Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-11, an act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.
There is a number of pieces of legislation of a same or similar nature in which I have had some involvement. The discussion that has just taken place in House is with respect to the need for openness and transparency as key issues.
Let me briefly look at some of the basics of the bill.
First, Bill C-11 proposes a mandatory licensing system for the federal government to track what human pathogens exist, those being anthrax, salmonella and influenza, for example, where they are and who possesses them in Canada. It also proposes to provide enhanced inspection powers to inspectors to help ensure compliance with laboratory biosafety guidelines and to ensure that the legislation is applied properly and consistently across Canada.
That is a very succinct but important statement on behalf of the Government of Canada. This is a very important bill for us to have.
As the previous speaker had indicated, in a response to the question that I posed to her, there have been questions of openness and transparency with regard to the reporting of important information to the public.
In terms of the key messages, I think all members in the House are committed to improving the safety and health of Canadians. I have often said that the measure of success of a country is not so much an economic measure as it is a measure of the health and well-being of its people.
When there are circumstances where the health and well-being of people is being impacted by matters beyond their control, such as the importation or storage of such things as anthrax or salmonella or influenza, it is relevant.
We support the measures that have been proposed to improve the safety and security of Canadian laboratories for all Canadians. We want to review the legislation at committee to ensure that it is accountable, transparent and as effective as possible.
The purpose of the act, as I indicated, is to establish the safety and security regime to protect the health and safety of the public against the risks posed by human pathogens and toxins. The bill does establish that legislative framework that extends beyond the present importation and storage regime for pathogens and toxins.
The current regime requires that all labs that import human pathogens or toxins adhere to the requirements, but that these existing guidelines are not mandatory for laboratories that acquire human pathogens and toxins from domestic sources. This is a problem.
Even though they are applied widely on a voluntary basis as an industry standard, voluntary guidelines are not good enough when it comes to the health and safety of Canadians.
The bill also requires that all Canadian labs that possess human pathogens or toxins, regardless of where they were acquired, adhere to these guidelines. Bill C-11 specifically includes a number of provisions which will help to achieve these objectives.
It requires laboratories carrying out activities with risk groups two, three or four human pathogens or select toxins have to register with the Public Health Agency of Canada Office of Laboratory Security. It also subject licensees with risk group three and four pathogens and possibly select toxins to stricter operating regulations.
It requires an importation permit to import the human pathogen or toxin. It requires a transfer permit to send and receive any human pathogen or toxin between laboratories within Canada that are not part of the same facility. It also requires the authorization from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada to export agents on the export control list. It also requires licensees, as a part of their annual or biannual update of inventories, to notify the PHAC of the nature of the disposal of human pathogens and toxins.
These changes are meant to bring Canada in to line with more stringent regulations, which are in place in the United States and in the U.K., for example. It also gives substantial regulatory powers to the minister and inspectors. It will be necessary to further study these powers to ensure the transparency, effectiveness and accountability. This leads me to my specific contribution to the debate, which is with regard to the accountability aspect as well as the regulatory powers.
I have had the opportunity to be a member of the scrutiny of regulations committee, the standing joint committee of the House of Commons and Senate, for a number of years, and was its chair for a couple of years. What struck me was the regulatory guidelines and requirements, as laid out in certain pieces of legislation, tended to push the envelope with regard to a concern about what is called backdoor legislation. Backdoor legislation refers to providing undertakings or responsibilities in the regulations where that authority is not enabled by the legislation itself. It means putting something into the legislation that is not even part of the bill itself, simply covered under, “The minister may make regulations from time to time”.
When the regulations are required by a bill, the bill in the end will not show that it comes into force on receiving royal assent, but will be at a date specified by order-in-council, which is by cabinet. The reason for that is so the regulations necessary and called for under the legislation can be properly drafted, reviewed and gazetted et cetera prior to their enforcement.
There is some concern when we get to matters like this. We have seen far too many examples of where regulations have not been prepared on a timely basis. It represents a reluctance by the government to have legislation come into force. It may just simply be, here is a bill that will do all these wonderful things and it will be the law in Canada when the regulations are done.
Time and time again there have been delays in the implementation of legislation simply because regulations have not been done, and I can give an example.
One was the reproductive technologies act that I was involved with through the health committee. This dealt with the whole question of embryonic stem cell research and the establishment of a committee that would review the application of researchers to do research involving embryonic stem cells.
At that time, the officials told us in committee that the regulations required to make this happen would take something like two years, yet the government said that we needed it, that it was pursuant to a royal commission report on the reproductive technologies. It was urgent and had some very significant recommendations, but much of the legislation from years gone by is still not in place. One of the reasons for that was we put into the legislation that the minister was required to submit the proposed regulations to the committee for its comments. The minister of the day refused to give the committee the authority to amend or to reject regulations. They were simply there for review and comment.
With regard to that legislation, and it is years now after the royal commission report, which was about 15 years ago, we now have a situation where regulations pursuant to that legislation, which was passed at all stages in this place and in the other place, still are not the law in Canada. In fact, the committee to establish it has not been established and all the regulations related to the research permissions or authorizations are not in place.
Notwithstanding that Parliament as a whole, along with the Senate, passed urgent legislation, the law has not been totally put into force because regulations have not been promulgated, which totally frustrates the responsibilities of Parliament to do its job. I hope to have an opportunity to follow up with the new health minister on what the minister is doing in this regard.
However, that is a good example of a situation where legislation has gone through all stages, with two or three months of comprehensive committee hearings, and it is still not fully in force primarily due to regulations and the fact that the government has not even come forward with them.
It is not a matter of whether the regulations were a problem. As the members well know, when we deal with legislation in this place we do not get to see the regulations. We do not get to see those fine-tuning items that give us an idea of the scope or the intent of the legislation. There is a fine line at which a regulation will go beyond what was enabled in the legislation.
The Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations is there to review these things as they occur but after the fact to determine whether the regulations have been properly enabled within the legislation.
I raise that because it leads to the whole question of whether we have backdoor legislation where regulations are trying to do things that were not enabled in the legislation and whether the proviso that there be regulations made, which the government chooses not to make, could delay or even stop legislation that goes through the entire parliamentary process from ever becoming law in Canada.
How can Canadians keep ahead of the curve when they do not know whether legislation that is passed in Parliament will become law. We have far too many examples. It goes to the true question of accountability and transparency.
One of the first things the current government did was bring in the Federal Accountability Act. It puffed its chest and said that it would be accountable. When I first looked at it I thought that people should understand what the expectation was from accountability. I was looking at some of this material on the weekend and I came up with a definition that I challenge the government to follow. The definition of accountability is to explain and justify one's actions or decisions in a clear, concise and truthful manner. To synthesize this down, it means to be honest and give the straight story. I want to understand and I want to understand why the government took that decision.
If a government promises to do something and it does not do it, accountability demands that it explains and justifies that decision. Sometimes we make decisions to do things but circumstances change and it is important to back off and rethink the decisions. There is no point in going forward with something that changes because there is new information. However, when I think of some of the examples, such as promising not to tax income trusts but imposing a 31.5% tax one year later, really did not do much for the government, which boasted that it was helping seniors by introducing things like pension income splitting when it knew that over 85% of seniors would not benefit from it simply because they were in the lowest tax bracket, did not have eligible pensions or were seniors who had no one to split with.
When we take it to that extent, when the government claims that it represents 100% of a group and then does something for a group that only 14% or 15% actually can benefit from, that is not being accountable.
I have many examples of that and I hope to get a chance to talk about them at some other opportunity.
On February 22, CP had an article dealing with access to information requests. It is relevant because the concerns that have been raised by the opposition with respect to this bill have to do with transparency, accountability and openness. According to the Canwest news service, since January 2008 the Department of Foreign Affairs has prevented the release of more than 160,000 pages of government records on everything from the mission in Afghanistan, to new free trade deals with NATO, to material being left at the home of the girlfriend of the former minister of foreign affairs. It goes even further.
The Access to Information Commissioner has said that the government has demonstrated a systemic problem of inhibiting the intent of the Access to Information Act by having most of the releases vetted by the Prime Minister's Office or the Privy Council Office. This is contrary to the spirit and the intent of the law.
With respect to one of the releases, the government asked for a four month extension but once the four month extension expired the government said that even though it had the documents they were not really relevant to what was asked for so it had nothing to give. The Privy Council Office, on the other hand, turned around and said that it could not give the information because it was secret and could not be given out.
When Mr. Marleau, the Access to Information Commissioner, says that there are systemic problems in the government and that the worst offenders of the spirit and intent of the Access to Information Act are the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office, one can understand why the opposition is concerned about accountability, transparency and openness. An officer of Parliament, appointed by this Parliament, has said that it is the Prime Minister's own office that is the biggest problem in ensuring that Canadians do not get the information to which they are entitled.
Access to information, openness and transparency are foundations of our democracy. The Prime Minister, by denying the workability of the Access to Information Act, is taking away the opportunity for Canadians to experience what they can get under a truly democratic system. Canadians have the right to know.
If the government is not going to support the Access to Information Act and its intent and its principles, then now is the time for it to say so. If it wants to back away from the Federal Accountability Act now is the time to say so.
In these challenging times for Canadians, now is the time for the government to put the interests of the people ahead of its own partisan interests. The government has spent all of its time campaigning, not governing, and the country needs the government to govern. The government must be accountable. This litany of unaccountability must stop now in the best interests of the people of Canada.