaudreuil—Soulanges, QC

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

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

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

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

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

Peter Schiefke Liberal Vaudreuil—Soulanges, QC

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

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

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