Mr. Speaker, it is indeed a pleasure to rise and speak at second reading of Bill C-461, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act (disclosure of information) or, as the bill's short title makes clear, the CBC and public service disclosure and transparency act.
I would like to respond to some of the criticism I have heard tonight. The bill would actually bring the CBC in line with other crown corporations. Exemptions that exist for the CBC that have been abused would be eliminated.
There are many reasons to support the bill. I would like to take a moment to highlight some of mine. As someone who has used Canada's access to information laws to review government spending, I am already familiar with the importance of such laws to get at information either that governments may report to the public out of context or, at worst, that they wish to hide.
These laws are important because they hold governments accountable. How exactly does this happen? When decisions are subject to review, individuals throughout the public service are much more likely to follow rules and reflect on how tax money is spent. When they do not, the results cannot be quietly locked away safe from public review. For this reason, sunshine in government is a useful disinfectant for unscrupulous behaviour.
Let us look at the bill's specific reforms. First and importantly, as the bill's name suggests, it would bring greater accountability to the CBC. I believe it is the duty of government to be transparent and open. Canadians need to know that when household income is taken away from them in taxes it is being put to good use. Yet a problem currently exists. There is a loophole in the Access to Information Act, which was created for the CBC, whereby this news, culture and entertainment company can refuse to release any documents it believes are inadmissible.
Aside from going through the courts, there is no adequate oversight review. This loophole has been exploited by the CBC to refuse replying to information requests. Specifically, the act currently states that:
This Act does not apply to any information that is under the control of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that relates to its journalistic, creative or programming activities, other than information that relates to its general administration.
This means the CBC is not required to provide any transparency except for information about its general administration. However in turn, it is expected, actually required, to report on what is covered. Yet the CBC has erroneously applied its exemption broadly and at times refused to provide information that it is obliged to, in my opinion. It has used that clause to delay or deny the provision of information even to the Information Commissioner, whose job it is to determine whether or not Canadians have a right to access requested information.
In this case, the matter went to the court. Both the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal agreed that CBC was wrong to withhold certain documents from the Information Commissioner. The courts also found that the wording of that section of the Access to Information Act is less clear than it could be and “a recipe for controversy”, which is exactly what it delivered.
The sponsor of this bill is responding to a flaw in the current law as identified by the courts. The Information Commissioner is correctly asking that greater onus be placed on the CBC to demonstrate that it could actually be harmed by releasing certain exempted documents, and the public interest should be weighed in each decision.
The NDP member for Halifax just stated that we are actually already on the same page as other countries, but that is not quite accurate. Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom all allow independent bodies to review documents held by their public broadcasters. I believe it is time Canada did the same, because right now under the law, it is the CBC that acts as judge and jury in these cases. If people want to appeal, they have to go to the courts, which is expensive and time consuming. However, neither the commissioner nor any other taxpayer should be forced to go to the Federal Court to resolve disputes.
Bill C-461 would redefine the exemption clause for the CBC with what is called an injury test. This means that unless disclosing the information could reasonably be expected to prejudice CBC journalistic, creative or programing independence, the information could not be withheld. Also, in line with other areas of the federal government, the CBC would not decide what is covered and what is not.
Explicitly giving an officer of Parliament, in this case the Information Commissioner, the authority to adjudicate whether or not this injury test is met is wise public policy because it would ensure that an independent third party ruled on what could or could not be made available to the public. This would help avoid the possibility of lengthy litigation processes that could result in further information being effectively denied through delay.
In effect, what both the member for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe and the member for Halifax are stating today is that they do not trust the Information Commissioner to resolve these disputes; yet the Information Commissioner looks at all sorts of confidential government documents and in those cases is trusted to decide what is to be released and what is not to be released.
I believe this clause would not expose media sources to prying eyes or impact the CBC's independence, and frankly, we do not want it to.
If anyone argues the CBC should be exempt, as I have heard tonight, I would ask why others should not be exempt. I ask that rhetorically, because I do not believe federal government agencies should be exempt from oversight. Supporters of the CBC, of which there are many, might believe the mother corporation is in a unique position compared to other crown corporations, but it is not. At the end of the day it spends public dollars, and Parliament must hold all such agencies, departments and crown corporations accountable without fear or favour.
Second, the bill would amend the Privacy Act to allow for the public disclosure of specific salaries and responsibilities of anybody who earns more than $188,600 from the federal government.
Nova Scotia and Ontario require the disclosure of the name, salary and job title of anybody making $100,000 or more from the respective provincial governments. These sunshine lists hold those governments accountable for the salaries given to the top bureaucrats, civil servants and anybody else who earns six figures or more per year from the government. Manitoba, incidentally, sets its transparency level at a mere $50,000.
My own province of New Brunswick has a disclosure limit at $60,000. What is more, employees receiving in excess of $10,000 in retirement are subject to public disclosure. These numbers are reported annually, and this has been a good thing for taxpayers and open government.
Right now the legislation of the Government of Canada only allows for the disclosure of a very broad, very vague and almost entirely unhelpful salary range.
As my hon. colleague, the member for Edmonton—St. Albert, found out, the salary range for the current CEO of CBC is somewhere between $358,400 and $422,000. However in addition, generous bonuses can be paid to the CBC president and other civil servants. At most, bonuses in the federal system can reach 39% of the basic salary, yet taxpayers have no idea if a bonus was paid or what amount was paid.
I will note that, again, when my hon. colleague from Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe set his threshold level on behalf of the government he could not even bring himself to tell us what that level would be, so let me tell the House. If we were to go with the top end, as the government is proposing, it would mean a disclosure level at about $444,000, which is a level that would effectively neuter this legislation.
All my colleagues in the House, as well as other places, are required to disclose their salaries. They are public knowledge, and rightfully so. I believe the amount in this legislation is set too high. Instead, it should start at the rate of pay for members of Parliament, which is currently $157,731, an amount incidentally that has MPs already in the top 2% of all Canadian income earners. This figure is well higher than the minimum limits we see in provinces with sunshine laws.
With the passage of the bill, Canadians would be able to shed new light into some of the currently dark corners in the civil service. This is not to suggest something untoward is happening in the corners that are exempt from public oversight, but the fact is that we do not know. We and all taxpayers have a right as citizens to ask and receive answers. Taxpayers are, after all, the ones footing the bills. I hope no person elected to this chamber will argue that some areas of government ought to be exempt from accountability.
That is why I will be supporting Bill C-461, and that is why I hope my hon. colleagues will do the same.