House of Commons Hansard #150 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was afghanistan.


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3:30 p.m.


David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, out of the blue, the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister, I believe, ordered a report to be done by a wonderful jurist in our country, Gérard La Forest, on the topic of whether the information commission and the privacy commission should be united, notwithstanding the fact that both the Privacy Commissioner and the Information Commissioner said it was not a very good idea.

My suspicion is that this is another tactic to stall this whole process. Does the member agree?

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3:30 p.m.


Odina Desrochers Bloc Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Speaker, I was saying earlier that we are against merging the two commissioners' offices. It is increasingly evident that the two organizations have different mandates and cannot work together. People try to convince us of the opposite, saying that unification would save money and so forth. But in both cases, what is really needed is additional personnel and more tools to improve the services provided.

Both commissioners have said in this regard that they are currently battling with Treasury Board to obtain the resources they need to do their jobs.

I would point out that these two organizations do totally different work. Things have changed since 2001 and we have to respond now to the expectations of our modern society.

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3:30 p.m.


Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would first like to congratulate my colleague from Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière on his speech and especially on his statement that information is the very basis of democracy. There is no way around it. All good democrats will say that, without information, people cannot progress, say their piece, decide and act. That is true of Canada too, of course.

I would add here that the Parliament of Canada is one of the major pillars of democracy. People often say that a veil has been drawn over government activities and they feel this is contrary to the very mission of the Parliament of Canada. As proof I would point to what is said in the Gomery report about the Liberal Party. It says that there is a culture, a system, a veil of secrecy to keep people in the dark about certain activities.

I have a question for my colleague. Can we not now see the same thing happening in this government in some major files? One of my colleagues just raised the issue of seniors' incomes, but employment insurance—

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3:30 p.m.

The Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member, but his time is up. The hon. member for Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière for a brief response.

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3:30 p.m.


Odina Desrochers Bloc Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague gave conclusive examples that should convince us that we need to improve this legislation. It is time to remove the veil of secrecy over what parliamentarians really do, especially the federal Liberals.

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November 15th, 2005 / 3:30 p.m.


David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in the debate this afternoon. For members and those listening, the debate is with respect to a proposed new access to information act. I will read that resolution again. It states:

That, in the opinion of the House, the Access to Information Act should be amended to:

(a) expand coverage of the act to all Crown corporations, all officers of Parliament, all foundations and to all organizations that spend taxpayers' dollars or perform public functions--

That is not being done now. It goes on to state:

(b) establish a Cabinet-confidence exclusion, subject to review by the Information Commissioner;

(c) establish a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions--

It has been suggested in the committee that if this took place, the ad scam scandal never would have taken place because we would have known about these things. It goes on to state:

(d) provide a general public interest override for all exemptions, in that the public interest should come before the secrecy of government; and

(e) make all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test.

The rationale for this resolution is to provide an open and accountable government which is essential to restoring the faith of Canadians in Parliament.

The people in my riding have listened to what has happened in this place. They have listened to what has happened with the ad scam scandal. They listened to the Gomery report. They are very disillusioned with politicians, whether it be provincial, federal or municipal politicians. The Liberal government has given politicians a bad name and, quite frankly, I resent that. One reason the resolution is being brought forward is to restore the faith of Canadians in Parliament.

Officers of Parliament and corporations that use taxpayer money should be accountable to the taxpayers. We have just gone through yet another scandal, the Dingwall scandal. It did not really matter. It seems people can do anything they like. Mr. Ouellet is another one. The attitude that they can do anything they like goes on and on. That is the second rationale, that officers of Parliament and corporations using taxpayer money should be accountable to the taxpayer.

Transparency and accountability in the manner in which taxpayer money is spent is in the public interest and must take precedence over the current culture of secrecy, an entitlement of which the Liberals have taken advantage.

Crown corporations such as Canada Post and VIA Rail, which their politically appointed presidents were involved in the sponsorship scandal, must be accountable for their spending. That will only be done if they are subject to access to information requests. Is it not strange that these corporations are not subject to the access to information legislation?

Finally, the continuous stalling has been mentioned previously. The member for Winnipeg Centre has brought up about how we have gone over and over this topic on a continuous basis. The Leader of the Opposition and the members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics out of frustration have drafted legislation which will eventually be brought before the House. Even though the Liberals talk about meaningful access to information reform, they continuously stall and delay important changes to access to information legislation.

I put a question to the member from the Bloc who spoke previously. What I believe happened is the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister decided to look at unifying the two positions. They hired retired Supreme Court Justice Gérard La Forest to make a report. I doubt if we will ever see that report. Then they will say that they cannot doing anything until they look at that whole subject, which may never happen. It is yet another stall tactic.

An interesting piece of information that the House should be made aware of is this. In response to the Auditor General's report on sponsorship, the Prime Minister called for the Treasury Board to examine the possibility of the extension of the Access to Information Act to all crown corporations. Yet in 1995, 1998 and the year 2000 he voted against meaningful amendments to the Access to Information Act. His record really is not that good as far as trying to put meaningful change into the access to information legislation.

Historically, the act came into being on July 1, 1983. It has been mentioned that former member John Bryden brought forward Bill C-201. Some of the members who have been around this place know more of the history of the bill than I do. Mr. Bryden came before the committee. He talked about its history and how he had tried to implement the legislation. The bill died on the order paper in 2003.

The member for Winnipeg Centre brought forward the precise bill, I believe, in 2004. The Minister of Justice went to him and asked him if he would mind stalling his bill and putting it aside because the government was going to draft its own bill which would be the same, if not better, than the bill by the member for Winnipeg Centre. The member for Winnipeg Centre took the Minister of Justice at his word and set the bill aside. Nothing ever happened.

We then move into this discussion in the committee. The member for Winnipeg Centre ultimately joined us in the committee and we discussed the whole topic of the new information legislation. It was discussed that we would perhaps instruct the present Information Commissioner, John Reid, to put forward new legislation.

When that was announced, the Minister of Justice said that the government would draft another bill and introduce it in the fall. It is now November 15. I have not seen the bill. I do not know where the it is. All we have had is the Minister of Justice telling a retired justice to do a report on whether the two commissions, the privacy commission and the information commission, should be united.

The committee will put forward a report to the House shortly that we will have a new bill. The bill will come to the House for debate.

This has been the history of this legislation since its inception in 1983. There has been continual resistance by the Liberal government toward making meaningful changes to that legislation.

I referred to crown corporations. A lot has been happening with respect to them with the ad scam scandal and trying to get information out of them. Not counting the Wheat Board, eight crown corporations are still not subject to this legislation. They are VIA Rail Canada Inc., and that name seems to pop up in the ad scam scandal if I recall, the National Arts Centre Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Export Development Corporation, Canada Post Corporation, and that name seems to pop up in the ad scam scandal as well, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Public Sector Pension Investment Board and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Why are those commissions not subject to this legislation? They are funded by public moneys. They do work for the taxpayer. Why can access not be made to those corporations just like any of the other institutions in this place?

There is no question that there would have to be exemptions for some of these crown corporations. There is no question that there would be issues of privacy. There would be issues with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. If we were too difficult, it would put it at a disadvantage with the private broadcasting system. I also understand that there might be issues of security. With some of these corporations there would have to be exclusions with respect to security. However, surely all of that could be straightened out and these crown corporations could be made subject to the legislation.

Access to information in Canada is a bit of a problem. A recent media report card was issued last May by the Canadian Newspaper Association. Eighty-nine reporters from 45 newspapers across Canada visited city halls, police forces, school boards and federal government offices to test how bureaucrats obeyed laws enshrining the public's right to know. I appreciate that some of these things are not under the jurisdiction of the federal legislation, but it is a downward movement. All the provincial legislation and other pieces of legislation came from the 1983 legislation, so it is most relevant that we look at the attitude of these public officials toward people trying to get information from these institutions.

“The public's right to government information that has an impact on our lives is in failing health, and will get worse unless we start fixing it”, said the president of the Canadian Newspaper Association, Anne Kothawala. It was the Canadian Newspaper Association that launched the audit. Do members know what the federal government's grade was for this audit? It was an “F”. That is a complete failure. My friend in the Bloc talked about going to school. It was bad enough getting a “D”. An “F” is far below.

Along with four of the provinces, the federal government failed. Of eight requests submitted to federal departments, all through the Access to Information Act, only two saw records released within the 30 day statutory period for responses. The other six did not even reply. Perhaps they are still looking for the information.

It turns out that quite frequently there is no information to release. It is a disturbing reaction to access to information legislation. Quite often there is very little or nothing on the paper to explain how millions of federal dollars are spent. A prime example of this, as I and others have indicated, is the famous sponsorship program. It seems that officials have stopped writing things down.

This is what Commissioner John Reid said in his evidence to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on April 12:

--the troubling shift, especially at senior levels in government, to an oral culture. A right of access, no matter how strongly worded, will be of little effort if there are no records showing what decisions were made, what action was taken, who called the shots, and who knew.

How does one know when people go to restaurants and hand over money in paper bags? There is no record. Everything is oral.

Commissioner Reid went on to point out:

The overall creation and management of records in the federal government is in crisis. It is this crisis, more than any defect in the Access to Information Act, which puts at risk the public's right to know, to challenge, to participate in, to influence and ultimately hold to account, the government. I urge you to make information management reform a key element of your access to information reform work.

I have another quote from Commissioner Reid's April 12 evidence to the committee, which I believe would be instructional to all of us:

The right of access arose from backbench and opposition ranks, no government enjoys the rigours of transparency and accountability imposed by the right of access, and no government will nurture and strengthen the Access to Information Act without persistent encouragement from non-front bench members.

There it is. Governments do not enjoy access to information, but they should. They should do that because a fully informed citizenry strengthens democracy and improves government.

Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gérard LaForest in a 1997 decision wrote:

The overarching purpose of access to information to facilitate democracy. It does so in two related ways. It helps to ensure first, that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and secondly, that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry.

In his 1998 book Secrecy: The American Experience , former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded, “Secrecy is for losers. Because it shields internal analyses from the scrutiny of outside experts and dissenters. As a result, some very poor advice is used to inform many government decisions. Also secrecy distorts the thinking of the citizenry, giving rise to unfounded conspiracy theories and an unnecessarily high level of mistrust of governments”.

That is what we have today, an unnecessarily high level of mistrust of governments. It is because of the government over there that this has happened. In a review of Senator Moynihan's book in Newsweek , George F. Will observed, “Government secrecy breeds stupidity in government and in the thinking of some citizens”.

All parliamentarians are aware that our current Access to Information Act needs to be strengthened and expanded. The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics voted unanimously that the legislation be amended. That unanimous vote included all of the Liberal members on the committee. We will see what happens when we have a vote in the House.

I had the opportunity of attending a conference that was held by the Canadian Newspaper Association in Ottawa this year. A presentation was made on this general topic. At that conference, it was stated that more than 20 years after the nation's first law establishing the public's right to know, there are attitudes of “why do you want to know” and “why should we tell you”. Those attitudes from the bureaucrats and people that hold the information of the government prevail in many departments and ministries at all levels of government. We as parliamentarians have to stop that.

What stood out most for me were the excuses given by bureaucrats and others across the country, not just in the federal institutions but in other provincial and municipal institutions.

In Kingston a public health employee told a person requesting restaurant inspection records that he would have to go to court first. A citizen asking for information on municipal employees' sick days in Edmonton was told that such records are private. City officials in Summerside, P.E.I. decided that information about police complaints and suspensions could not be released to the public. In Peterborough a request for water test results inspired an official to declare, “I am not interested in giving that out”.

I could go on, but the excuses are priceless. They are sad. We need legislation to fix the system.

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3:55 p.m.

Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca B.C.


Keith Martin LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Speaker, I think all of us would agree that transparency and accountability are our responsibility as a government. That is why I take umbrage with the comments made by the hon. member, who listed a series of problems but did not list the series of solutions we have implemented. I am going to cite some of them.

One of the things we have done is to increase the powers of access to information requests as they apply to crown corporations. We have also made sure that the Auditor General has increased powers to peer into crown corporations. This has never been done in the history of our country, but we have done it.

We have also introduced a comptroller general. The comptroller general will have oversight in all departments and will oversee all government expenditures so that we can ensure that the hard-earned taxpayers' money will be spent where it is supposed to be spent. That is a hallmark of good governance.

We have also implemented an expenditure review system. That system obligates every single minister to take the lowest under-performing 5% of his or her department's programs and reallocate those moneys to higher and more effective priorities.

We have also announced a new internal audit system that will again act as an oversight mechanism.

There is nothing more physically we can do.

I would ask the hon. member if there are any other solutions he could offer in this House today, that this government has not already implemented, to improve the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of how we spend Canadian taxpayers' hard-earned money. We would all be very interested to know what those constructive solutions are, beyond what we have already implemented this year.

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3:55 p.m.


David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Justice said to the committee that the act needs to be changed. He said that on two occasions.

I can appreciate the member saying that certain things need to be done. If members listened to my comments, there are still eight crown corporations, and I believe the wheat board is another one, which are not subject to the legislation. Why are they not? Two of them are involved in the ad scam scandal. Why are they not in the legislation? Why not put them all in? That is what the resolution said. If my colleague would read the resolution, we are saying to act on all crown corporations, to put them all in. That is what we are suggesting.

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3:55 p.m.


Mario Laframboise Bloc Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, first I want to congratulate my colleague from Dufferin—Caledon for his speech. He is our acting chair. I am pleased to ask him this question.

It is not that easy to understand the Liberals' position. In committee everyone agreed that the Information Commissioner would introduce the bill. Today's motion by the Conservative Party is directly linked to what had been recommended by the committee, which went against what the minister wanted. My colleague is right. The minister has submitted a framework for discussion. We are saying this is not the time for frameworks. It is time for a bill.

I refer to the words of the Information Commissioner, Mr. Reid, who, during his appearance at our committee on October 25, spoke of a major gap.

This is also found in subsection ( c ) of today's motion:

—establish a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions.

This is what the information commissioner said during his presentation in committee:

The most fundamental, pivotal proposal I am making is that a legal duty to create appropriate records be imposed and that an offence be created for failure to fulfill that duty. Although this latter provision did not appear in [Mr. Bryden's] Bill C-201, there is universal acknowledgement of the reality that the right of access is being rendered meaningless by a growing oral culture in government.

He finished his presentation by saying:

Conducting governance by winks and nods simply leads to poor decision-making, inept administration and corruption.

Does my colleague agree that the Liberals' attitude upholds a culture of secrecy and a culture of corruption, which could have been corrected by passing true access to information legislation that would do justice to all?

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4 p.m.


David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, yes, I do, which is why not just the committee, but all opposition parties, my colleague from Winnipeg Centre and the Bloc member who just spoke, are united and I hope the Liberal Party is united as well because its members on the committee voted for this piece of legislation. It is going to be brought to the House in a report. What a way to do things, that a committee has to get a bill into the House through a report.

The Minister of Justice indicated he was going to introduce a bill. He said that twice. We have not seen a bill. It is almost wintertime and he said it would be done in the fall. All of this has been very frustrating to all members of the Bloc, the NDP, the Conservatives and I believe even the backbenchers in the Liberal caucus. For some unearthly reason the Minister of Justice wants to take no action and I do not know why.

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4 p.m.


Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, my colleague from Dufferin—Caledon made many interesting points in his address. He does an excellent job in chairing the committee on access to information when the chair, the member for Westlock—St. Paul, is not able to be in Ottawa.

He commented that he doubts if the Liberal government is interested in bringing true transparency to Ottawa. I would ask him for his views on the fact that in reaction to the sponsorship scandal, the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Public Works have introduced no fewer than 273 measures adding to the complexity of an already mind-numbingly complex government administration. If anything, rather than implementing meaningful changes to the Access to Information Act and in fact deputizing 30 million auditors who could scrutinize the workings of government, they have added to the complexity to make it almost incomprehensible what really goes on in Ottawa. Could the member comment on that glaring contradiction?

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4 p.m.


David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have not been here as long as many members in this place and my observation is that the bureaucracy is increasing. A prime example is what is going on here.

One of the complaints put forward by the Canadian Newspaper Association was that even the bureaucrats themselves who created this complex situation do not know what the rules are. That is why they make these absolutely stupid statements; or maybe they are not stupid, maybe they are calculated statements as to why information is not going to be released. It is based on all kinds of information as the member for Winnipeg Centre has suggested. That could be a tactic of the government to create a massive mess so that it would be almost impossible to get information. I believe the new legislation will correct that.

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4 p.m.


Stockwell Day Conservative Okanagan—Coquihalla, BC

Mr. Speaker, the power consolidated in the Prime Minister's Office would be a dream for anyone who wants total power. The Prime Minister can and does appoint the Governor General who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces, all lieutenant governors, senators, Supreme Court judges, Federal Court judges, the cabinet, key positions on regulatory agencies and the heads of major boards and commissions. That is a dream for anyone who is seeking power.

Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore, it is no surprise that judgment is corrupted when one has that much power. I am not even putting a moral tinge to it, just judgment itself.

To put my question in context, I attended the Summit of the Americas with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. There were emerging democracies throughout Central and South America and there are those who have been dictators who would like to cling to power. They see Canada as having a system where one person has a huge amount of power and also does not put out information on billions of dollars being spent. It is a deterrent to emerging democracies. It is an incentive for those who want to consolidate power all in one office. Here is the clincher. One person raised the issue at the Summit of the Americas of the corruption in Canada. That was a very embarrassing moment for me.

Has the member considered or has he heard at committee if the Liberals have considered the effect of maintaining this air of secrecy, maintaining this level of power? Have the Liberals considered the effect not just on Canada's reputation, but on emerging democracies and those who would try to consolidate power? Have they thought about that?

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4:05 p.m.


David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Mr. Speaker, the three officers who are responsible to the committee that I sit on, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, are all officers of Parliament, and yet the Prime Minister chose those people at his sole discretion. The Prime Minister chooses them. Many of us have discussed how remarkable this is. There is no approval system in this place in regard to whether those people are qualified, whether they are capable of doing the job, or whether it is even appropriate that they sit there.

I know that many other jurisdictions, such as the province of Ontario, have a committee that reviews these kinds of positions to find out if the individuals should be appointed. Comments are raised. It happens in the United States. It happens in most democratic institutions, but not in Canada, where the Prime Minister decides.

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4:05 p.m.

Mount Royal Québec


Irwin Cotler LiberalMinister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the House on the subject of access reform.

While I appreciate the good intentions behind the motion, I will be voting against it for the reasons which follow in my remarks. I might add as a corrective that the motion presented here today, which the hon. member said was supported by the Liberal members in that committee, was not, as I understand it, ever discussed at committee.

As the House knows, I appeared before the House Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on April 5. On that occasion, I presented for the committee's consideration a discussion paper and a set of specific proposals that set out a comprehensive framework for access reform.

As I said to the committee and reaffirm today, I have always believed that Parliament has a central role in achieving this reform. Parliament is best situate to hold hearings, receive witness testimony, engage stakeholders and address the compelling and competing issues that are involved in our proposal on access reform legislation.

That is what I invited the committee to do as the first of two tracks to access reform legislation. The first track would be my proposal, their consideration of it and their response to it. The second would be my tabling of legislation upon receiving their response to my proposal.

To date, regrettably, I have yet to receive a response to any of the questions in that proposal, to any of the specific reform initiatives in that proposal. I still invite it and we will act and produce collaboratively the kind of access to information legislation that the people of Canada both desire and deserve.

Indeed, access reform is something that the Government of Canada is committed to and that has been a longstanding concern of mine, prior to ever becoming the Minister of Justice, as it is inspired by and anchored in two basic principles.

The first is that freedom of information is a cornerstone of a culture of democratic governance, involving accessibility, transparency and accountability in government. I have no quarrel if the opposition makes that principle and that submission. I fully share it.

Second, the Access to Information Act is itself a pillar of democracy. Again, I would share that principle and have had a longstanding commitment to it, whose importance is such that it has been recognized as a quasi-constitutional statute by the Federal Court of Canada, relying on the words of the Supreme Court of Canada in Dagg v. Canada (Minister of Finance), 1997. The Supreme Court wrote that the act “helps to ensure that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and that politicians and bureaucrats”--and reference was made to that in the discussion today--“remain responsible to the citizenry”.

I wish to confirm that the Government of Canada is committed to reforming the Access to Information Act so that it meets the needs of the Canadians and further strengthens the integrity, accountability and transparency of government operations as envisaged by the Dagg case and, I would say, as intended by members of the opposition. I do not question their intention. I question only the manner in which they are going about it.

Since the bill was passed in 1983, Canadians have had the benefit of legislation which gave them considerable access to the information in government hands. Canada was one of the first countries to adopt legislative provisions on access to information and strives to be on the cutting edge as far as governmental transparency is concerned.

Let us keep in mind that, when the legislation first came into effect, Canada was seen as a model in this field. We know this legislation has served us well and continues to do so.

At the same time, it is clearly in need of reform. Twenty-two years later it is no longer up to date and needs to be modernized, while deficiencies have been revealed that need to be addressed.

While there have been a few amendments of the act over the years, none of them constitute the comprehensive reform required to adequately respond to the current environment. In fact, it has been more than 15 years since Parliament even reviewed the act in depth, let alone proposed amendments.

Yet much has happened in the administration of government, in the legitimate expectation of a culture of democratic governance both in Canada and internationally, since the act was passed. Simply put, citizens expect greater involvement in the decision making process of their governments, in what I have elsewhere referred to as “participation rights“, while rapid advances in information technology have changed the way government creates, stores, manages and communicates information.

In recent years, some members of Parliament have introduced private members' bills aimed at extensively reforming the ATI act, including the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre. Also, the government has before it the report prepared by the access to information review task force, which was completed in 2002 and which made 139 recommendations for the improvement of the federal access regime.

The Government of Canada not only agrees that the act must be reformed, but agrees in principle with many of the proposals made in these private members' bills and recommendations in the task force report. Indeed, the comprehensive framework I presented to the committee in April is itself guided and inspired by these initiatives, including those of the member for Winnipeg Centre.

We do, however, have to admit that some of these issues are complex ones and deal with important and contradictory concepts of public interest, addressing various interests of the government, NGOs and other stakeholders. Care must be taken in assessing and weighing the contradictory and serious expressions of public interest. We also need to examine the additional costs associated with administering the access to information system.

For these reasons, reform of an act that is in constant and continuous use and with a multi-layered complexity requires the application of the precautionary principle to ensure that proposed reforms, which we all want, actually provide appropriate and workable improvements to the overall scheme.

As well, we cannot act unilaterally on reforms without facing the significant risk of adversely affecting not only the range of interests but the range of stakeholders in a prejudicial manner, which speaks to the importance of the consultative role of Parliament and the importance of a collaborative work with respect to the committee and ourselves.

I would like to provide some concrete examples of these complexities and corresponding competing interests to which we still seek a response from the committee so that we can act on them in the public interest.

First, it may be recalled that the President of the Treasury Board indicated that the government would cover more crown corporations under the ATI act. He provided further details in a report on his review of crown corporations governance, a report that was tabled earlier this year.

I entirely agree with this approach. In fact, this fall, 10 more crown corporations were made subject to the Access to Information Act. This is a promise kept.

There are several more crown corporations that have yet to be made subject to the act, but we need to understand that despite their connection to the government there can be no doubt that these crown corporations compete in the open market in a variety of fields. For example, the Export Development Corporation works to expand export markets for the products of Canadian companies.

In order to do this, EDC must have access to confidential information about the businesses with which it works, but those businesses have told EDC that they will not share their confidential information with EDC if that information is subject to access laws. This is because they fear that their competition will submit an access request to EDC for their confidential information. What we have here is a question of third party confidentiality. We have asked the committee to assist us in this regard. There has been no reply.

If we are concerned about the competitive position of Canadian businesses, and the survival of our crown corporations, we need to look seriously at how we make them subject to this legislation, if we do not want to jeopardize their situation.

The bill may have to provide additional protection to the interests of crown corporations and their business partners. If this is so, these new protective measures need to be drafted with great care if they are to achieve a proper balance between openness and the imperative of protecting confidential commercial information.

Again, there is no response regarding how one deals with these competing concerns.

The second example is the issue of covering agents of Parliament, such as the Chief Electoral Officer, the Information and Privacy Commissioners and the Auditor General. These agents themselves receive large amounts of confidential information from other entities as they have advised us. When making agents subject to the act, we have to bear in mind the need to improve transparency and accountability on how the agents manage the administration of these offices while at the same time protecting the confidential data that they collect. Again, another matter that we asked for assistance and response on and again no response.

A third example is the modernization of certain exemptions. For example, the exemption in section 24 provides a link between the act and confidentiality clauses in other federal statutes. Entities subject to the act are required to protect information covered by these confidentiality clauses. As far back as the original parliamentary review of the act in 1986, concern was expressed about too many confidentiality clauses being linked to section 24. This is not a new concern but it is a legitimate concern. This concern is entirely valid, as the number of clauses listed has gone from 40 to over 70, but private members' bills have proposed a complete repeal of section 24. This is too blunt an approach. There are some confidentiality clauses that really should be listed, not 70 clearly, but some, for example the confidentiality clauses in the Income Tax Act and the Statistics Act.

What happened to the protection of privacy? Is this not also part of the corpus of concern that we have? Why did we not get any response when we sought the committee's response to these matters?

The reason I tabled my discussion paper before the committee on April 5 was so that parliaments and stakeholders could come together and explore the complexities of an access reform that we need and find solutions that would improve the overall scheme without adversely affecting the range of interests and stakeholders.

I also want to reconfirm today that I did not renege on any alleged commitment with regard to submitting a bill and defaulting on it. Any allegations are both unfounded and misleading. The member for Winnipeg Centre advised me at the time that he had two private members' bills and that he was considering which one of them he would bring forward: a private bill with regard to access to information or a private bill that dealt with bankruptcy legislation. He said that he would opt for the bankruptcy bill in the hope that I would also come in with access to information legislation.

As I mentioned to him at the time, there cannot be any quid pro quos in this because I am only one minister and this is a whole of government approach involving a machinery of government responsibilities, which involve the President of the Treasury Board and the like. However I did commit myself to coming in with a serious proposal, which I have, through a two track process. I came in with a proposal in the hope of getting a response from the committee, which I did not get. As a consequence of receiving those responses from the committee we would then have moved to the second track and produced an access to information reform legislation initiative.

I have reaffirmed that commitment today. Let there be no mistake about it nor any misleading allegations about the commitment that I made and the commitment I am still prepared to move upon.

That is why the way forward to access reform proposed by the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre in his motion is somewhat problematic. The member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre, with all good intentions, is proposing rather simple solutions to very complex situations with competing considerations. While the government generally agrees with the proposal to extend the act to Crown corporations, the protection of legitimate interests of the Crown corporations could be compromised if the act were amended simply by adding the names of the corporations to schedule 1.

As I said in the discussion paper, the proposal to add certain corporations may need to be refined to deal, for example, with the special journalistic needs of the CBC, to protect commercially competitive information of some of the parent Crowns, such as the Export Development Corporation and the like. The paper also invited the committee to provide its input on appropriate criteria for determining which federal interests outside of the Government of Canada should be covered by the act.

The government believes that this needs further discussion before a decision can be made on the criteria for coverage on the act, and we are still awaiting a response on that issue as well.

The member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre further proposes to amend the act to change the protection of cabinet confidences and to make them subject to review by the Information Commissioner. In relation to cabinet confidence, I want to repeat because it is sometimes being mischaracterized as to what our position is, the government believes the status quo is not an option and is committed to substantial reform, both to the Access to Information Act and the Canada Evidence Act.

However, as I told the committee, the exclusion for cabinet confidences was designed to protect key political functions of the executive, as recognized by the Supreme Court in the Babcock case, and long recognized as essential components of our Westminster style of parliamentary democracy. That is why I described in the discussion paper the critical interests of the government and Parliament in connection with cabinet confidential reforms and asked the committee to consider them carefully and respond to our considerations in that regard.

To date we have not had any response from the committee with respect to the matter of cabinet confidence that we are prepared to move upon but we want to hear what the committee will address with respect to having a collaborative approach in that regard in the interests of the Canadian public.

The member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre further proposes that the act be amended to establish a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions. However, bearing in mind the purpose of the Access to Information Act, we might have to accept that the act may not necessarily be the appropriate statute for a general duty to create records. This is an issue that could be explored further by the committee and one the committee could assist us on but it is yet another issue on which we are still awaiting a response.

With respect to changes proposed by the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre to the exemption provisions, the government considers that the overall structure of the Access to Information Act is basically sound and that the current exclusions and exemptions arguably strike the right balance between the citizen's right to know and the need to protect certain information in the public interest.

I spoke earlier of the necessary balance among competing interests, but even if our approach is not correct then the committee should let us know where it is wrong and where it can be improved. It must give us some response to all the specific proposals that we tabled before the committee and have yet to hear any response.

As the House knows, we all share a common goal: to have the most comprehensive and workable legislation possible. We must, therefore, work together to craft a set of reform proposals that effectively balance the complex and varied interests at stake. That is why I presented the standing House committee with a paper outlining these areas of potential access reform that would benefit from further parliamentary discussion and study. I said at that appearance and I maintain that consideration by the committee of the questions set out in my paper is a critical step to ensuring an effective and comprehensive set of legislative amendments.

I view the discussion paper as the beginning of a necessary dialogue between this committee and myself and the President of the Treasury Board on the exact shape of these reforms. It is not I who has defaulted on the delivery of an access to information bill. It is the committee that has defaulted on its responses to our questions and proposals which would allow us to move on that access to information bill.

What needs to be affirmed again is that we are anxious to move forward on access reform. However I want to ensure that Parliament's voice is heard before we proceed. By actively engaging parliamentarians on the issue of access reform, the government affirms its commitment to transparency, accountability, integrity and the broader agenda on democratic reform.

I would trust that the committee would respect its parliamentary function and its consultative responsibilities as much as I respect what the parliamentary committee could do to assist us in this regard. This necessitates a thorough, open and inclusive process with abundant, early and frequent opportunity to discuss what form the act will look like.

We would rather err on the side of being open and inclusive than rush to a fast result and simple solutions to complex problems without having adequate consultation and deliberation. I cannot understand why the committee would preclude Canadians from even being engaged in the reform of the act that is about their rights. I asked the committee to be involved in order to ensure this broad public engagement. I feel that the opposition is behaving in an undemocratic fashion in refusing to hear competing views on the complex issues that have been raised in the discussion paper in the public interest.

The discussion paper posed a number of difficult questions which would really benefit from careful study by the committee and the testimony of interested parties before that committee. Although the committee asked the Information Commissioner to develop a set of legislative proposals over the summer, and we supported the involvement of the Information Commissioner, I might add, I remain hopeful that the committee will, nonetheless, focus on the specific concerns that we have outlined in the discussion paper, for example those issues regarding cabinet confidences, Crown corporations, officers and agents of Parliament and modernizing current and creating new exemptions.

It would also be helpful if the committee could advise us on the best way to protect the interests of the entities that will be made subject to the legislation, in particular the crown corporations and their subsidiaries, as well as the organizations created by alternate service delivery. We therefore need to take into consideration the burden imposed on the entity by making it subject to the act, particularly in connection with organizations whose competitors do not have this additional responsibility, which can be both time-consuming and costly.

We would benefit from the committee's views on how to subject agents of Parliament to the ATIA while addressing their concerns not to impair their core mandate, as they themselves advised us, whereby they must handle large amounts of information belonging to others. On all of the subjects that we put before the committee, we would benefit from its response.

I believe it would also be useful for the committee to hear first-hand the perspectives and concerns of the various stakeholders, including regular users of the act, such as the media and public interest researchers. I understand that the Information Commissioner has already appeared before the committee and I hope the committee will invite other interested parties in this regard.

The Access to Information Act sets out fundamental rights for Canadians and contributes to an open and transparent government, and it is a quasi-constitutional statute. However when we are dealing with a quasi-constitutional statute of fundamental importance to our democracy, as is the Access to Information Act, it is imperative to strike the appropriate balance between openness and, where appropriate, protecting sensitive information.

Our goal is to ensure increased transparency and accountability while balancing access, protection of compelling interests, efficiency and fairness for the public good. Our challenge is to craft the best reform we can. I hope the committee proceeds to consider the substance of our discussion paper. If the committee takes the opportunity to explore the compelling and competing considerations in the discussion paper, the people of Canada can be the beneficiaries of its inquiry and the government will be in a far better position to move forward with ATIA reform.

We want to act for the public good. We trust that the parliamentary committee will respond to our requests, indeed our exhortation, to move forward with us on access reform and to give us the responses to the queries we put in our proposal so we can move forward together.

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4:25 p.m.


Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Mr. Speaker, as the one who put forward this motion I appreciate the opportunity to ask the first question and make one comment.

The hon. member for Winnipeg Centre will have some words to say later and I will leave it up to him to determine exactly who is right in this debate over what the minister committed to. The minister talked about not reneging on a commitment he made to the hon. member, so I will let the hon. member speak to his recollection of that conversation.

The minister appears to be loading everything on the backs of the parliamentary committee by saying that it has abdicated its responsibility in bringing forth suggestions to the minister. I find that shameful because that is simply not the case.

It seems that when it is politically convenient the government and the minister say that it is not their fault that there is no legislation before the House. It blames the committee. They say that they asked the committee to come up with all of these recommendations, that they asked for its assistance and wanted to consult with it, but that the committee simply did not do its part. I can honestly say that this is the first time I have ever heard anybody from the government side of the House say that he wishes to consult with any member of the opposition. It simply is not true.

This issue has been before the House for several years and everyone in this assembly agrees that it is an important and timely issue. The government has been dragging its feet by not presenting a form of legislation that we could at least debate and take back to committee. In my view, the minister is the one who is abdicating his responsibilities by blaming others rather than blaming himself.

When will we see legislation being brought forward by the minister?

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4:25 p.m.


Irwin Cotler Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Speaker, with respect to the hon. member's statement that we are loading everything on the backs of the parliamentary committee, all we are doing is putting our trust in a parliamentary committee to do what parliamentary committees do. It can forget about answering our proposal. If it does not want to answer our proposal, it does not have to answer it but it certainly ought to consult with stakeholders who care about access to information. It ought to allow witnesses to testify and allow the competing and compelling considerations to be exposed before it. If the committee wants to bypass us and not respond to us, that is fine, but a parliamentary committee has a responsibility to the public and that is what we are asking it to do.

If the committee does not respond to our proposals, we will bring a bill forward nonetheless, but we would benefit if it were to respond to us.

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4:30 p.m.


Dave Chatters Conservative Westlock—St. Paul, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am shocked. I think that was the most flagrant distortion of the truth and the facts that I have heard in a long time in this place.

We analyzed very carefully the draft paper that was presented to the committee. In spite of the fact that we were led to understand that we were going to receive a draft bill for discussion, we went ahead and we did study the proposal. What the proposal embodied, quite frankly, was an enhancement of the secrecy, which enhanced the inability of Canadians to access the information they needed.

We did in fact call witnesses on the issue, including the Information Commissioner who was quite shocked and disturbed at the direction the government and minister wanted to go in the paper. When we asked the minister himself to appear before the committee to further the discussion, he refused to appear before the committee. I absolutely reject the things we just heard from the minister. I do not think it adds anything to this discussion.

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4:30 p.m.


Irwin Cotler Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Speaker, I find this to be kind of a pattern, that when opposition members have nothing to say, they go ahead and engage in ad hominem attacks. I will not engage in that kind of thing. When reference is made to a flagrant distortion, I will respond, as follows, for the record.

Let the record show that the committee has yet to respond to any of the proposals that I put before that committee and invited the members to respond. That is the record. That cannot be distorted. If the opposition wants to say it dislikes and critiques every one of my proposals, that is fine. Then put it in writing. Then respond. Then give me a report. Then do something. But the opposition members cannot get up in the House of Commons and call it a flagrant distortion when the committee has not fulfilled its own responsibilities to respond, at a minimum, to the proposals that we made.

I will say again, even if they do not respond, we will produce that access to reform legislation, but we would have benefited from that response had they given it to us.

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4:30 p.m.


Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I must admit this is the very first speech that really tells it like it is about what has happened here. We have had many examples of bills, like the whistleblower bill and the bill on reproductive technologies, which went through some very comprehensive and exhaustive processes and offered input.

Is it the minister's intention that should the committee not undertake a comprehensive review of the framework that was presented, that the government would undertake in the next Parliament to bring forward a bill for the consideration of Parliament and for a thorough consultation through the legislative process?

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4:30 p.m.


Irwin Cotler Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to say in the House that we will bring forward a bill in the next Parliament. If the opposition does not preempt this Parliament and allows the election to go ahead in the time that it was intended, we will even bring it forward in this Parliament.

I want to also add that that I find the timing of the opposition motion quite surprising. It is on a par with a lot of other things. This opposition motion is being presented today on the very day that former Supreme Court Justice Gérard LaForest, who appeared before the committee, is to tender his report to me on the issue we asked him to address on the matter of the merits of a merger of the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner.

As the committee members know, and as he testified, I gave him no recommendation or suggestion as to how he was to perform that task. I await his report which he will be tendering to me today, and we will make it public. My question is, why did the opposition members not await the report, so that they could have been as informed as I will be after his report with regard to what we want to do?

Justice Gomery has said that he will deal with access to information in his second report. Why did they not wait for Justice Gomery to tender his second report, so that we all could have benefited from that as well?

This has the appearance, if not the intention, of being a kind of opportunistic critique that has been put forward by a wave of emotion without taking into account two distinguished reports from Justice LaForest and Justice Gomery which could have assisted them, assisted us as well as Canadians.

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4:35 p.m.


Ken Epp Conservative Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am absolutely astounded at what I heard the minister say. He has given everyone the impression that he, as the minister, will bring something to the committee and the committee must then immediately do what he says.

I think it is the other way around. It is the parliamentary committee that will address this issue and, as has often been ruled by the Speaker, committees are the masters of their own agenda.

When the minister came to our committee, and instead of presenting a draft bill, he presented yet another endless routine of debate and discussion papers. We decided that we would take more decisive action. The committee did that.

He said that we have not even had any interested witnesses. There was no member of the Liberal Party on that committee who proposed that we should bring witnesses forward. That was not done. If he is concerned about that, it is not true because there was no list of witnesses, although we did hear from some. We heard from the commissioner and other interested parties.

Mine is more a comment than a question. I am simply saying that he is misrepresenting the work of the committee and trying to blame us for his own inaction.

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4:35 p.m.


Irwin Cotler Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am not blaming the committee. I am asking the committee members for their assistance to do what will be for the good of Canadians, to help us craft the best access to information reform legislation possible.

I did not ask them to accept what I gave them. I did not ask them, to use the comments of the hon. member opposite, to do what I said. I asked them to respond to specific proposals which were anchored in all the work that had been done up to now by the task force on information access, by private members' bills and legislation, that of the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre and that of former member, John Bryden.

We took all the various recommendations that had been made in all the previous reports. We distilled them and said, here is everything. We distilled all of the reports and examined them. We identified the proposals and the competing considerations. We asked the committee members for their input. We wanted them to give us their assistance, to collaborate with us, so that we can produce the best access to information legislation for the good of Canadians in a non-partisan way.

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4:35 p.m.


John Cummins Conservative Delta—Richmond East, BC

Mr. Speaker, when I listen to the minister, it kind of reminds me of that old saw about everyone being out of step but the general's son. Of course, in this instance I guess everybody is out of step but the minister's friends.

On this particular issue of access to information, if the government were acting properly and providing the information in a timely way and open fashion, I guess it could be said that there would be no need for the legislation. However, the fact of the matter is that the administration of the Access to Information Act, for example, at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been severely politicized. The act is administered at fisheries in a manner designed to protect the government from embarrassment rather than provide information in a timely fashion.

DFO administers the act so as to allow the legislation and House planning branch of the Privy Council Office, the minister's office, the executive secretariat that supports the minister, and the department's communication branch to track and intervene in the handling of information requests in a manner designed to protect the government from embarrassment rather than to dispassionately provide public access to departmental records.

DFO's computerized records show the handling of each information request on an activity sheet. I have received from the department computerized records covering my information requests in 2004. First, the activity sheets show that my information requests were routinely categorized as sensitive. Requests that are categorized as sensitive receive heightened scrutiny. Such heightened scrutiny reflects not a special case management system to protect national security but one to address concerns that if certain departmental records were made public, the minister might be politically embarrassed.

Second, the activity sheets reveal that the legislation and House planning branch of the Privy Council Office generally monitors and tracks my information requests to the department. Some of the notations on the activity sheet imply that the legislation and House planning branch was actually involved with what was to be released.

Third, the activity sheets show that the executive secretariat at fisheries was directly involved in tracking and monitoring my requests and, more importantly, was involved in decisions as to what was released.

Before I proceed any further, I should mention that I will be splitting my time with the member for Yellowhead.

Fourth, the activity sheets show that the minister's office is directly involved in the information requests I made to fisheries. Copies of the various versions of the released package are provided to the minister's office through the release process. Finally, the activity reports show my information requests are monitored and tracked by the communications branch of the department.

The computerized tracking of my information requests under the Access to Information Act reveal a process organized to protect the political interests of the minister and the Prime Minister rather than dispassionate administration of the act. Let me provide an example.

Last year I asked the department for documents relating to fish farm sites. This request was made in February 2004. Just as an example of how the tracking works, I think there were about 28 people who reviewed that request and the response to it. Later on in the process the documents went to the Privy Council Office, and the legislation and House planning branch, Mr. Côté.

What is interesting are two things. First, when something goes to the Privy Council Office that the it says should not be released, it cannot even be reviewed by the Information Commissioner. It says it is a confidential cabinet document and that is the end of it. In this instance, it went to Mr. Côté and, as we know, he is now the ombudsman for National Defence and the Canadian Forces. In my view, he was up to his neck in cover-up on the issue of these questions. Yet, he was the guy who was screening on behalf of the government, so we have to wonder about his appointment as ombudsman.

After the question went for review to the Privy Council Office, it went to communications. It was sent the entire package with a heads up, so it could prepare a response. Then the minister's office was copied. It received notice. Then there was notice received that the minister wanted to see this again. The file already had been released. It had his go around. Then the file moved on and back to the minister's office. Finally, it went to the communications department before the information was made public.

That sort of routing is disturbing. These access to information requests are asked and they are asked openly and with an anticipation that the government will be forthcoming. We have to wonder what fish farm sites have to do with the Privy Council. Why would the Privy Council Office be concerned about the siting of fish farms? I do not know what is secret about that. I am appalled that this kind of screening process is taking place.

On the issue of the questions that have gone to the fisheries department, we have complained to the Information Commissioner at various times about the information that was not forthcoming. For example, on July 25 we wrote to the Information Commissioner because we sought records on environmental and economic issues posed by the development of sablefish aquaculture.

The department's response was that fisheries claimed a 90 day extension was due to the volume of records and the need to consult with other government departments.

The commissioner investigated and concluded his investigation by saying, “The volume of records was not overly voluminous and there was no evidence to support the length of the extension”. He went on to say, “Furthermore, despite the fact that consultations were completed by January 24, 2005, D&O did not provide you with a response until April 8, 2005”.

Another interesting sidebar is that again we made a request of the Information Commissioner to try to determine what happened to an information request. He replied to us again on the 25th. These were about briefing materials prepared for the minister involving aboriginal fisheries, and the department again demanded an extension.

The commissioner concluded, “There is no evidence to support the length of the extension taken”. He went on to say, “The consultation process took a maximum of three weeks to complete, with most consultations taking approximately one week. Despite the additional 60 days claimed, the department missed the extended deadline. This placed fisheries in a deemed refusal situation”. He went on to say, “The investigation determined that the delay was the result of a lengthy approval process”. This is the approval process to which I referred.

Again we asked about the harvest of salmon caught in unauthorized fisheries on the Fraser River. Again, the department demanded an extension due to the volume and interference with operations. Again the commissioner concluded that DFO failed to meet the extended deadline. Therefore, the department found itself in a deemed refusal situation. He said, “I will remind the department of its obligation to respond to access requests in a timely manner”.

The government's response on these access issues is scandalous. It is beyond me how the minister could stand there and try to defend that action. Rather than complaining about the committee, he should have been complaining about his own ministers.

The strengthening of the powers and independence of the Access to Information Commissioner is necessary and his authority over the administration over the Access to Information Act would guard against the politicization of the administration of the act as has occurred at DFO. The work of the Information Commissioner in ensuring that I have access to government documents is essential to my job as a member of Parliament. I believe his independence and his control over the administration of the Access to Information Act needs strengthening, not weakening.

I do not believe the job of the Information Commissioner should be merged with that of the Privacy Commissioner. The politicization of the administration of the Access to Information Act at fisheries and oceans provides yet another reason for strengthening the powers and independence of the Information Commissioner rather than merging two essentially incompatible offices.

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4:45 p.m.


Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Mr. Speaker, unfortunately my hon. colleague did not have enough time to get into all the information that he wanted to present here today, so I will ask a general, open-ended question. Could the member please expand a bit more on some of the problems he currently sees with the ATI?