moved that Bill C-309, an act to amend the Access to Information Act (disclosure of results of public opinion polls), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, most Canadians believe that this is the best country in the world. However, that does not mean they agree with the status quo and do not want changes. Canadians want constructive change and near the top of every list is the desire for a more open and accountable government.
Open government means a free flow of information between the government and its citizens. It means that government informs the public rather than manipulating them. Open government means that when tax dollars are used to commission polls about the thoughts and opinions of Canadians, everyone has the right to assess the results of these polls in a timely manner.
Canadians who want access to poll results should not have to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to get the answers. Unlike the last Parliament which was very secretive this Parliament must change the system. Never again should Canadians be faced with the situation where the information commissioner has to take the Prime Minister to court to force him to release publicly funded poll results as happened in the Mulroney regime.
The kind of backroom government that has been so common here in Ottawa must change and it must change quickly. The Canadian public will not accept that sort of secrecy any more. They will not put blind faith in their politicians. They have learned through experience that left to its own devices, government will take advantage of the situation.
Government will selectively release important information to manipulate the public and advance its own agenda. In fact, we recently witnessed a perfect example of just this type of behaviour by the Parizeau government in Quebec. While this example did not involve polls, it did involve a series of publicly funded studies that examined the consequences of separation.
As all members are probably aware, the Parizeau government realized that some of the studies cast serious doubts on the viability of a separate Quebec. These studies responsibly pointed out the economic pitfalls that would invariably be associated with separation and the Parizeau government did not like it. Instead of releasing all of the taxpayer funded studies, Mr. Parizeau only released those that reinforced his own position.
The point therefore is to make all polls public in a timely manner. Not only was this manipulation by the Parizeau government dishonest, it also was an example of the need for legislation that specifically prevents this kind of behaviour.
The current government has not been as secretive as the previous one. If the Liberals truly believe in the concept of open government, then they should not be afraid to put their money where their mouths are. By making open government the law of the land, Parliament can show all Canadians that times have changed and that the rights of citizens to know what their government is doing is a fundamental one. If Parliament is really serious about open government, then all members should give their consent to make Bill C-309 votable and then we should pass it.
The bill would amend the Access to Information Act to ensure that all federal departments, boards or agencies that commission public opinion polls gave notice to the designated minister and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The designated minister would then be obliged to submit to the House of Commons the results of the polls and report the following: a description of the nature of the poll; a copy of the questions asked and a summary of the responses given; the period when the poll was conducted; and the cost of the poll. The minister would be required to lay this report before the House no later than 15 days after the poll was completed. If the House is not sitting, the report would be deposited with the information commissioner within the same deadline, published in the Canada Gazette and then presented to the House of Commons during the first five days after it resumed sitting.
If Bill C-309 was made votable and passed, the results of all public opinion polls commissioned by federal government bodies would become public in a very timely fashion. This prompt disclosure would make the results available while the information is still relevant to the current concerns of the public and is what the Canadian people are demanding.
Although I hope I am wrong, I predict Liberal members will speak against the bill. Members opposite know very well that they made election promises to "make open government the watchword of the Liberal program". I doubt they are willing to live up to that promise.
This reluctance of the Liberals to honour their red book promises was clearly demonstrated earlier in the year when they were the only members from any party to vote against open government by defeating Motion No. 304. I proposed this motion. It would have opened up Parliament and crown corporations to scrutiny under the Access to Information Act. I was told it was not to be passed at that time because the whole question was under review and massive changes were to be made to the Access to Information Act. Everyone agrees that it needs revision. I wonder if we will hear the same reasons now.
Even though Liberal members had been given assurances that M-304 would not breach the confidentiality of their offices or disrupt the competitive edge of crown corporations, Liberal members unanimously voted against that motion. This was especially strange considering that several members had told me privately they favoured the motion and thought it was a great idea. We all know what really happened. Instead of allowing their members to vote freely on the matter, the top brass stepped in and cracked the party whip. Even though the chief government whip has given his word to the House that Liberal members are allowed to vote with their consciences on private members' business, those members are told what to do and as always they do it.
I would now like to anticipate the line of argument from my colleagues opposite. I predict they will say that since they have been in government Treasury Board policies on communications and information management have been changed in order to address the problems of disclosure of public opinion research. I predict we will hear that these guidelines and the promises of the public works and government services minister make Bill C-309 unnecessary. The problem is already solved, they will say, but this is not correct.
It is true the change in the Treasury Board guidelines tinkered with the old Mulroney system but this did not mean the problem was solved. It was not and the government knows it. News clippings abundantly reveal the continuing problems with the new and improved Liberal system. Two headlines in the Globe and Mail recently say it all:
Liberal poll results rules much like the Tories'',Liberals will still allow polls to be kept secret''. A Winnipeg Free Press article entitled ``Imitating Mulroney'' says:
Public Works Minister David Dingwall called the new guidelines a "breakthrough". In fact, they are little more than Brian Mulroney's policy warmed over with a little red sauce for artificial flavour. These flimsy guidelines will not require ministers to reveal information gathered at public expense, if in the opinion of the minister that information is considered advice to the government.
What does it mean, advice to the government? By tradition, advice must stay locked up in a bomb-proof vault until the minister passes on to a better place or until the paper it is written on turns yellow and disintegrates.
Let me move on to a very interesting article that was published in the normally Liberal friendly Toronto Star after the new Treasury Board guidelines were put in place. Its title is: ``Liberals restrict access to poll results''. It reads:
-previous Conservative governments were attacked for keeping taxpayer paid for polls secret, including constitutional polls. Now, the Liberal government seems determined to do an even better job of delaying and hiding poll results.
We are talking about millions of dollars of taxpayers' money being spent on public polls and their findings not being made open to the public or to this House. The author of this article, Ken Rubin, correctly calls the government's new access scheme fraudulent. He describes the flawed new process as follows:
The lengthy up to 90 day period for publication of poll reports goes far beyond the already too long 30 day release period possible under the Access to Information Act. There will be instances in which publication is well after 90 days.
The up to 90 day period for publication release begins only after a final written report is received from the pollsters. That's even though the polling results are immediately conveyed-sometimes months earlier-orally or in draft written form to the government.
A summary report of polling results could be all that is published, leaving out the guts of the research usually found in the technical tables.
Some polls still will be kept secret through applying partial or total exemption of poll results under the Access to Information Act.
It will be up to the minister to decide.
The Treasury Board directives formally encourage departments to consider applying for exemptions under the Access to Information Act. This policy endorses the view that polls are something other than publicly paid for, routinely released results of public response to government commissioned questions.
The Treasury Board's practices will make more progressive federal departments think twice before publishing certain "sensitive" poll data; after all, departments have to go to the Treasury Board to fund their polls and focus group research.
Once the government has decided to publish a poll result, that poll is no longer covered under the Access to Information Act. This means recipients could lose the right to complain, all the way to the federal court, about the polling results received after late receipts and publishing delays.
There is much more in this report, but we all get the point of the problems with this new legislation. The change in Treasury Board guidelines was a finesse by the government, not an honest attempt to address the existing problem. This is unacceptable and more concrete steps have to be taken.
I do not claim Bill C-309 by itself can fix the problems of secretive government. It cannot and no one would say it could. However, if this legislation were passed it would be a step in the right direction.
Parliament can talk about open government until the cows come home but unless we are willing to legislate change it means nothing more than words. It is time to legislate open government.
In the sincere hope that members will have the courage to act, I ask for unanimous consent to make C-309 a votable item. If this is done all members of Parliament will have a chance to get on the record on this very important issue.