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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.

Topics

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12:05 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I think everyone here recognizes that the federal election has pretty much started already. Everyone is out of the starting gate. The starting pistol has been fired. We are seeing the Liberal government enjoying a multiple conversion on the road to Damascus regarding tax cuts, regarding virtually everything that is good and decent within a democracy.

I am concerned that should another party form the government in a minority or a majority, will the commitment to access to information follow from opposition status to government? No ruling government seems willing to accept the true scrutiny that comes from true transparency and accountability.

I am not questioning how sincere my colleagues in opposition are about this, but the government certainly was unwilling to introduce true accountability and transparency.

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12:05 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Thibault Bloc Rimouski—Témiscouata, QC

Mr. Speaker, I like having official government documents to tie into. Yesterday, we received and heard the Minister of Finance's economic statement. On page. 13 of the “Plan for Growth and Prosperity” under the heading “Building the Right Investment Environment” and the sub-heading “Driving Greater Productivity in Government” the minister says:

Getting government right is an important part of building the right environment for investment. The government must constantly strive to make its programs and services as efficient and cost-effective as possible.

He goes on—and this is of special interest in connection with this morning's topic:

It must also maintain the highest possible ethical standards and ensure that its operations are carried out in ways that enable Canadians to clearly see and assess what our government is doing and why.

I have a very simple question for my colleague from Winnipeg Centre, whom I thank for his speech. Does the hon. member not feel that, if the government were consistent, it would without hesitation come on side on the need for a thorough revamping of the Access to Information Act?

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12:05 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I think many Canadians are wondering about the disconnect between what the government says and what it actually does. The day of reckoning has arrived where we are starting to blow the whistle, as it were, on that disconnect.

We want to see the government members walk the talk about transparency and accountability. As recently as yesterday we heard the Minister of Finance again feature the government as being open and transparent, but yet introducing an economic update that is mind numbing in its complexity and it is incomprehensible to any observer. If this addiction to secrecy cannot be dealt with, then Canadians will demand better and a higher standard.

We have been waiting for over a decade. We have been waiting for 13 years. My colleague, the member for Cape Breton—Canso, pointed out that the Pope recently issued an apology to a group in Greece for an affront that occurred in the year 1260. By that standard we are not really waiting all that long. Thirteen years perhaps is not all that long to wait, but by the standards of what Canadians are used to, we have waited long enough. Whether it is this government that comes back in a minority situation again or a new party that forms the next government, this should be the first bill on a new legislative agenda, amending the Access to Information Act.

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12:10 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member mentioned at one point both the confidence of Canadians and our international partners in this democracy to function when we have things like the sponsorship scandal and a government still dragging its feet after more than a decade and unwilling to actually bring forward true transparency.

On the economic front, I have mentioned the Ridley terminal sale in British Columbia that has been mired in controversy and a lack of transparency in what the government is actually doing. It is a federal crown corporation worth $255 million that the government is trying to sell for $3 million and change which raises a lot of eyebrows in my region.

I am wondering if the member could comment on the impact of a government that holds its secret information so closely to its chest in terms of economic development that a lot of regions in our country depend upon.

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12:10 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I believe the secrecy has translated into lost opportunity on more than one level; first, the administration and control over our crown public assets; and, second, the lack of confidence in investors. For example, we do not know if $3 million is the best possible price we can get for an asset that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It would be useful to shine the light of day, shine some sunlight, on that particular deal. It is a good graphic illustration where freedom of information and the right to know may have a material benefit for Canadians.

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12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

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.

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12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the motion before the House is fairly sweeping and covers all crown corporations, officers of Parliament, foundations and all organizations that spend taxpayers' dollars or perform public functions.

I wonder if the member would care to comment on members of Parliament, understanding that there are obviously some privacy matters et cetera, and that MPs are not subject to the Access to Information Act, particularly with regard to their spending, other than general disclosures that have been agreed upon. If there is a true commitment, would the member comment on whether the documents with regard to the activities of a member of Parliament should also be subject to the same scrutiny?

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12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, that is a really good question because we are under scrutiny all the time. We have a disclosure form now that I filled out recently. I could not believe how much information I had to give to the public. My personal expenses and my personal life are out on the Internet for anybody to see or they could just go down to the office and go through that information. As for my offices and my staff, that is also public information and anyone at any time can easily access that information.

Therefore I do not feel we are in need of the same laws because the problem was the people making the decisions and having control of the money. I do not agree that members of Parliament have to fall under the same legislation but I do believe we are being watched very closely. We are being scrutinized, if not by the people who are out watching how we are spending our money, at least by the people at home, our constituents. It does not matter what I do, I always seem to have somebody questioning something about perhaps my office or what the wages are. We are very open so I do not think we are talking about the same thing in this motion.

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12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, one of the terms used in the motion today is public interest and it is used in the context where it provides a general public interest override for all exemptions in that the public interest should come before the secrecy of government.

It would appear, based on the motion, that, for instance, the military or CSIS might be covered. In fact, the Ethics Commissioner, who reports to the House and who is an officer of Parliament, would be covered by this expanded coverage. I wonder if the member would care to enlighten the House about what she understands to be public interest, for instance, the Ethics Commissioner who reports to Parliament and deals with matters of certain sensitivities and investigations, whether or not there are exemptions there that she would consider to override the public interest.

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12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, it is always a problem in any legislation to define public interest. I think we can go into any department and any minister's portfolio and sometimes those who think they are protecting the public interest are being lax and there are those also who sometimes are perhaps going too far to protect the public interest.

It is definitely a difficult term to define. I do agree that we would have to be very careful in defining it to ensure we do not jeopardize, in particular, our soldiers as was mentioned. I think there are probably times that it has to be defined or exemptions perhaps have to be made, and this motion does give us some direction.

We do, first and foremost, need to have the public interest in mind and many times some of the decisions that are made are not in the best interest of the public. However, on military and CSIS decisions we should be able to determine what is in the public interest. At least we have an opportunity with this motion to know what is in the best public interest. In situations such as the spending, one of the areas where we were going with this motion, is that the public interest has not been taken into account.

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November 15th, 2005 / 12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Menzies Conservative Macleod, AB

Mr. Speaker, I want to begin my remarks today with a truth that is very self-evident: the Liberal Party cannot be trusted to clean up its mess of corruption and scandal. Only a Conservative government, under the leadership of the hon. member for Calgary--Southwest, has the integrity and the plan to show Canadians that good government is still possible.

The legacy of 12 years of Liberal government will not just be the smear on the party of the sponsorship scandal. The sad truth is that all parliamentarians and holders of public office at all levels are now viewed by Canadians with such disdain and cynicism that it will take a very long time to regain their trust and respect. That is why I am proud to rise today to speak to the motion introduced by the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre.

In order to take the first steps forward toward regaining the trust of Canadians, the Conservative government is committed to introducing the federal accountability act. Everyone will notice I used the words “Conservative government” because I am optimistic about what will happen in the coming year.

There are two very important parts of this initiative that I would like to speak to today. The need for an open flow of information to Canadians can be secured by establishing a parliamentary budget office and the immediate need to provide Canadians strong, more transparent auditing and accountability laws for the federal government.

First, I would like to address the need to ensure truth in budgeting with a parliamentary budget office: create an independent parliamentary budget office to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation's finances and trends in the national economy; require government departments and agencies, including the Department of Finance, the Canada Revenue Agency and Statistics Canada, to provide accurate, timely information to the parliamentary budget office to ensure it has the information it needs to provide accurate analysis to Parliament; and ensure that government fiscal forecasts are updated quarterly and that they provide complete data for both revenue and spending forecasts.

Yesterday's shameful display of financial pretzel making was the ultimate example of how the Liberal government secretly gerrymanders the nation's finances.

Less than a year ago the Minister of Finance was crying poor. The cupboard was bare and every Canadian would just have to wait until the fiscal picture got better for any tax relief or increased investments in productivity and competitiveness. It turns out that all Canadians had to wait for was a dip in the Liberal polling numbers, as well as the release of the damning Gomery report.

Along comes the member for Wascana, a man, by the way, who was once the minister of agriculture and responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board and, I understand, represents a good number of farmers in southern Saskatchewan. He is a man who spent years telling Canadian farmers across the country that he would solve their problems and finally create a federal strategy for agriculture and agrifood, as well as for rural communities.

Yesterday's mini-budget was a perfect opportunity to make good on his commitments to agriculture. Farm incomes are at an all time low and producer groups from across the country have been beating a path to the minister's door asking for a real strategy to support Canada's farmers.

I was a grain producer for 30 years and it breaks my heart to hear that my neighbours are stretched to the breaking point, trying to decide if they can afford to pay their bills. No farmer wants to be paid a salary from the federal government to farm. All they want is to be able to make an honest living selling their products on the open market on a level playing field.

I am proud to say that the Conservative Party has been a loud supporter of Canada's farm and agrifood industries here at home and around the world. For example, I travelled to southwestern Ontario last week with my colleague from Selkirk—Interlake and the member for Essex to speak with Canadian corn producers, greenhouse growers and dairy producers. These producers told us of how U.S. farm subsidies were killing their markets. Grain buyers in Canada are filling facilities with U.S. corn and not allowing for delivery of Canadian corn. Harvest is not complete as a result and, as members have noticed, it is now snowing out there. There is no space for their corn. This is just the beginning of the concerns in the farm community.

How is it that the Liberal finance minister can announce a sizable surplus but no commitment to farmers is ever a priority for that party? That is why we need a parliamentary budget office. Canadians clearly cannot trust the government to tell the truth. By giving Canadians a real financial picture we will allow all sides to craft real and effective results.

We also need to designate the deputy minister of each government department or agency as the accounting officer for that department. The deputy would be responsible to Parliament for the departmental spending and administrative practices of his or her department. It would also require that in the event of a disagreement between a minister and deputy minister on a matter of administration, the minister must provide written instruction to the deputy minister and notify the Auditor General and Comptroller General of this disagreement.

This initiative will be an important element of a Conservative government's pledge to Canadians to treat their hard-earned tax dollars with respect.

By opening up the access to information laws to all government departments, agencies and crown corporations, Canadians could be confident that their money is not being wasted, is going where it is intended and is achieving the goals that Canadians deserve.

For example, earlier this year there were calls for a farm income aid package of at least $1.9 billion a year for three years to support Canadian producers as they face crippling foreign subsidies and artificially low commodity prices. The minister ended up announcing $1 billion, slightly more than half of what was requested from the industry. None of this money has even flowed to the farmers yet. Strong transparency and accountability laws would allow Canadians to know why the money is collecting dust in Ottawa instead of helping them to get on with business.

In media interviews and to anyone who would listen to him, the Liberal House leader threatened that a BSE package would be lost if an election were called. How arrogant do the Liberals have to be to blame the opposition for the Liberals' foot-dragging on farm aid programs? Canadian beef producers have been struggling to deal with the BSE crisis for over two years. Where was the government? Why is it only acting now?

The government has had 12 years to create and deliver comprehensive rural and farm programs. The legacy is clear. The APF, the agriculture policy framework, is a disaster. The CAIS program is unworkable and farm incomes continue to fall. Rural communities are suffering massive out-flux and these hard-working Canadians are being told they do not count in the Liberal world.

That is why opening up access to information laws to all government departments, agencies and crown corporations is so important. Canadians can be confident that their money is not being wasted, that it is going to where it is intended and that it is achieving those goals. After 12 years the Liberal government has perfected the slippery game of hide the money. Farmers are the ones paying the price.

In response to yesterday's budget, Bob Friesen the president of the CFA, said:

The last three years of Realized Net Incomes of farmers have been the lowest in recorded history and it is incomprehensible that the federal government has abandoned rural Canada and not supported Canadian farm families at this time.

Along with my colleagues on this side of the House, we pledge to Canadians that the Conservative Party will not allow their tax dollars to be collected without thoughtful reason. We pledge that once collected they will be spent with care and efficiency. We pledge to tell them how, where and why they are being spent.

Canadians can take this pledge and this motion to the bank. If Canadians are unsatisfied with what we tell them, they will have full and free access to the information regarding how federal policies and programs are handled.

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12:35 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his comments and his remarks. In reading the motion put forward by the Conservative Party, it gives me a sense of hope that we may be able to smash down the barrier put up by 13 years of Liberal obstinance and stubbornness on the issue of access to information.

Would the member give us an indication if his sentiments are shared by his entire caucus and the leadership of his party? We are at the death rattle of the government and we will witness a new government being formed. If a new government is put in place in the coming days, is the member able to commit to us that his government will put in place meaningful access to information reform as the number one priority item in a new regime of a new Conservative minority government?

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12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Menzies Conservative Macleod, AB

Mr. Speaker, I like the direction in which the question is headed. I tend to agree with the member that it is absolutely time for a new government.

Let me assure the hon. member that every one of my colleagues to whom I have spoken speaks only with great disgust when they look across the floor and see what has happened with the lack of accountability. Everyone in my party is determined and committed that there needs to be a process put in place, such as the one put forward in this motion, that will bring back the relevance of elected officials. We are accountable to those who elect us.

We believe we are not able to take taxpayer dollars and do whatever we want with them, to put them back into party coffers and spend them on buying boats. That will not be the culture of this party. The Conservative Party will be accountable to the electorate.

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12:40 p.m.

Bloc

Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to put a question to the Conservative member. One of the major proposals made by the Bloc Québécois is to have the Access to Information Act based on an effective whistleblower protection system to ensure that information released is not restricted by political considerations. I think this is a very important element.

Something we learned in the context of the sponsorship program, which I consider fundamental, is that a number of communications agencies that no doubt received grants or sums of money were not necessarily uncovered by previous inquiries.

People are afraid to speak up. These agencies were receiving contracts and are afraid of not getting any more from the federal government for communications or advertising. So, not all the information comes out in a scandal like the sponsorship scandal. It would seem that people are afraid, for political considerations, of losing contracts if they say something.

So, how would a Conservative government resolve this situation?

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12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Ted Menzies Conservative Macleod, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is fundamental that those who are willing to step forward are able to do so. We have seen recently where that has seriously impacted one individual's life. That would be the individual who took a step forward, knowing full well that he was not protected at that time. He paid the price for doing so. That individual needs to be recognized and rewarded rather than penalized for blowing the whistle on what he recognized as inappropriate use of taxpayer money. We need good solid legislation in place. That would be one of the initiatives a new Conservative government would put forward, as most bills will soon die on the order paper.

The Conservative Party suggests that this protection is needed to ensure that there is accountability for any government that is in place. We would be very supportive of that type of legislation.

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12:40 p.m.

Mississauga—Brampton South Ontario

Liberal

Navdeep Bains LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine.

Today's discussion is with respect to the opposition motion regarding reforms to cabinet confidences in the Access to Information Act and the Canada Evidence Act. By motion, the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre stated that in his opinion, the Access to Information Act should be amended to, among other things, establish a cabinet confidence exclusion subject to review by the Information Commissioner, provide a general public interest override for all exemptions and make all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test.

I will be voting against the motion, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to certain elements of the proposals set out by the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre.

On April 5, the Minister of Justice presented a discussion paper on the subject of access reform to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. In his opening remarks, relating to the issue of cabinet confidences, the Minister of Justice noted that it was an item “where current protections in the Access to Information Act have been the subject of much criticism and dramatic reform proposals”. A discussion paper provides useful background that should be considered carefully before proposing reforms to the cabinet confidence regime.

The pressure to reform the cabinet confidence regime by making them subject to the ATIA flows in part from the fact that neither the Information Commissioner nor the courts may examine a record request under ATIA in order to determine whether or not the government has properly identified the document as cabinet confidence as defined by ATIA.

The federal government's approach to the protection of cabinet confidences is unique. In the provinces and other Westminster-type jurisdictions, the law on cabinet confidence protection provides for reviewability and balancing by the courts and administrative tribunals, and in some cases for the examination of withheld information.

Both the Information Commissioner and the access to information review task force have recommended that cabinet confidences no longer be excluded from the Access to Information Act. Instead, they recommend that documents be subject to a mandatory exemption under the act.

While the Information Commissioner proposes that he should have the power to examine a withheld record to ascertain whether or not it is in fact a cabinet confidence, the task force recommended that only a judge of the federal court be empowered to make such determinations.

The Information Commissioner and the task force also advocate narrowing the scope of the cabinet confidence by confining it to the information which would reveal the deliberations of cabinet or among ministers and by reducing the maximum period of protection from disclosure of 20 to 15 years.

At this time, the government is also reviewing the proposed legislation of the Office of the Information Commissioner, entitled the open government act, which appears to reflect most of the elements of the motion which has been brought forth by the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre.

The importance of confidentiality for the inner workings of government at cabinet level has been widely recognized by Parliament and the courts. Indeed, the convention of cabinet confidentiality was expressly recognizing Canada at the time of change that was headed by the Right Hon. St. Laurent to the time period of the Right Hon. Diefenbaker in 1957. Furthermore, in its 2002 decision in Babcock, the Supreme Court of Canada referred to cabinet confidentiality as essential to good government.

The cabinet confidence exclusion was designed to protect key political functions of the executive, long recognized as essential components of our Westminster-style of parliamentary democracy. Collective decision making by ministers in cabinet ensures the solidarity of the government as a collective body which is responsible to Parliament. It also requires that the cabinet speak with one voice. Thus, if ministers are able to make decisions collectively, the privacy of their deliberations on government policy must be protected.

During the April 5 appearance before the committee, the Minister of Justice stated that the status quo was not an option by the government and that it was committed to substantial reform of both the Access to Information Act and the Canada Evidence Act. The government believes that any reform to the federal cabinet confidence regime must start with CEA and follow with consequential amendments to Access to Information Act and to the Privacy Act.

The government's April 2005 proposals included narrowing the definition in the CEA, as well as in the ATIA and PA, to focus on core deliberations of cabinet. Currently, these acts do not define cabinet confidences but provide a list of examples.

The legislation in most provinces focuses on protecting the substance of cabinet deliberations, which we believe is the better approach.

The definition would continue to cover only information such as submissions made to cabinet, deliberations between ministers, cabinet decisions and draft legislation. This would allow more documents formerly considered as cabinet confidences to be brought under the acts, subject to other exemptions that might apply. For example, agendas of cabinet could be disclosed, unless they revealed the substance of deliberations of cabinet. Furthermore, the government agreed with the task force that the Federal Court should be able to review the Clerk's decisions whether a record was of cabinet confidence.

The Canada Evidence Act provides a judicial review by the Federal Court to hear challenges to the Clerk's decision to issue a certificate by weighing the public interests at stake, public interest disclosure and parallel regimes for Access to Information Act and Privacy Act, but without public interest balancing.

By allowing reviewability by designated judges of the Federal Court, it would give this specific forum the opportunity to build expertise and to ensure a consistent approach.

With respect to the period of protection, the government believed that it should remain at 20 years, based on the following. In other jurisdictions, namely, at the provincial level, the period of protection varies between 15 to 30 years. In British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon, Nova Scotia it is 15 years. In Ontario it is 20 years. In Quebec and Saskatchewan it is 25 years. In Manitoba it is 30 years. In the United Kingdom the period is 35 years.

The government also proposed to maintain the exclusion of cabinet confidences from the Access to Information Act and CEA. Exclusion means that unless it is overturned by a court, a decision that is a record is considered cabinet confidence is final.

The Information Commissioner cannot examine the record to determine whether he agrees with the decision. The Information Commissioner would, however, have the power to go to the Federal Court to challenge the determinations made by the government that information falls within a definition of cabinet confidence.

As secretary to the cabinet, the Clerk is best placed to determine what information constitutes a cabinet confidence. He or she has institutional knowledge. The Information Commissioner does not possess the same institutional support or expertise.

The Clerk is the custodian of cabinet papers. The convention of access to papers of former ministers, which is based on British precedent and practice, appoints him or her as such. Based on this convention, the Clerk has a duty to ensure that a new ministry does not have access to the cabinet papers of the preceding one. Under this convention, members of incoming ministry agree not to have access to the confidential documents and papers of preceding ministers. These agreements are signed by the incoming and outgoing prime ministers.

By qualifying cabinet confidences as exclusions as opposed to exemptions, Parliament clearly has recognized the importance of the principle of cabinet confidentiality. If the Information Commissioner is of the view that the Clerk has not properly decided that something is a cabinet confidence, the Information Commissioner can go before the Federal Court. The proposal would make this clear in a way that was not the case before.

As I said earlier, the government believed that the proposals it put forward in its April 2005 discussion paper would enhance transparency while safeguarding principle of cabinet confidentiality.

As we know, the Information Commissioner has proposed reforms to the cabinet confidence regime consistent with the motion of the member who brought this forward today. The Information Commissioner would make cabinet confidence subject to the act. Although they would be protected from disclosure by mandatory exemption, it would be possible to override this protection against disclosure in the public interest. This means that any cabinet confidence could be disclosed if it were in the public interest to do so.

In addition to cabinet confidences, the act requires consequential amendments to the Canada Evidence Act, the Privacy Act and other statutes that refer to confidences of cabinet. These necessary amendments have not been considered by either the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre or the Information Commissioner. This may seem like a small point but it underlines why the motion of the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre cannot be accepted.

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12:50 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the speech by the parliamentary secretary. Now that we have the official party line from my colleague, what does he really think? I would like to know what his gut feelings are about the freedom of information laws as they affect the larger picture of the health of our democracy.

I did not hear a lot of passion in his comments. They were more technical answers to the specific language in the motion put forward by the Conservative Party. I am wondering if the member shares the passion of other members of Parliament as they spoke about how critically important and vital freedom of information is to the health and well-being of our democratic system and how the paucity of freedom of information has led to the culture of secrecy that has allowed corruption to flourish.

I would like to hear from my colleague in his own words if he shares our view that the single most important thing we could do in these twilight days of the 38th Parliament would be to reform the access to information laws completely so that freedom of information, transparency and accountability are no longer buzzwords in Ottawa, but in actual fact are practised.

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12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Navdeep Bains Liberal Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the fact that I was very calm with my remarks does not mean that I lack passion or interest in this very important topic.

There is no doubt in my mind that freedom of information is a key pillar of our democracy and is a key pillar of how our government functions. We have a responsibility to recognize the openness of government but also to recognize the confidentiality elements of it with respect to the function of the executive branch of government. The discussion paper brought forth by the justice minister clearly outlines the various components of this very complex subject matter. It also takes into account the notion that we need to consult and further address these issues with very important stakeholders who have a vested interest to make sure that a decision we make is in the best interests of Canadians.

I might not speak loudly or use body language such as flailing my hands up and down, but that does not mean I lack passion for this very important subject. Clearly, freedom of information and access to information are very important components of our democracy. They are things which the government champions very clearly and it has made major reforms.

We all acknowledge that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We are all working toward those changes, but we are doing so in a more professional manner and in a manner that reflects proper public consultation to make sure that we make the best decisions for Canadians.

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12:55 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Bloc Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have a comment and a question for my colleague.

Does he not find it a bit odd that the point of the debate today—as he knows—and what the Conservative motion seeks, is to use the Information Commissioner's bill? The hon. member is a member of our committee. Our committee had asked the commissioner to introduce a bill. It is a new committee, formed during this Parliament. When we first looked at this issue, we discovered Bill C-201, which was introduced during the last Parliament by a Liberal member and almost entirely re-introduced by our colleague from Winnipeg Centre. It was adopted with a few changes by the information commissioner.

Does my colleague not find it a bit odd that the Minister of Justice, who had even promised the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre that he would introduce a bill, decided to submit a framework for action instead? Does he agree with me that this was nothing more than a diversion by the Minister of Justice? Is he doing this to continue to allow crown corporations tainted by the sponsorship scandal—Canada Post, Via Rail and others—not to be subject to the Access to Information Act? Does he not find it a bit odd that the Minister of Justice did not take advantage of this to be more transparent and to bring forward a bill instead of a framework for action?

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12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Navdeep Bains Liberal Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I understand the concerns brought forth by the member. The member sits in committee with me and we have had the opportunity to examine this issue in great detail. The member would have to agree that during our consultations with the Minister of Justice and other individuals who came before the committee, including the Information Commissioner, as we started to discuss the complexities of this particular subject matter, we saw the need to further investigate certain elements of it. I think he should have an appreciation for that. It is very important that we acknowledge that.

The discussion paper for me is not something we should take lightly. It is a very important part of the evolution of this important element we are discussing with regard to access to information and making sure that we bring about proper reforms.

I believe, as the member does, that we all want the same things. We want openness, transparency and accountability. We want to make sure it is done in a fashion that respects the laws and makes sure that cabinet can function and that we can govern in a fashion that is in the best interests of Canadians.

We cannot ignore the complexity of this issue. We need to be mindful of that. My remarks reflected on cabinet confidentiality and the components brought forth by the Information Commissioner and some of the concerns and reservations I had. I just outlined those and I hope that he takes them into account when we eventually vote on the motion.

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1 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Liberal Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, for agreeing to share his time with me.

I will be voting against this motion which has been presented by the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre. Part of the reason is I find it is problematic and that it is precipitous of a proper process of discussion and consultation.

His motion proposes certain amendments to the Access to Information Act. We have heard members on both sides of the House, in particular the Bloc member who just asked a question of the parliamentary secretary, say that this motion virtually mirrors suggestions that were made by the Information Commissioner in the proposed legislation he brought forth at the request of the access committee.

Specifically, I intend to address the proposal that a general public interest override be provided for all exemptions in the act and the proposal that all exemptions be made discretionary and subject to an injury test. Those are exactly the recommendations that the Information Commissioner provided to the access committee in his proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act.

Indirectly, the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre undoubtedly raises the issue of reform to the Access to Information Act in general. I will not bother to give background information. Everyone knows the Minister of Justice tabled a discussion paper before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Everyone knows there were previous private members' bills. One had been tabled by a former Liberal member, which was then taken up by the NDP member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre. His bill virtually mirrored the private member's bill that had been tabled by John Bryden when he was a Liberal member of Parliament. The Minister of Justice had committed to bring forth real reform to the access to information legislation. We all know that.

The question is, what is the nature of this particular motion? As I have said and as has been admitted by members of the opposition, it virtually mirrors the proposed amendments that the Information Commissioner brought before the access committee at the request of the access committee. I am a member of that committee.

The Access to Information Act states clearly that Canadians should have a right of access to government records “in accordance with the principles that...necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific”. The Access to Information Act in fact contains 12 exemptions. Let us look at what the nature of these exemptions are. Because the member's motion would make all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test, it is important for members to know what the act actually says now.

The act contains 12 exemptions. It also provides that certain records are indeed excluded from its reach. These excluded records, as we heard from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, include material that is publicly available and cabinet confidences. Of the 12 exemptions, currently eight are already discretionary. Two of the 12 exemptions are mandatory but the two that are mandatory allow for discretion in certain circumstances.

For example, the exemption that protects information given to the Canadian government in confidence by the government of another country is mandatory. I think there would be, or should be, little disagreement among Canadians and members in the House that Canada has an obligation to take great care with regard to confidential information that belongs to other governments and that was provided under the seal of confidentiality to our government. However, this exemption also provides for discretion where the foreign government consents to the release of its own information. This is good sense.

Another one of the 12 exemptions is also mandatory, but it already provides for a public interest override.

The point I am trying to make in going through these 12 exemptions is that, were one simply to keep oneself to the actual motion that has been provided, one would go away from reading that motion with the impression that under the current access to information legislation all of the exemptions are mandatory, that there is no discretion with any of those mandatory exemptions. That is not the case.

To come back to my point, there is also the issue of one of the 12 exemptions which has a public interest override. That, for instance, refers to the exemption that protects confidential commercial information given to the government by a third party. Here again there should be no argument. There is no doubt that the government again has to be extremely careful with the confidential commercial information that belongs to a corporation.

At the same time, this exemption already provides for a public interest override in relation to public health, public safety or the protection of the environment. If one takes the time to read the discussion paper that the minister tabled before the access committee, the Minister of Justice raises the possibility of expanding this existing public interest override to include consumer protection.

Finally, there is one of the 12 exemptions that is mandatory and does not provide for discretion, nor does it provide for a public interest override. I would like to explain to the House and to members of the Canadian public exactly what this is.

The exemption I am referring to makes a connection between the Access to Information Act and certain confidentiality clauses in other statutes or in other laws. For example, the confidentiality clauses in our Statistics Act and the Income Tax Act are linked to this exemption that does not allow for discretion or a public interest override.

Most Canadians, and indeed most members of the House, if they stop to think and reflect on this, would agree that it makes perfectly good sense not to allow a particular government department the discretion to disclose personal information that Statistics Canada rigorously and assiduously keeps confidential.

As someone who is a taxpayer, as are all of the members of the House, because we make more money than the personal exemption so we pay taxes, we would also want to be assured that the information we provide through our annual tax statement to our federal government remain confidential.

I can remember a debate taking place in the House precisely about the opportunity for or the appropriateness of Revenue Canada, now the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, CCRA, being allowed to provide some personal information to, for instance, what used to be Human Resources Canada. There was a major debate in the House about it.

Therefore, I think that when one looks at the 12 exemptions carefully, one has to admit that discretion is already allowed under the existing statutes and there is also a public interest override that exists.

I find it interesting that a member of the access to information committee, of which I am a member as well, would put forward as gospel a motion that mirrors recommendations made by the Information Commissioner when the Information Commissioner himself said on the record that he had not consulted with any stakeholders before making his recommendations.

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1:10 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Bloc Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am trying to understand the position of my colleague, who is on the committee and has given us his Liberal interpretation of access to information. In fact, the motion by the Conservative Party actually mirrors the bill the committee called for. It asked the commissioner to draft the bill. Part (c) of the motion we are discussing today refers to establishing “a duty on public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions”.

When it comes to the exceptions, major and minor, my colleague has referred to, they all need to be discussed when we are studying the bill and calling witnesses. We are talking about the overall rule here. I will read an excerpt from the presentation made by Commissioner Reid, particularly the part concerning the necessity of records from public servants. When he spoke to us on October 25 in committee, he said the following:

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 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.

Let us keep in mind that Bill C-201 came from Mr. Bryden. So the independent analyst is telling us that there is no longer any exchange of written documents in the federal government; people no longer put anything in writing, they just talk. Denis calls Paul, or Tom, Dick or Harry calls Paul, or whatever, but nothing in writing. People keep saying “Don't write me, call me”. That is what he means by the oral culture.

He goes on to say:

The failure by public officials to be professional in creating records is also undermining the work of Parliament, the Auditor General, the National Archivist, the police and judicial inquiries. Conducting governance by winks and nods simply leads to poor decision-making, inept administration and corruption.

Here is my question for my colleague. Might she, by not wanting to debate this and not supporting the opposition in this serious undertaking of making access to information available to all, not be defending this culture of secrecy and corruption within the Liberal government?

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1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Liberal Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I must say that I am quite disturbed by the comments and observations or claims that my colleague in the Bloc just made. It is not that I have a problem with part of the motion introduced by the Conservatives, or that I am not sympathetic or favourably disposed to another part of the motion. The problem with this motion is that it contains five completely different components.

I agree with taking the necessary steps to ensure that an oral culture does not develop in the public service. But when I look at another part of this motion, which talks about making all exemptions discretionary and subject to an injury test, I have a problem with that. So this is what I spoke about for ten minutes. If I had had the time to speak for 40 minutes, I could have touched on all five components in the motion. Maybe it would have been easier if the Conservative member, instead of trying to bundle together all the recommendations of the Information Commissioner, who admits that he did not consult any of the parties that might have been interested in reforming this legislation, had taken just one of the recommendations. Then we might have had different positions.

But when he bundles several recommendations together in a single motion, I have no other choice than to concentrate on one of the components. I decided to concentrate on the exemptions because they are quite problematic. His motion implies that the existing exemptions are not discretionary, which is false. So I decided to concentrate on this. I reject his criticism and cannot accept people claiming on the basis of this choice that I am not concerned about the changing culture in the public service, which is tending toward a more oral culture. That is not true and I reject your criticism. That would have been another way of—

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1:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

Order, please. I would like to remind the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine that I did not criticize her. I would therefore ask her to direct her comments through the Chair. She still has 10 seconds.

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1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Liberal Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is true that you did not criticize me but a Bloc member did on the basis of false claims. It is not the first time that this has happened. That is why we already had a debate on a question of privilege. So it does not surprise me.