Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this bill.
It is interesting that today as chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights I had the pleasure of receiving along with my colleagues, Mr. John Grace, the access to information commissioner. He will be leaving government service after nine years in this position. I know all of my colleagues on the committee and I am sure in parliament join me in wishing him well and thanking him for his many years of service. His service has been exemplary.
The Access to Information Act provides certain basic rights to Canadians. I am proud of the fact that Canada has been considered a world leader in this field since the act was proclaimed in July 1993.
Citizens have an unprecedented right of access to federal government records. Valuable concomitant privacy protection is afforded by the companion legislation, the Privacy Act. Government departments and agencies annually respond to between 12,000 and 13,000 requests under the Access to Information Act and to approximately 40,000 requests under the Privacy Act.
Canada now has about 15 years of experience with and scrutiny of the Access to Information Act. I welcome this opportunity to discuss means by which this legislation can be improved.
This private members' bill proposes to subject all federal crown corporations to the Access to Information Act and would accomplish this by changing the definition of government institution in section 3 of the present act. The present definition refers to “any department or ministry of state of the Government of Canada listed in schedule I or any body or office listed in schedule I”. Bill C-216, which we are debating today, adds to the definition “any crown corporation as defined in the Financial Administration Act”. The passage of this bill would summarily bring more than 20 additional federal institutions and agencies under access legislation.
I am convinced that the intent of this bill is laudable in that its objective is to enhance the accountability of government organizations. I also subscribe, as I know do all of my colleagues in the House, to more openness in government and to the opportunity for us as citizens to have more information. But I believe a negative impact on the commercial interests of crown corporations will result from this bill if it passes. This negative impact would largely outweigh any possible support in my mind.
We must remember that crown corporations have been created as the result of a deliberate choice of the Parliament of Canada to deliver particular programs and to deliver particular services by means of organizations other than the private sector or traditional departments and agencies of government. These corporations have a responsibility to serve the public interest but to do so within a commercial environment. This means that to the greatest extent possible they must be permitted to operate on a level playing field with their competitors, free from administrative burdens associated with other government bureaucracies.
In our previous debates on this matter, several issues have been raised. We have considered various exemptions within the current legislation that might provide adequate protection for the business interests of crown corporations. Section 18 has been cited by the proponents of this private members' bill as a possible means of protection, and I use the term possible advisedly.
I would suggest though that section 18 provides only a discretionary exemption. It allows federal institutions to withhold information, the release of which would be injurious to the commercial interests of those organizations and more importantly to the interests of Canada.
There appears though to be no agreement as to whether the act in its current form or even as amended by this bill offers the necessary protection to the commercial interests of various crown corporations. We therefore have to turn to the obvious questions.
Are we prepared to jeopardize the financial viability of these organizations by subjecting them to this legislation without first consulting to determine what unique factors exist within their market environments? Further, are we prepared to risk injury to the public interests that crown corporations serve by not first ensuring that we have adopted the appropriate protective mechanisms for their operations? I am not certain we should be taking risks like these unnecessarily.
I wish to address the issue of the administrative burden and the concept of the level playing field.
The Access to Information Act imposes a costly administrative burden on institutions. It is one thing for a government department to assume these burdens. It is quite another thing for a venture that is supposed to be commercially viable to do so.
According to recent statistics it costs on average more than $1,000 to complete a request submitted under the current legislation. These same statistics show that federal departments and agencies recoup less than 1% of the cost of providing information to applicants.
In the commercial world this is not good business. In the context of overhead it automatically places crown corporations at a competitive disadvantage with their private sector counterparts.
When I refer to the level playing field, I am referring to the fact that providing a right of access to information held by crown corporations could make them vulnerable to unscrupulous competitors. Some could view this right as an opportunity to submit unreasonable and voluminous requests, as has been the experience of some government agencies, particularly in the provincial sphere. I am thinking now with respect to access to information requests.
Even if the corporation is ultimately able to protect its sensitive information, the processing activities associated with responding to a barrage of requests could be crippling. Processing charges for applicants, which are stipulated within the access to information regulations, are minimal. There are many private sector companies with very deep pockets. They could sustain a very long and costly campaign without fear of retribution.
The same problem would not happen with a private commercial venture. There is no Access to Information Act that would allow someone to harass them or to go after them for a prolonged period of time with voluminous requests.
In summary, I want to emphasize four points concerning crown corporations and the potential impact of Bill C-216.
First, crown corporations were created to serve the public interests in a commercial rather than in a bureaucratic or heavily regulated environment.
Second, at this time the provisions of the Access to Information Act as presently drafted would not guarantee adequate protection for the commercial interests of crown corporations if this amendment were to pass.
Third, subjecting corporations to access legislation could impose an undue and unfair administrative burden on their operations.
Finally, failing to consult crown corporations to determine their market environments in advance of scheduling them under this act would expose them, in my view, to unnecessary competitive risks.
We all appreciate the intent of Bill C-216. Although I favour more openness in government, I cannot accept this bill. I believe it is too simplistic a solution for a complicated problem.
I want to thank the hon. member for bringing this bill forward and giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. It is timely that he did so today because, by coincidence, the justice committee had an opportunity to meet with the commissioner. This bill, while it may be a good start, is too simplistic a solution. I think it was H.L. Mencken who said that for every complicated problem there is a simplistic solution and it usually does not work.