Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Macleod.
Today's motion deals with an important matter dealing with reforms to the Access to Information Act. Specifically, it calls for amendments to the act to expand coverage to include all crown corporations, all officers of Parliament, all foundations and, indeed, any organization that spends taxpayers' dollars or performs public functions.
It further calls on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions. Moreover, it seeks a general public interest override for any exemptions, so that public interest comes before the secrecy of government.
A plethora of waste and mismanagement scandals involving the federal government and its branches, from the sponsorship scandal, the Dingwall affair, the HRSDC boondoggle and the gun registry fiasco have severely diminished public confidence in the integrity of our public institutions.
Many have suggested that a culture of secrecy and entitlement is now prevalent within the federal government and that this has resulted in a system much more prone to abuses of the public purse.
To restore the public's confidence in the system, we must take action to strengthen the transparency and accountability of the mechanisms of our federal government and ensure the manner in which hard-earned taxpayer money is spent is always in the public interest. Indeed, as a 2003 National Post editorial noted, the “right to access information about one's government is integral to the functioning of a true democracy”.
To ensure that would necessitate a series of actions, chief among them are substantial reforms to the Access to Information Act. This issue is of notable interest to Canadians and the amendments that the motion calls for are extremely important.
Many observers, including Democracy Watch's Duff Conacher, have stated that without serious changes to the act, the Canadian public “will not have the easy access to government information it has a clear, democratic right to”.
Over 20 years ago the House passed the Access to Information Act. The act was intended to permit individual Canadians the ability to request and obtain information about the operations of their federal government. Using the act, any Canadian has the power to find out, for instance, how much money the government has spent on a program or department or what reasoning was behind an action. Members of Parliament, myself included, have used the act to discover, so to speak, what the government is doing behind the scenes.
In sum, the access to information permitted by the legislation is an important way of ensuring government accountability. The act has assisted in bolstering transparency in the federal government since its introduction in 1983. Indeed, Probe International called it “one of the few effective tools available to Canadian citizens that allow them to find out what they want to know about government actions, rather than what the government wants them to know.
However, throughout the years many shortcomings have become apparent. One major problem that many have identified is the fact that the act exempts a significant number of crown corporations and quasi-government organizations from its scope “for no good policy reason”, as that earlier National Post editorial also stated.
Currently, these agencies like EDC and Canada Post are protected from undergoing the same scrutiny that other government departments face. Even though many of them have politically appointed presidents and even though many of them have been involved in the plethora of recent spending scandals, they are not accountable to the same extent. That means Canadians, for instance, in rural communities are barred from finding out why, for example, Canada Post has closed its local post offices in rural communities. This is in spite of the fact that Canada Post and the other exempted crown corporations are taxpayer funded and have an effect on the lives of a large majority of people throughout the country.
Many feel that this veil of secrecy over these important government operations is simply unacceptable and deeply troubling. For instance, Probe International, a Canadian NGO that works to hold government agencies accountable, recently stated that “over the past 15 years agencies of the Canadian government have become more secretive” and chided the government's “excessive and unreasonable use of the Access to Information Act (and agencies' exclusion from it) to withhold information, the disclosure of which would help save taxpayers' money, inform the public of government actions in their name, stop environmental destruction, protect the human rights of innocent citizens abroad, and save lives”.
Most reasonable Canadians would agree with the notion that no government agency or public servant should be able to avoid public scrutiny and responsibility for the way they spend taxpayer dollars or operate. Yet today this veil of secrecy allows selected crown corporations and quasi-government organizations to do just that. They circumvent full accountability and transparency on everything from directives that shape their decision-making to entertainment expenses.
Even though the current government has talked extensively about significant reform to the act, it has continued to hold up important changes to the legislation. As far back as 1994, then justice minister Allan Rock promised to strengthen the access law. However, according to noted democratic reform advocate Duff Conacher, “for the past 11 years the Liberals have successfully delayed this action through distraction”.
Many, like access to information advocate Ken Rubin, are questioning the government's commitment to reform at all. Recently, Rubin stated that instead of bringing forward the necessary reforms, the current government, specifically the justice minister, is committed to a pro-secrecy and stale line of thinking on the need for long overdue changes to the Access to Information Act. He added that, “Undoubtedly, the Liberals...would be relieved and would want if they got a majority (following an upcoming election) to regain control of the House access committee...and its future access legislative agenda”.
Fortunately for Canadian taxpayers, that is not going to happen. Conservative members of Parliament will not cease in their demands for greater transparency and accountability. Why? As former member of Parliament John Bryden stated, experience has shown that “legislated transparency of government institutions does increase efficiency. The bureaucrats may not like it, but public accountability makes good governance”.
Should the Conservatives receive the distinct honour of being chosen by Canadians to govern this country, the first act of a Conservative government would be to introduce a federal accountability act. This legislation would put into place all the provisions we are calling on the federal government to introduce in this motion among other measures aimed at ending the culture of entitlement that many feel has thrived under the current government.
Consequently, I strongly endorse today's motion and its aim of renewing faith in the mechanisms of the federal government, replacing the culture of entitlement with a culture of accountability.