moved that Bill C-249, an act to amend the Access to Information Act (Crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board) be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is certainly nice to be back in the House after the Easter break. It is also nice to see you in the Chair, as well as my colleagues from the House, and to get back to the parry and thrust of the House and politics.
It is my pleasure to stand, as the first member in the House after the break, to talk about something that I am very passionate about and something I feel is very important with respect to governments of all kinds, that is, openness and transparency, where in fact governments and crown corporations should be accountable to the people that they serve.
In this case, the bill speaks to the Access to Information Act and openness and transparency, particularly by crown corporations but also by the Canadian Wheat Board. Being a member of parliament from an area in western Canada, I have a great deal of responsibility for the agricultural community. A lot of producers talk to me on a fairly regular basis with respect to not only agriculture but the role that is currently being played by the Canadian Wheat Board in western Canada and the marketing of particular products, such as wheat and barley.
Bill C-249 unfortunately, and I underline the term unfortunately, has been deemed to not be a votable item.
I also sit on the private members' business committee. We are currently looking at the possibility of having all private members' business, whether it be bills or motions, made votable. I personally believe a good first step to the renewal of this Chamber and this House would be to give all members of parliament the opportunity to put forward what they feel are necessary changes to government policy and to have their changes voted on.
Unfortunately this bill is not votable. Having sat on that committee, I do take some responsibility I suppose but I still suggest very strongly that this bill should be votable. I know other members of other parties will agree with me when I say that the Access to Information Act is not there simply for governments to be able to not put information forward but for members, not only of parliament but also of the public, to access information from crown corporations and government which they feel is rightfully theirs.
The bill raises a very important question for policymakers to answer. Should the Access to Information Act be extended to include crown corporations, including the Canadian Wheat Board as it is currently structured, as defined under the Financial Administrations Act?
Some crown corporations are already subject to the Access to Information Act, such as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Others, such as Canada Post and the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, are not.
The argument made most often by these companies and the federal government is that because they are subject to competitive pressures of the marketplace, they should be exempt from the Access to Information Act. Their legitimate fear is that their competitors will use the act to obtain sensitive information that could be used to undermine the corporation's competitive advantage. That is a legitimate concern.
What most people do not realize, however, is that under section 18 of the Access to Information Act, government institutions can exempt competitively sensitive information. The act says:
The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record requested under this Act that contains (a) trade secrets or financial, commercial, scientific or technical information that belongs to the Government of Canada or a government institution and has substantial value or is reasonably likely to have substantial value; (b) information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of a government institution;
The reason I read that section is that we already have the ability under the act to not provide information that would or could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of a government institution. We cannot use that excuse to not open up the boundaries of access to information to other crown corporations, including the Canadian Wheat Board.
It goes on to exclude information, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to be materially injurious to the financial interests of the Government of Canada. Section 18 then may offer exemptions significant enough under the act that crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board would be able to comply with the act without having to disclose sensitive, competitive information. What it would do is allow that openness and transparency of these corporations, including the Canadian Wheat Board, to be made mandatory to give information that does not fall within these categories. I will talk to that briefly in a moment.
The bill I have put forward today not only addresses some of the most paramount concerns farmers have with the Canadian Wheat Board but of all crown corporations that include transparency and accountability. As in any crown corporation or, as the Canadian Wheat Board is now known, a mixed corporation, Canadians expect no less and they should continue to expect no less.
When the Canadian Wheat Board was incorporated by the Canadian Wheat Board Act in 1935 it was established to market, interprovincially and for export, Canadian wheat and barley for producers. The wheat board is a monopoly system. If a producer wants to sell wheat or barley outside the Canadian Wheat Board, he must apply for an export permit. This means he sells his product to the Canadian Wheat Board, obtains a permit, buys the wheat back from the Canadian Wheat Board and then sells it on the open market. In other words, the farmer has no choice as to how he markets his commodity. It has to go through the Canadian Wheat Board, a wheat board that generates sales of wheat and barley in excess of approximately $6 billion annually.
The point I am getting at is that the farmers do not have a choice but to market through the Canadian Wheat Board. There is a lot of money at stake for the producers so why should the CWB not be accountable and transparent to those very producers, those very people it is there to serve?
Somewhere throughout the over 65 year history of the Canadian Wheat Board, farmers started to question the agency that was supposed to represent their best interests. They started to question its monopoly and the returns compared to that of the marketplace.
Most farmers in western Canada do not want to eliminate the Canadian Wheat Board. Others may speak to that comment and may well disagree with it, but the people I have talked to have initially said that they do not want necessarily to get rid of the Canadian Wheat Board. They simply want it to be able to compete in an open and transparent basis.
Canadians expect accountability for publicly funded institutions, as they should be. I firmly believe that the bill before us today would only add to that accountability.
I want to talk very briefly about why this particular piece of legislation is before the House today: openness and transparency.
In a previous life and in a previous form of government, I learned a long time ago that it is much better to be open to the people and the public we serve. In the municipal government there is nothing hidden behind closed doors.
I found out a long time ago when there is a closed door meeting, even if they are only talking about what to serve on the menu, immediately there is some distrust. When the doors are closed and the information is not flowing, something is happening behind those doors.
That is what is happening with the wheat board. I do not believe that there is anything sinister happening behind those closed doors. I believe that the Canadian Wheat Board is hiding behind those doors and not allowing the true information to come forward. If it does, I do not believe that it will be detrimental to the operations of the corporation.
I will give one small example. A number of months ago the Canadian Wheat Board commissioned a survey. It was its survey, done of its producers. Some 1,500 people were surveyed. They were asked to answer questions. The questions were asked, the data were gathered, and that information is not available to the public. Although it was gathered from the public, gathered from the people who are the stakeholders in the corporation, the information from that survey is not made available publicly because, I am told, it is way too sensitive commercially.
I would even accept that the information gathered was too sensitive commercially. By the way, I went to the access to information office and was told quite emphatically that the corporation did not fall within the guidelines of access to information.
I then wrote a letter to the board and asked for the survey results and was told that I could not access them or be given the results. Then I asked a simple question: could I have the questions that were asked in the survey? I did not ask for the information that was gleaned or all the data gathered. It was a matter of the questions that were asked of the people who supplied the information. I was told that the information was way too sensitive and commercial. I could not even get the questions that they asked.
The board asked those questions of 1,500 people. They were not meant to be kept secret. It was simply a matter of giving me the questions asked, and I could not get them. Even though I believe the information the board would have given me would not have impacted on its operations at all, it tells me that there is a closed door mentality that it does not have to give information and therefore it will not.
That adds another nail into coffin of the Canadian Wheat Board. That is not what I want. I want openness and transparency from the wheat board.
Access to information is supposed to work quite simply. A person filing a request pays $5 to ask for a range of records held by federal departments and agencies including memos, briefing notes, expense reports and audits. For the initial $5 fee the person receives five hours of government search and preparation time, beyond which departments may charge additional costs.
Access to information does not go as smoothly as it is supposed to go. In fact a recent report by the information commissioner, Mr. John Reid, was highly critical of the federal government for undermining the spirit of openness by showing palpable animosity toward the process. The commissioner stated that some bureaucrats have even threatened the career prospects of their staff members that investigate complaints from dissatisfied people who have filed access to information requests.
This is totally contrary to the act. Moreover, Federal Court of Canada Justice Edmond Blanchard ruled recently that the federal government tried to circumvent the will of the information act by refusing to release papers explaining the reasons behind one of cabinet's environmental decisions relating to Ethyl Canada.
Ethyl Canada requested discussion papers from cabinet members referring to the decision to ban the fuel additive MMT. When access to the documents was denied, Ethyl Canada filed a complaint. Judge Blanchard subsequently found that Ethyl Canada had a well founded complaint under the Access to Information Act, noting that the purpose of the access law is to give the public greater access to the inner workings of government. That is what the act is there for.
That is exactly what brings us here today. It is an effort to open up government and its institutions to Canadians. A federal task force was also appointed last August, headed by Ms. Andrée Delagrave. It is currently studying and reviewing ways to improve the Access to Information Act. It is inviting the public to comment over the next two months on its improvements. The task force is meeting with bureaucrats who process the reports, historians, librarians, journalists and other users of the law.
I hope members of parliament would also be a part of that process. I know that my office and the offices of other members use access to information quite regularly in order to have openness and transparency.
The bill I have before the House today is non-votable. I find that somewhat disturbing. Hopefully in the not too distant future the House will allow these types of bills and motions to be voted on so that we can see where members of the House stand on accountability, openness and transparency.
I do not want to specifically target the Canadian Wheat Board, although it is mentioned specifically in the bill as are other crown corporations. When public funding is a major cornerstone of organizations, it is my belief that those organizations should be open and accountable.
Under the act there are safeguards with respect to commercially sensitive information, with respect to competitive interests, and that crown corporations can use to stop unnecessary information flow to individuals asking for it. However it does stop the closed door mentality of corporations that are not prepared to give the most minute details, which I believe is a right of the citizens they serve.
I will not stop here with the piece of legislation I have before the House. Other legislation will come forward and I suspect eventually the Access to Information Act, even through the task force, will be changed quite dramatically so that Canadians will have access to information they deserve.