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.