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; (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; (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.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today in this House and speak to this very important motion, one that I believe all Canadians as well as all members of this House should participate in and which members will hopefully vote in favour of at the end of the day.
Before we go into the actual details of this motion and why I believe it to be important, I think it is also important to once again give a bit of a history lesson to those Canadians who may be watching as to why I believe that access to information is such a vital part of our democratic process, both in government and across the land. For quite a while, in my opinion, there has been a need to expand and change the access to information legislation. In fact, members have attempted, on a number of occasions in the past few years, to introduce a new piece of legislation to this House.
I recall that back in 2004, a former member of this House, John Bryden, introduced a private member's bill, Bill C-462, which dealt with changes to the Access to Information Act. This piece of proposed legislation came in the form of a private member's bill. That private member's bill received widespread support from members on all sides of this House when it was first introduced. In fact, it made it past second reading with I believe unanimous consent by members of this House and then was referred to committee. Unfortunately, that is when it died.
However, it was about to be resurrected by the member for Winnipeg Centre, who had sought on a number of occasions over many years to introduce and support changes to access to information, because, and let us make no mistake about this, access to information is a fundamental part of every Canadian's right to know what governments do and what political parties are doing in government.
The member for Winnipeg Centre, who felt so strongly about increasing the level of access to information within government, was about to reintroduce this private member's bill first introduced by John Bryden when he had a conversation with the current Minister of Justice. At that time, the Minister of Justice told the member for Winnipeg Centre that he, as minister, was about to bring forward new legislation, legislation that would be complementary to John Bryden's bill and would open up and make more transparent the dealings of government. He convinced the member for Winnipeg Centre to stand down on his private member's bill.
The member for Winnipeg Centre, being a man of a trusting nature, a man who believes the word of others, ultimately decided not to enter his private member's bill dealing with changes or new legislation regarding access to information, believing that the Minister of Justice would keep his word and introduce his own piece of legislation at his earliest opportunity.
Lo and behold, what happened? In April of 2005, I believe, rather than introduce legislation, the Minister of Justice brought forward a discussion paper. There was no legislation. It was a discussion paper. To add insult to injury, this discussion paper was not complementary to Mr. Bryden's original private member's bill. It did not support the initiatives, the thrust and the objectives of Mr. Bryden's private member's bill to open up levels of government so that all Canadians could determine for themselves what their government was doing. In fact, this discussion paper suggested that there be even more secrecy in government than there is currently. It was, in other words, an absolutely opposite view to the intent of Mr. Bryden's bill.
I can only say to members of this assembly that what the Minister of Justice brought forward was an absolute betrayal of trust from the conversation and the commitment that he made to the hon. gentleman from Winnipeg Centre. He did not bring forward legislation to deal with increasing the level of access to all government departments, crown corporations and foundations. He did absolutely the opposite. I think that is shameful.
I know that the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre will speak on this matter himself later today, but I must say for the record, and I think all Canadians should understand, that the Minister of Justice betrayed not only the member but all Canadians when he made a commitment to bring forward legislation and then reneged on his promise and his commitment.
It is also important for Canadians to understand why it is so important to bring forward changes to the current legislation. Why should we bring forward this motion today? Why should we bring forward in the future a proposed piece of legislation that deals with access to information and increasing the levels of access? In light of what has transpired over the course of the past few months in Canada as a result of the government's actions with respect to the sponsorship scandal, I think it is quite apparent that we need to be more open, accountable and transparent in all of our dealings in government.
I would suggest to members today that had we as a government, a party, an assembly, passed increased access to information legislation, there is a chance, although I cannot guarantee it, that some of the things we saw happen with respect to the sponsorship scandal might never have happened, because the ability to allow Canadians access to information is vital to guaranteeing good, transparent, accountable and democratic government. If Canadians had had the opportunity to investigate through access to information requests what was happening with the sponsorship program, there is a chance, although perhaps not a high degree of probability, I agree, that some of the activities within the sponsorship program may never have occurred.
Unfortunately, the sponsorship program is an example of that cloud of secrecy and it shows how this is pervasive not only in the government but within the Liberal Party. If there is legislation that allows opposition members and Canadians at large the ability to ask questions and receive answers as to the activities of government, it will in effect act as a deterrent to any proposed or planned or perhaps even inadvertent abuse of the public trust. All parliamentarians, after all, whether they be on the government side or the opposition side, have a responsibility to respect the taxpayers and the Canadian public.
After all, we are servants of the public, not the other way around, but unfortunately we have seen time and time again that this government has done just the opposite. Rather than be responsible to the Canadian public, rather than be accountable to the Canadian taxpayer, the government has consistently over the last 12 years been secretive and has acted, as Justice Gomery puts it, on “a culture of entitlement”. In other words, the government feels that what is best for the Liberal Party of Canada is best for all Canadians, but in fact we all know that is absolutely not the case.
The access to information piece of legislation that I am referring to, which I hope will eventually see the light of day and be passed in this assembly, is something that is absolutely vital to ensure that Canadians' interests are protected. Time and time again, we have seen examples of crown corporations engaging in activities that later are found to be perhaps irresponsible and perhaps illegal. Yet we only find out that information through investigation by outside parties. It would appear that it is never this government which brings forward some of the problems that have occurred within crown corporations, agencies or foundations. It takes others to dig out that information.
If a set of rules is put in, as the Minister of Justice attempted, to try to make it more difficult to get information on potential wrongdoings or on just incompetence, it is not serving the interests of Canadians and Canadian taxpayers. That is just the reverse of what we need to do.
We all remember what happened in the past few months with a former cabinet minister by the name of Mr. David Dingwall. We remember some of his activities, particularly some of his lobbying activities. Basically he engaged in a lobbying effort that was contrary to the rules. In other words, he accepted a contingency fee from a client based on the success he would have in lobbying for a contract for that particular client. It was contrary to the rules. We found out nothing about that wrongdoing until much later. In fact, the statute of limitations had run out, so we were not able to have Mr. Dingwall prosecuted. We were not able to have Mr. Dingwall punished by this assembly.
Part of the reason we were not able to do it is that we did not know. That is the whole point I am trying to get at. The public has the right to know about the activities of the government and the activities of people who lobby the government. The public has a right to know about all the activities done supposedly on its behalf.
In Mr. Dingwall's case, it gets progressively worse, because from there he was then appointed head of the Canadian Mint. After resigning, he stated for the record when asked about a potential severance that he was “entitled to his entitlements”, which I believe was part of the reason that Justice Gomery put that famous phrase in the Gomery report, saying that the government basically lives under a culture of entitlement, where its members feel they are entitled to either cash or benefits and perks to which in fact they should not be entitled.
Beyond just this culture of entitlement that is so pervasive in this government, there is a culture of secrecy. I believe that if we combine the culture of secrecy and the culture of entitlement, that is a surefire recipe for potential abuse, for corruption and for scandal.
We have seen examples time and time again over the last 12 years where there have been “scandals” perpetrated upon the Canadian public by the government. Whether it be the example of Shawinigate, the HRDC boondoggle or of course the sponsorship scandal, with which all Canadians are so familiar by now, I believe that if there had been an increased ability of Canadians and members of the opposition parties to receive that information through access to information requests, while it at the very least would have stopped some of the abuse, it would also have acted as a deterrent.
Members of the government would have had to--and future governments would have to--think twice before engaging in activities that might be considered either illegal or bordering on illegal, because they would have realized that members of the media, members of the Canadian public and members of the opposition would have the ability to request that information through ATI requests and receive that information in a timely fashion. It would act as a deterrent to future misuses of power. That is something all members should agree upon.
Right now we talk about the government's wish, in the words of the Prime Minister, to increase the ability of the government to increase the access to information. I can only say it has been my experience, in listening to the Prime Minister talk about more openness and more transparency or accountability in government, that once again it is only lip service. The Liberals seem to talk the talk but they never seem to walk the walk.
I point out that on a number of occasions, three that I know of, this very Prime Minister voted against increasing access to information legislation in the House. On the one hand he is saying that it is his commitment to increase the level of accountability and transparency of the government and put to an end things like the sponsorship scandal and other abuses of government power, but we have seen no evidence that the Prime Minister actually believes what he says, because he has voted against changes to the access to information legislation on at least three separate occasions. Not only is that contradictory, it is unconscionable.
The Prime Minister has a responsibility as the head of the government, as does any prime minister, to be responsible to the Canadian taxpayer and the public. Yet he has proven absolutely no such knowledge of his responsibility.
Even though the Liberals and the Prime Minister have talked about meaningful access to information reform, they have proven to continuously stall and delay important legislation to this very day. For the life of me, I cannot understand why they would do so.
Let us talk about other areas where access to information serves a useful purpose. I am not talking not about direct scandal and corruption. I am talking about the waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars. The most glaring example of how an ATI request has brought to the light the abuse of these dollars is our national gun registry.
My colleague, the member for Yorkton—Melville, several years ago repeatedly made access to information requests about the cost of the national gun registry. It took a long time, but eventually he was able to uncover the massive waste of taxpayer dollars that have gone into this boondoggle called the national gun registry. Had he not had the ability to receive this information through ATI requests, even though it was deliberately slow walked by the government, the Canadian public perhaps even today would not have realized the massive cost overruns that the program has cost Canadian taxpayers. The program was originally thought to only cost $2 million. It has escalated to close to $2 billion now.
If there is no more glaring example of why ATI, access to information, requests are necessary to protect the Canadian public and its taxpayers that is it. How many more examples of abuse of taxpayer dollars could we find out about if we had proper ATI legislation today? The problem is we do not.
Many crown corporations are exempted from access to information requests right now. We have heard of abuses by heads of crown corporations, whether they be Canada Post or the Canadian Mint, but we have not yet had the ability to file a formal access to information request and receive information from the government about our questions. Why? Because the access to information legislation does not cover all crown corporations. It does not cover foundations which have billions of dollars of Canadian taxpayer money sitting there. Not even the Auditor General can find out what is happening in those foundations. That is a travesty and it should not be allowed to happen.
Clearly, if we were to increase the level of access to information requests to include crown corporations, foundations and basically every public function that deals with taxpayer dollars, democracy would be far better served.
We understand, as per the motion, that there should be exemptions, cabinet confidentiality is one example. However, we can make exemptions as the motion purports. What we need to do is come together on this, realize, understand and agree that without the ability for governments to provide information when requested to the media, to the opposition or, more important, to the Canadian public, we will not be serving those very people who have elected us to this place.
Therefore, I hope every member of this assembly will vote in favour of the motion to show the Canadian public that they understand the meaning of transparency, democracy and accountability.