Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre for introducing today's motion and giving us the opportunity in perhaps the twilight days of this Parliament to debate such a critically important issue for the health and well-being of our democracy.
I do not think I am overstating things by saying that freedom of information is the oxygen that democracy breathes. The single most significant thing we could do in this 38th Parliament would be to amend in a significant way our access to information laws and to strengthen the concept of freedom of information in our society.
I also compliment and thank some of the other members of Parliament who are dedicated to this goal. My colleague from Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel has been a tireless champion of this issue. My colleague from Mississauga South, who I am sure will be speaking to this motion, has dedicated much of his career to trying to drag the government kicking and screaming to embrace the concept of a regime of freedom of information.
It is fitting that other members have paid tribute to former member of Parliament Mr. John Bryden. Without exaggeration, he dedicated literally most of his time here as a parliamentarian to this issue. He was a member of Parliament for 10 years or so. Coming from the background of a journalist and an academic, he was a tireless crusader and champion on this very subject.
I cannot imagine the frustration he must have felt as he raised this issue over and over again with his own caucus colleagues, with his own Liberal government bureaucrats and was thwarted, undermined and frustrated every step of the way. Yet unilaterally, he formed his own ad hoc parliamentary committee of members of Parliament when he could not get his own government to embrace this concept. It is fitting that we recognize John Bryden today. He pushed the envelope as far as he possibly could within the limitations as a Liberal member of Parliament. He then crossed the floor thinking he might have better luck with the official opposition. He then sat as an independent and now he is no longer with us.
Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. The freedom of information laws are the sunlight of politics, the natural enemy of the culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish. It is hard to overstate what a central place freedom of information holds in our political structure. The members of the House of Commons justice committee spoke about Canada's Access to Information Act as holding a similar significance to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court recently referred to our access to information laws as quasi-constitutional. That is what we are dealing with. That is the weight and import of the debate that we are having here today.
Clearly though, too many senior officials in Ottawa subscribe to the views of Yes Minister 's Sir Humphrey who said to his boss, “You can have good government or you can have open government, but Mr. Prime Minister, you cannot have both”. That seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the Liberal government today.
While transparency and accountability have been the buzzwords of the day in Ottawa, there are clearly many who resist them in practice. As I have learned in my exercise along these lines, very few government insiders are truly fans of the public's right to know. When members of the public submit requests for government information, too often these bureaucrats undermine the intent of the Access to Information Act by imposing unreasonable delays, performing inadequate searches, or charging prohibitive fees, and by opposing the expansion of the act as we have seen with the efforts of Mr. Bryden.
It is my greatest regret in my political life to date that I had it within my hands to change the access to information laws. I will back up a little. When John Bryden ceased being a member of Parliament, I adopted his bill and re-submitted it under my own name. In fact, it was the first private member's bill introduced in this Parliament, Bill C-201, a substantial overhaul of Canada's access to information laws.
Then, as fate and fortune would have it, my name was drawn in the private members' lottery and a bill in my name would be debated at a very early stage. I believe I was fourth in the order of precedence. Not only did I have this bill to which I was very committed listed in my name but my name came up in the order of precedence.
This would have been back in November 2004. We could have started debating that bill. It could have gone to committee where it could have been amended and improved, but there would have been more than ample time to actually put in place changes to the Access to Information Act. It would have changed the way we did business forever in this country.
There was widespread support. Not only did we have the support of all the opposition parties for that bill because of the work that John Bryden had done in the previous Parliament, but we also had the support of 40 or 50 courageous Liberal backbenchers who could not live with themselves if they did not support this initiative. We were well on our way to passing Bill C-201, having it become law and implementing it.
At that time the Liberal government, realizing the horse was out of the barn and this was going to become law, came to me and said it was going to do this anyway, that it was going to do it better and there was no stopping this idea whose time had come. The government said it would introduce everything that was in my bill and then some and if there was anything it forgot in the draft copy, I would have a role in making it at least as good as the one I proposed and maybe better. That was the government's commitment to me, that if I withdrew my bill, it would introduce a comparable bill which would go ahead.
That gave me the opportunity to choose another initiative to which I am dedicated, the bankruptcy bill. That was my choice for my private member's initiative. It was a tempting offer but, as I say, it became the biggest regret in my professional political life to date. Trusting the Liberals was the biggest single mistake that I have made in my political life to date because as we now know, in the fullness of time, they had no intention of introducing a bill.
Frankly, I do not blame the Minister of Justice. I think the Minister of Justice was sincere when he came to me and promised absolutely that there would be such legislation, but I think he underestimated the push back from the senior bureaucrats. I think he underestimated how much the Liberals actually opposed the idea of open government and freedom of information. I think he underestimated just how much the bureaucrats resist this type of thing.
Imagine if things had unfolded as planned. Many times in other speeches today we have heard people recognize the contribution that the Auditor General makes in keeping us on the straight and narrow. We rely heavily on the Office of the Auditor General to investigate and unearth misuse and maladministration of funds, not so much the actual malfeasance of the sponsorship scandal.
Imagine, instead of having one Auditor General that we had 30 million auditors general. That would be the effect of having true freedom of information laws, because every engaged citizen could play a role in keeping government honest. Government would not dare deviate from the straight and narrow because it would know it would be under the scrutiny of 30 million Canadians and a free press that would be able to analyze and assess the inner workings of government. Instead of one Auditor General we could have had 30 million auditors general and that would be good government.
Speaking of the role a free press plays in our efforts toward transparency and accountability, it would be wrong not to recognize the significance that the current Access to Information Act played in unearthing the sponsorship scandal, which will ultimately bring down the government in a few short days.
We should acknowledge that it was a simple access to information request that revealed the original scam, as it were, the fraud that was sponsorship scandal. It was in fact a Globe and Mail journalist, Daniel Leblanc, who originally filed that access to information request. Further requests were filed by people like Campbell Clark. I believe there were half a dozen journalists involved, including Brian Laghi and a number of other journalists. We should express our gratitude to them for helping keep government accountable.
All too often now when access to information requests are filed we get back a pile of blacked out pages. The information is incomplete. There is edited information. That information is rationed out to us as if we have to beg for it in the first place and then somebody else arbitrarily decides that the information will not be released.
The recommendations put forward in the bill that would have been law by now, Bill C-201, would have pretty much embraced the opposition motion that we are debating today. It would have allowed coverage of the act to all crown corporations. To me it is crazy that only about 60 of Canada's 246 crown agencies and corporations are subject to the Access to Information Act. I can get all the information I want on the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, but I cannot get any information on VIA Rail or Canada Post. The places that have billion dollar budgets are excluded. We have all seen what that can lead to.
Again, it is this culture of secrecy that allows corruption to flourish. VIA Rail and Canada Post were directly implicated in the sponsorship scandal. That is why their CEOs' heads had to roll. At the Royal Canadian Mint, people are getting fired right, left and centre because of their role. If we had had adequate access to information laws in place, we could have been spared not only the financial loss associated with the sponsorship scandal but all the grinding humiliation associated with it as well as the loss of the confidence of the Canadian public in our institutions.
Let me say again that amid an otherwise thin legislative agenda from this government, the single most important thing it could have done would have been a meaningful reform of access to information law.
Canada's information officer, John Reid, put this in one of his many presentations to Parliament. We should pause here to say that another champion of freedom of information is our current information officer, Mr. John Reid. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for having the courage to use his office to call upon government to do what is right. Government has to listen. In one of his appeals to Parliament, he said, “In one way or another, all the checks and balances designed to limit abuses of government power” are meaningless unless there is “access by outsiders to governments' insider information....A government, and a public service, which holds tight to a culture of secrecy is a government and public service ripe for abuse”.
Truer words have never been spoken. We should acknowledge that Mr. Reid has put forward this substantial document and has brought it to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics as a recommendation for reform to the bill. It goes beyond what Bill C-201 was calling for. I am the first to admit that Bill C-201 was not perfect.
One of the key and fundamental points that Mr. Reid brings to the table is that if we are going to allow better access to government documents, we must make sure that those government documents do in fact exist. In other words, one of the points he brought forward under his idea and under his bill, the open government act, is that it would become an offence to fail to keep adequate records. The last thing we want to do is drive information underground so that the government can avoid an access to information request being filed. In other words, we need documentation.
We should hearken back to what Auditor General Sheila Fraser first said when she was commenting on the sponsorship scandal. What struck her first as they began their audit investigation was the “appalling lack of documentation”. I believe those were the words she used.
There are two significant quotes of hers. One was that senior government officials “broke just about every rule in the book”. Second only to that, and what rings true to me, is the phrase “appalling lack of documentation”. People who do not want to be caught do not put anything in writing, so as we move forward with calling for amendments to this act, we must be cognizant of the fact that it has to be considered an offence to fail to record significant information.
I know that people who are more knowledgeable than I have dealt with this bill in great detail, but I have become a convert. In the time that I have spent studying this bill and working on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, of which I am a vice-chair, I have come to the conclusion that this is the single most important thing we can do.
By extension, Canada has a role to play in helping to clean up developing nations and democracies of the culture of corruption that holds those countries back. We also have to put our own backyard in order first before we have any credibility on the international stage. As we lend help and support to developing nations, we should first put together a transparency and accountability regime that we can be proud of and point to by example.
In actual fact, we have fallen in the international standard. I believe there is a chart kept by Transparency International, in which Canada enjoyed at one time the number four position in the world as being the most open government. We have fallen way behind. I believe Canada fell 16 positions after the sponsorship scandal was revealed.
The international community knows that there are transparency issues in this country. That has an effect on confidence, both investor confidence and the confidence of the electorate. There is a profound number of layers and levels to the benefits associated with genuine freedom of information and access to information.
It would take a combination of courage and self-confidence for this government to move forward with meaningful access to information amendments, but I can tell members that the benefits we would reap would be immeasurable. Not only is there the finding and revealing of evidence of corruption that may from time to time take place, there is also just the simple maladministration or abuse of funds. That may not be criminal, but revealing it may in fact be a cost saving measure. Many of these issues that could be revealed by tighter scrutiny would be an ultimate cost saving.
The strengthening of the health and well-being of our democracy would be one of those less tangible benefits that we could all enjoy. Restoring the trust of a jaded electorate is one of those benefits that is difficult to measure.
As Mr. Bryden dedicated much of his career to this issue and champions such as John Reid are calling upon Parliament to address this issue without haste, it is fitting that in the twilight days of the 38th Parliament the House of Commons should be seized with this important and compelling issue.
I wish there were more Liberal members present to take note of the appeals made by the majority of the members of the House of Commons today. I can only hope that this issue will resonate from this day forward into the next Parliament. Perhaps the first bill introduced in the next Parliament will also be comprehensive reform of the Access to Information Act. It could end up being the most significant and lasting legacy of this or subsequent Parliaments.