I thank hon. members for their recognition but it was not my bill. It was a composite effort from all members of Parliament who are interested in this issue. Many on the Liberal side and the opposition side sat on a special subcommittee that Mr. Bryden put together for that very reason.
I think it is significant to note that Bill C-201 was the first bill, government or private, introduced in the 38th Parliament, which is why it is numbered Bill C-201. I think that is fitting because it is the single most important thing we could do to improve government.
If we had passed no other piece of legislation in this 38th Parliament, Canada would have been a better place had we passed Bill C-201. I say that without any hesitation. I do not say that to pat myself on the back. It is simply the conclusion that I have come to the more I study how critically important freedom of information is. We should not use that term lightly. We should reflect on the weight of those words. Freedom of information is a cornerstone of any western democracy.
In anticipation of speaking I was looking at some notes and reading something a history professor had to say. He states, “Secrecy has been the default rule of government for centuries. Revolutions in England in 1688 and in France in 1789 slowly overturned the absolute rule of monarchs and ushered in the right to free speech and the legislative process of law-making was open to public scrutiny. But within the bowels of the bureaucracy secrecy was still very much the rule and remains so to this day”.
This was stated by the author of Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age which is to be published this year. He goes on to state, “As modern governments expanded their operations and reach, government clerks evolved into bureaucrats with extraordinary new powers to shape the content of government policy and secrecy became the rule of the day. Secrecy became the new absolute power”.
That is a worrisome thought.
In the last couple of weeks I am sure we all noticed a survey, the results of which were on the front pages of 45 newspapers across the country. It was sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Newspaper Association and was entitled “Access denied”.
These journalists conducted a comprehensive survey of every municipal, provincial and the federal government to find out just how easy it is to get access to information under the current regime that exists. Guess where the federal government ranked in their survey? There is no big surprise here. It ranked dead last.
I believe the Province of Alberta ranked first, where 93% of all access to information requests were fulfilled to the satisfaction of the applicant. They were not always completely filled but they were filled to the satisfaction of the applicant unless there were reasonable grounds, such as national security or personal privacy, that the information could not be shared.
Manitoba, I am proud to say, my home province, ranked second, where 88% of all applications for information were filled to the satisfaction of the applicant.
Guess where the federal government wound up on that survey? Twenty-five percent of all access to information requests were filled to the satisfaction of the applicant. That is less than one-quarter.
Open government can and does exist. Two of the most successful provincial governments in the country have no problem living up to the principles of open government.
The federal government, however, is slammed shut with access denied. We do not have the right to know, no matter what it says on paper. Notwithstanding the fact that we have an officer of Parliament charged with the enforcement of the Access to Information Act, we cannot get that information. It is like giving people directions and then telling them that they cannot get there from here. Well we cannot get the information that we deserve as Canadian taxpayers in this particular regime.
Mr. John Reid, Canada's outgoing Information Commissioner, made a very poignant statement recently when he said:
In one way or another, all the checks and balances designed to limit abuses of government power are dependent upon there being access by outsiders to governments’ insider information.
A public service which holds tight to a culture of secrecy is a public service ripe for abuse.
We have graphic evidence of that before us daily in the House of Commons. We could spend all of our time chasing what the government likes to call “rogue bureaucrats”, or trying to plug the random ad hoc examples of abuse when we are lucky enough to stumble across them, or we could go to the root of the problem and wipe the slate clean. We could shine the disinfectant of sunlight on this culture of corruption that exists. If it is a powerful disinfectant, we could expose this and let the free democracy in which we live do its job to cleanse corruption from our system.
We have an example of how we might do that, which has been lovingly crafted by my former colleague, John Bryden, into Bill C-201. Let me give a bit of the sad history of what happened to Bill C-201 and where it is languishing today.
Not only was I the first one to table a bill in Parliament, government or private member, on the very first day that I could, a bill that had broad cross party support from all of the parties in the House of Commons, but then, by the greatest of good fortune, my name was drawn in the private members' lottery as the fourth bill to be debated in this 38th Parliament.
The government found itself with a real problem. The Liberals had a minority government, they had a bill they were deathly afraid of and they had a private member with an opportunity to debate the bill in four day's time. They sent out emissaries to approach me and, very wisely, chose one of the Liberals who I have great admiration and respect for, the current Minister of Justice, to be the emissary.
The minister told me that the government had every intention of introducing all the things I was calling for in my bill and that if I would withdraw my bill, take it off the Order Paper, agree not to have it debated in the House and subsequently passed, the government would introduce comparable legislation at least as good if not better in this session of Parliament. That was the commitment made.
Having not just fallen off the turnip truck, I wanted to have that confirmed so I pressed for specifics and details. I received, “Yes, this will be in there; yes, the crown corporations will be there; yes, cabinet confidences within reason will be in there; yes, all of the good things that were crafted laboriously over a decade in Bill C-201 will be included in government legislation and it will be prioritized to be in this session of Parliament”.
That was in October 2004. We now find ourselves in June 2005. The months started ticking by. Department of Justice officials produced bill after bill but we are still waiting for access to information legislation which was supposed to be priority number one.
Six months later, at the access to information committee, with great fanfare and pomp and circumstance, the Minister of Justice tabled at that committee, not a bill, but a discussion paper so we could begin the process of trying to analyze and determine if research is necessary to find out if there might be a problem with the Access to Information Act. What an absolute travesty, a breach of trust, a breach of promise and a clear violation of the commitment that was made to me to produce access to information legislation.
The government has no interest in open government. It is a government more along the lines of Sir Humphrey of Yes, Minister . It believes we can have good government and open government but not both. That is the empirical evidence we have to deal with. What other conclusion can we draw?