Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee.
My presentation will be entirely in English, because there are many technical terms in this political issue. I should practise my French a lot more so that I could use those terms.
I will not go into some of the details that Cara Zwibel has already provided on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, because Democracy Watch is in full agreement with the points made during her presentation. I'll focus instead on a few other areas of concern.
First of all, with regard to the bill overall, the bill breaks the promise that the Liberals made in the open government section of their 2015 election platform, and it also takes steps backwards—big steps backwards—in access rights. The Liberals have also failed to keep their international open government partnership commitments, as weak as those commitments were.
Tens of thousands of voters have sent messages through Democracy Watch's open government campaign page calling on federal parties to make key changes to the act. The public has been consulted numerous times. I have here the report of the task force from 2002, and also my submissions made in 2009, which resulted in a unanimous committee report, and that can only lead me to question what has happened to the Liberals since 2009, because in 2009 they agreed to several of the changes that are not included in Bill C-58.
In 2011 and 2013, twice through the international open government partnership process, the public was consulted and interest groups were consulted. The Information Commissioner consulted and issued a report in late March of 2015, recommending many key changes. The Liberals consulted on their 2016-2018 open government partnership plan.
The result of every single consultation has been a broad, strong call from the public and citizens' groups to make several key changes that are not included in Bill C-58.
To be credible, the Liberals on this committee must agree to the key open government changes to Bill C-58 that many groups and past committees and reports have called for over the past 15 years. The act and the open government system have been reviewed several times, and there is a consensus on key changes that must be made. There is simply no justifiable reason for any further delay in making the changes. If these changes are finally made, the current federal law, which really should be called “The Guide to Keeping Secrets Act”, will finally become a real access to information act.
I will talk about just a few of the changes that Democracy Watch believes are key and about the Open Government Coalition as well.
First of all, any type of record created by any entity that receives significant funding from or is connected to the government or was created by the government and fulfills a public interest function should be automatically covered by the law, as in the United Kingdom.
As well, all exemptions under the law must be discretionary and limited by a proof-of-harm test and a public interest override, as in B.C. and Alberta.
Also, every entity covered should be required to create detailed records for all decisions and actions, to routinely disclose records that are required to be disclosed, to assign responsibility to individuals for the creation and maintenance of each record, and to maintain each record so that it remains easily accessible, as in the United Kingdom, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.
Fourth, the access to information law and system should allow anyone who does factual or policy research for the government to speak to the media publicly about any topic they are researching and the findings and conclusions of their research without being required to first seek approval from anyone.
Then, to go to the overall system and enforcement, severe penalties should be created for not creating records, for not maintaining records properly, and for unjustifiable delays in responses to requests.
The order-making power of the Information Commissioner is rather meaningless without any consequence or penalty for violating the law. Like any law, the Access to Information Act is just nice words on paper. Enforcement is key, and penalties are key in terms of effective enforcement. It always seems that when politicians write rules that apply to themselves, they leave out penalties, while imposing huge penalties on others for similar activities.
The Information Commissioner should be given explicit powers to order the release of a record—as in the United Kingdom, Ontario, B.C., and Quebec—and to penalize violators of the law with high fines, jail terms, loss of any severance payments, and partial clawback of any pension payments if the person resigns to try to escape a penalty.
As well, the Information Commissioner should be given the power to require systemic changes in government departments to improve compliance, as the commissioner in the United Kingdom has.
The funding should be increased to solve backlog problems instead of increasing administrative barriers such as set out in proposed sections 6 and 6.1—and Ms. Zwibel summarized very well the problems with those sections—and/or limiting requests in any other way, including fees.
Parliament must be required to review the act, as set out in this bill—one of the few key measures made—every five years.
Another key, and I'll end on this, is that the commissioner's appointment process must be changed before the new commissioner is appointed. The rules have not set up a merit-based, open, transparent, independent appointment system for cabinet appointees. The ministers still control the appointment process entirely.
I am disclosing today that I've applied to be Information Commissioner, I have 30 years' experience working with provincial and federal laws, and I have not even been contacted in response to my application. I am sure there are many others the government does not want to be commissioner—because they will be a watchdog—who are also well qualified and have not been contacted.
Ministers control this entire process still. That's not an independent or merit-based system. It's political and it's partisan. It has to stop. This government is going to select an Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, Information Commissioner, RCMP commissioner, Chief Electoral Officer, and Commissioner of Official Languages through a process that's political and partisan. You don't end up with watchdogs with that kind of process, as we saw with the fiasco over the attempt to appoint a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister as official languages commissioner in the spring.
The process must change to be actually independent and merit-based, and that means having a commission made up of people who are non-governmental, who will do a merit-based search publicly and come up with a short list. The cabinet should then be required to choose from among that short list.
There have just been recommendations made by such a committee for Supreme Court judge positions that are coming open. If it's good for Supreme Court judges, it's good for the judges of ethics, transparency, whistle-blower protection, official languages, the RCMP, and elections law in Canada. The same process should be used as for Supreme Court judges, and if the Liberals try to appoint these lapdogs that they want to these key democratic, good governance, watchdog positions, you better believe that Democracy Watch and many people in the public will resist every step of the way. Change the system before the new commissioner is appointed and give it over to an independent commission that will recommend a short list, as you're doing with Supreme Court justices. That was a good move. Do it with all judges of whether the government is following the law, please.
I welcome your questions. Thank you.