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House of Commons Hansard #17 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was ethical.

Topics

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Dale Johnston Canadian Alliance Wetaskiwin, AB

Mr. Speaker, Conservative members here in the House tonight will vote in the affirmative.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Bloc Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, the members of the Bloc Quebecois will vote against this motion.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, the members of the NDP will vote yes on this motion.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

John Herron Progressive Conservative Fundy Royal, NB

Mr. Speaker, I will be voting against the motion.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Sarmite Bulte Liberal Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to have my vote recorded in favour.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Art Eggleton Liberal York Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am voting with the government on this, so I am voting in favour of concurrence, but against the motion.

(The House divided on Motion No. 2, which was negatived on the following division:)

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

The Speaker

I declare the motion lost.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Mount Royal Québec

Liberal

Irwin Cotler LiberalMinister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

moved that the bill be concurred in.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

The Speaker

The question is on the motion.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Mauril Bélanger Liberal Ottawa—Vanier, ON

Mr. Speaker, I believe you will find there is unanimous consent that members who voted on the previous motion be recorded as voting on the motion now before the House, with Liberal members voting yes, except those Liberal members who wish to be recorded as voting otherwise.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

The Speaker

Is there unanimous consent to proceed in this way?

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Dale Johnston Canadian Alliance Wetaskiwin, AB

Mr. Speaker, members who voted on the last motion will be voting no on the motion, with the exception of the member for St. Albert who is not here.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Bloc Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, the members of the Bloc Quebecois will vote in favour of this motion.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, members of the NDP are voting no to the motion.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

John Herron Progressive Conservative Fundy Royal, NB

Mr. Speaker, I will be supporting the motion on concurrence.

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

Independent

John Bryden Independent Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am voting no to the motion.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Criminal CodeGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

The Speaker

I declare the motion carried.

It being 6:32 p.m. the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's Order Paper.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

Independent

John Bryden Independent Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

moved that Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker,I rise this evening to speak to Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act.

This legislation has a very long history. In fact, exactly 10 years ago, plus 15 days, I sent a letter to the then justice minister in which I proposed to him that the government undertake to re-examine the Access to Information Act with the eye in mind of making certain substantial reforms.

By that time, it had been evident to anyone who used the Access to Information Act or had any encounter with it whatsoever that the act which was by then 10 years old had many flaws. It was good legislation for its day, but needed to be repaired.

The justice minister of the day replied, and I can actually read his letter to the House. He said:

I recognize the need to consider reform in this key area...It will likely be autumn before we can do so, and I will speak to you again about it as we prepare a strategic approach.

That was 10 years ago.

What time lost, what opportunity lost. We now have a government that is engaged in a situation, and some would call it a scandal, involving the sponsorship of various organizations using government funds. That scandal, as revealed by the Auditor General, has involved crown corporations. This very day we are to understand that the government is prepared to discipline members of some of the crown corporations mentioned in the Auditor General's report.

Had the government moved on access to information reform 10 years ago and done what was so obvious to everyone, and that was to include all crown agencies under the Access to Information Act, it would have been impossible for this situation to have occurred, where it is perceived that officials of crown corporations have acted improperly in the handling of certain financial files. Transparency is always the answer and always has been the answer.

I suggest that had the government moved 10 years ago, this problem would never have emerged. I would suggest that the government with this bill, which includes all crown agencies under the Access to Information Act, should move with this legislation forthwith.

Let me give members a sense of what is the problem. Right now, under the current Access to Information Act, out of 246 crown agencies and corporations, only 49 are covered by the Access to Information Act. Only 49 crown agencies are required to keep a regime of transparency, such that the ordinary Canadian citizen at any time can look at the operational documents to ensure and satisfy themselves that a particular government agency is conducting itself with prudence and probity.

Why not have all agencies under the Access to Information Act? Why have, for example, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority under the Access to Information Act or the Bank of Canada and not Canada Post and VIA Rail?

So it is, with literally hundreds and hundreds of crown agencies and corporations and other bodies that are not under the Access to Information Act. The Canadian public knows there is no justifiable reason for not bringing them under the Access to Information. I proposed that 10 years ago and I repeated that proposal in legislation and private member's motions before the House, and still it has been rejected.

Bill C-462 that is now before the House does much more than simply address the question of whether crown corporations and other government agencies should be under the Access the Information Act. It does something that is really elementary. As its first amendment, it changes the name of the Access to Information Act to the open government act. The idea is very simple.

The legislation states:

The purpose of this Act is to extend the present laws of Canada to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution because it is the Government of Canada’s obligation to release information that will assist Canadians in assessing the Government’s management of the country and in monitoring the Government’s compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

If the government is committed to open government, then it should be prepared to pass legislation that makes it the fundamental mandate of the government to be open and transparent.

There are other amendments that are very important to reforming the Access to Information Act. It addresses a problem that caused a scandal in the past involving the government. It brings ministers and their exempt political staff under the Access to Information Act. That amendment was put in this legislation by myself to answer the problem that occurred a couple of years ago pertaining to the expense accounts of ministers and their political staffs.

This legislation would bring the access to information and privacy commissioners under the Access to Information Act which, as the House knows, is one of the reasons why we had the Radwanski scandal. Mr. Radwanski was able to submit expense accounts that he signed himself. By bringing the Office of the Privacy Commissioner under the act, the likes of Mr. Radwanski would no longer be able to do such a thing.

There are other very important amendments that I would have thought the government would be quick to support. One of them is to bring cabinet confidences under the act. Presently, the deliberations in cabinet are excluded from the act. That means that it is possible to never know what occurred in cabinet. There is a 20 year rule in which some things are disclosed, but there is nothing in legislation that ensures that the cabinet confidences are covered by the Access to Information Act because right now they are outside the act entirely.

There are other amendments that extend secrecy to areas in which we need secrecy. Two of those vital areas deal with protecting information pertaining to ecological and archaeological sites. The reason for that is to prevent individuals from discovering that the government has access to plans and reports involving archaeological sites that could have treasures in them that could be sold on the open marketplace, or ecological sites where property owners might wish to destroy the animals in order to ensure that they can sell the land as they see fit. Those instances would be protected under the legislation.

Also, and very pertinent to this day and age, post September 11, is the provision to protect information pertaining to critical infrastructure. We must do that because right now we have no means in law to ensure that terrorists cannot get pertinent information about facilities that could become the target of an attack.

Ultimately, the issue today is the whole question of the transparency of crown corporations. The bill has gone through many vicissitudes. It was a private member's bill in 1999 and the government voted it down. Then a task force on access to information reform was struck in the year 2000. It was a task force that was sponsored by the justice department and Treasury Board. That task force reported and many of the amendments in my bill reflect the amendments proposed by that task force.

The legislation itself is very sophisticated, I like to say, because both former and present access to information and privacy commissioners were involved in making recommendations to it.

Finally, it is certainly true that there is resistance to this type of legislation. It is quasi-constitutional. It always gives a sense of unease to those organizations that have operated for a very long time without transparency and are reluctant to come under a new regime in which they have to be conscious that the public is looking in constantly on what they do.

I talked to a number of crown corporations and various individuals. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I set up a committee of backbench MPs, an ad hoc committee, to review the Treasury Board's task force on access to information reform. It was a committee that did not have standing, but we met and we invited witnesses. One of those persons I sent a letter to, asking them to appear before the committee and react to the proposals to bring crown corporations under the Access to Information Act, was none other than the president and chief executive officer of Canada Post.

He replied to my letter saying:

Dear Mr. Bryden:

I am writing in reply to your letter of March 21, 2002, regarding your request that an official of Canada Post appear before your Committee studying the Access to Information Act.

I am pleased to accept your offer to appear before your Committee. I have reviewed my schedule, and I would be available sometime near the end of May and the beginning of June.

Thank you for writing, and I look forward to meeting with you shortly.

Yours sincerely,

André Ouellet.

What happened in fact was that the message went out from government ordering that bureaucrats and officials not appear before my committee because my committee was not a committee of standing. I think there was some fear that it would set an unwanted precedent if officials testified before a committee that was composed of backbench MPs trying to get to the truth of an issue. So Mr. Ouellet never appeared before our ad hoc committee on access to information reform.

It is a pity because had the government got behind the initiative that was its own initiative with its review of the Access to Information Act that reported in 2002, we would have this reform, this transparency, and this accountability in government operations that the public cries out for and the government talks about.

I wish to point out that in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, the government is proposing to again review the Access to Information Act, again using Treasury Board, and again with the prospect in mind that crown corporations should come under the Access to Information Act.

I suggest that no new review needs to be done. It is established. I think the consensus out there among professionals and the ordinary citizen, among MPs, is overwhelming. All crown agencies and organizations that spend a substantial amount of taxpayer money should come under the Access to Information Act.

I would dearly hope that this piece of legislation, which has been worked on by so many backbench MPs, would get the support not only of the opposition side of the House, which I know it has, not only of the government backbench, which I know it has, but also of the government itself.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Bloc

Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, allow me first to praise the work of my colleague. I had the pleasure of working with him for more than a year. I think he did a wonderful job.

He raised many points in his speech that we touched on. There was one in particular that I would like him to expand on a little more. I did not hear him talk about it, I may have missed it, but it concerns the cost of access to information. We are always told that for the federal government, the cost of access to information is exorbitant.

People who have access to information tell us all the time that they often have to go through incredible hoops to get to see a document that, sometimes, is completely censored. I have seen documents with full pages blocked out making it completely impossible to see the content of the document. One could barely follow the thread.

I would like my colleague to address an important argument. Cost should not be an impediment to the truth today. Moreover, this sort of extreme censorship should not continue to exist in new legislation, which, we hope, could deal with access to information.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Independent

John Bryden Independent Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think the Treasury Board-Justice Department task force itself determined that the cost of administering the Access to Information Act for any government department or crown agency is quite reasonable. It is more than reasonable in the context of the management efficiencies that always accrue when there is a reasonable amount of public transparency.

One of the problems right now is that the Auditor General or internal audit is the only control ensuring that management within government, where agencies are under the Financial Administration Act, is operating in the proper fashion. That is a spot process. It comes in casually.

However, if access to information were to apply to all organizations that are subject only to audit--and there are a great many of them, Mr. Speaker, just so you understand, that instead of being under the Access to Information Act are only occasionally audited--the management efficiencies would more than pay for the cost of actually implementing the Access to Information Act.

As for the passages blanked out that my colleague referred to, he is quite right. The Access to Information Act is so desperately in need of reform, after passage in 1982, that there is all kind of information that is deleted that should not be deleted. For instance, information that may have been received from the United States as American historical documents is blanked out in Canadian documents. There is information that is 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 years old and completely useless to anyone in terms of national security or sensitivity and is blanked out.

That is one thing that Bill C-462 would do, in addition to bringing crown corporations and other agencies under the act. What it would do is clean up a lot of these idiocies of the old act where information is protected for no fathomable reason. The Access to Information Act was a good act when it came in, but it is an old piece of legislation and it needs cleaning up.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Chuck Strahl Canadian Alliance Fraser Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member has an encyclopedic knowledge of this subject and I thank him for his remarks.

I would like to ask him a question, but not on the Access to Information Act. From what we have seen lately in the House, the scandal that is kind of gripping the House, should we also have another piece of legislation called the information management act?

Mr. Reid made a proposal and it is basically another act that Parliament should be seized with which would make it illegal to destroy documents that are the property of the Government of Canada. They would then be archived and accessed through the Access to Information Act by all Canadians.

We need one more pillar. We have the Privacy Act to protect people and the Access to Information Act to give us access to information. We need one more thing, which is to preserve the information itself and ensure that all Canadians have access to it.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Independent

John Bryden Independent Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Yes, Mr. Speaker, the archives act does need to be upgraded for the reasons that the member mentioned. However, he might like to know that the current act provides a penalty of two years in jail for people who deliberately try to circumvent the content of the act. I would suggest that anyone who fails to keep documents or destroys documents is breaking the existing law and that should come out in the sponsorship inquiry that is underway right now.

Open Government ActPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Grant McNally Canadian Alliance Dewdney—Alouette, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-462 and I commend my colleague from Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot for it. I had the great opportunity to sit on this ad hoc committee that he and many others have referred to. That was an enjoyable experience.

It was a committee struck at the initiative of the member. He put out a call to backbenchers from all parties. The committee did not have standing as a parliamentary committee, but it operated very much like a parliamentary committee and came up with a very good report. The committee was very non-partisan, as members can imagine, and was on top of all of our regular parliamentary duties.

Many of the proposals that came from the committee's report are included in my colleague's private member's bill and I want to commend him for that. I want to commend him in particular for including the overriding notion that releasing more information, rather than concealing information, is the way to go. If a government wants to elicit support from people and claims to be transparent but does not put mechanisms into place to allow transparency, then those really are hollow words. Bill C-462 goes a long way toward putting in place specific mechanisms that would allow greater access to information.

Something that came up during committee testimony was the idea that if government were ahead of the curve it would be more open to releasing information, and if it were more open in releasing information, then there would not be such a need for reform to the Access to Information Act.

At the same time, a government that chooses to be more open and chooses to release more information, rather than to manage it in such a way that it is like pulling teeth to get any information, would be seen as a positive by people. There would be more transparency and more availability of information. This would be a good thing not only for the government but for all Canadians.

Bill C-462, my colleague's bill, goes a long way toward improving the current act. The member is to be commended for his hard work. He is known in this place as an independent minded member, one who knows his information very well. He is a knowledgeable member of the House. We commend him for that. As chair of the ad hoc committee, he was fair and open and he really wanted to get to the bottom of concrete changes to improve access to information for all Canadians, to improve the way that we do business here in the capital and in the country, to provide information to Canadians.

One of the important pieces of his bill is the inclusion of crown corporations and, in fact, many institutions that receive government funding. This is something that we in the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance and now the Conservative Party have been saying for a long time. We need more openness and more transparency. If taxpayers are paying the bill, they should have the ability to see where their dollars are going.

That is where the bill leads us and that is a good thing, particularly given the climate that my colleague from Fraser Valley just mentioned, with the questionable spending and the missing $100 million in the sponsorship scandal and the fact that five crown corporations have been involved in this current debacle.

If we had this legislation in place, we would have the ability to get that information right away and it could be done without going to a special commission or a special committee. There would be more accountability. We would be able to see where the dollars went--