Mr. Speaker, I rise to commend the hon. member for this proposal to extend the application of the Access to Information Act.
I am a firm believer that open government is essential to the preservation of the respect which members of the public give us as politicians and to the trust they place in their government. The Liberal Party is committed to the principle of open government.
I am not sure, however, this amendment is necessary. It is my understanding the act already provides for access to public opinion polls. Section 4 of the act provides that everyone has a right of access to any record under a government institution. In so far as opinion polls constitute such records, they are covered by the act. If specific poll results are not disclosed to the public it is because in specific circumstances a legitimate interest that competes with presumption of access is invoked. It should be noted the act performs a careful and complex balancing between a variety of interests. I am concerned that amending the act to address a specific and limited aspect of the act would disturb the various balances within the act.
In 1992 the trial division of the federal court pronounced on the question of release of public opinion research in the case of Information Commissioner v. Prime Minister. That case dealt with public opinion polls commissioned during previous constitutional negotiations. The decision of the federal court trial division of November 19, 1992 provides guidance on disclosure of such information.
In addition to section 4 of the act, the Treasury Board secretariat has issued guidelines for federal institutions on the release of public opinion polls. The Treasury Board communications policy amended last July provides that first, government institutions must make every effort to disclose results outside the formal resolution process prescribed by the Access to Information Act of public opinion research.
Second, in the spirit of the Access to Information Act, institutions are encouraged to make the final report of public opinion research available within 30 days of receipt and should resort to the 90-day allowance only if constrained by publishing requirements.
Third, in those cases in which a minister elects not to disclose the final report in response to an access to information request, the minister must send a letter to the information commissioner informing the information commissioner of his or her decision inciting the provision of the Access to Information Act that the minister has exercised. A copy of the letter will be sent to the Treasury Board for purposes of monitoring implementation of this policy.
With section 4 of the act interpreted by a recent court case dealing with opinion polls, and with a new government policy which guides government institutions on the disclosure of public opinion polls, it is not at all clear to me that there is a present and pressing problem with respect to the release of public opinion research that justifies an ad hoc amendment.
Another reason I would not support Bill C-309 is that the Minister of Justice has announced his intention to reform the Access to Information Act. I understand a review of how public opinion polls are disclosed or not disclosed to the public will be part of that review.
I trust the Minister of Justice will reform the act in providing for more open government, including greater access to polling information. I am concerned that Bill C-309 would amend the act in an ad hoc fashion.
It has been about 12 years since the act was first passed. A parliamentary committee and the information commissioner have both made extensive recommendations for reform. I believe it is time for a fundamental review that would look at all aspects of the act.
In addition I have concerns with specific details in this proposal. The requirement that every public opinion research contract be reported to the minister and to the Speaker of the House of Commons and that reports be tabled in Parliament or with the
information commissioner and published in the Canada Gazette seems like overkill.
An amendment that provides that no exemptions apply to the release of public information opinion research would have been sufficient for members' purposes. The media, citizens and parliamentarians are quite familiar with the relatively easy process of filing access requests. In any event the Treasury Board policy calls for informal dissemination public opinion research. New and duplicated reporting requirements merely add red tape and cost, which we can ill afford at this time.
Another problem I have with Bill C-309 is that it would apply to any department, branch, office, board, agency, commission, corporation or other body established by or pursuant to any act of Parliament or established by or pursuant to any proclamation, order in council or other instrument made or issued by or under the authority of the governor in council.
By defining which institutions are covered by this proposed amendment in this way the proposed amendment goes entirely against the way the rest of the Access to Information Act is structured. The act applies to all government institutions listed in the schedule, approximately 140. The purpose of listing the institutions is to make it clear to everyone which institutions are covered by the act. Going away from a list approach creates the possibility of confusing the issue of whether the act applies to a particular institution. It may mean having to go to court to find out whether the act applies to a particular institution in a given circumstance.
As a result of Bill C-309 some institutions not currently subject to the act will be subject to the specific amendment. For example, Canada Post is not subject to the act but will be subject to the proposed clause 5(1).
I am also concerned about the definition of public opinion poll, which I find extremely broad. It could include quantitative and qualitative research conducted among members of the public using a prepared questionnaire or interview schedule. A good proportion of this research would be of very limited public interest.
I do not believe Bill C-309 is needed. There is already a right of access to public opinion poll research under the Access to Information Act. There is recent case law that provides guidance to the government in disclosing such polls. There is a government policy on disclosing poll results. The Minister of Justice has stated his intention to reform the Access to Information Act.
Given all this, I do not think it is appropriate or necessary to proceed with an ad hoc amendment on the specific issue of public opinion polls. I have problems also with the fact the bill would introduce significant new bureaucratic reporting requirements, deviate from the way the rest of the act defines government institutions and potentially could apply to research of very limited public interest. For all these reasons, I cannot support the bill.