Mr. Speaker, before explaining why I am so pleased to speak in the House to Bill C-58 on reforming the Access to Information Act, I will read a quote to put things into context:
When I was getting ready to appear [before the committee], I came back to the request made by journalist Daniel Leblanc [from TheGlobe and Mail], the request that uncovered the sponsorship scandal. That request would not have met the requirements [of the bill, which] would be a major setback [for information rights].
That person is referring to the bill we are talking about today, the one that the Liberals want to pass. Who said that? It was not an opposition MP, it was Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada.
That is why the bill to amend the Access to Information Act, 1993 is so highly anticipated. As hon. members know, that legislation affects anyone wanting to obtain information from federal government institutions.
Ever since the Access to Information Act reform was unveiled there has been no end to the criticism and disappointment. First, this reform does not keep the Liberals' promise to extend the legislation to ministers' offices, or to the Prime Minister's office. That is the first broken promise.
Second, the government will now be able to decline any access to information request if it believes the request is vexatious, is made in bad faith, or is otherwise an abuse of the right to make a request for access to information. In other words, the government is leaving itself enough leeway to turn down any request that could be harmful or embarrassing to it. God knows there are plenty of files that meet that description.
Third, we know there is currently a major backlog of access to information requests. Sadly, this bill does nothing to tackle the backlog, which has already reached unacceptable levels and serves to further impede access to information.
Fourth, the government promised that the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts, but as it turns out, that will not be so.
Fifth, the government promised that the bill would create an oversight model that would give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of government information. However, needless to say, this bill contains no such reforms.
According to the Information Commissioner, whom I quoted at the beginning, if this bill had been in force in 1999, it would have prevented journalists from accessing the information that made it possible for them to uncover the Liberal sponsorship scandal, better known in some circles as the Gomery commission.
Ms. Legault has voiced several criticisms regarding Bill C-58. Basically, no one is satisfied. Everyone is disappointed in this version of the bill.
Katie Gibbs, executive director of the Evidence for Democracy group, has said that by ruling out the possibility of obtaining information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the Liberal government is breaking its promise. She also argued that the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government that is open by default. She believes the possibility to arbitrarily refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes government transparency and openness.
The Liberals are going to great lengths to protect the Prime Minister.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, believes that the bill represents a step backwards by allowing government officials to deny access to information requests if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith. Mr. Conacher has also indicated that public servants should not have this authority because they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public the information it has a right to know. We saw this with the minister of the Canada Revenue Agency, especially in recent weeks.
Stéphane Giroux, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec—these are not the mean, old Conservatives the Liberals make us out to be; Robert Marleau, former information commissioner from 2007 to 2009; the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association; some first nations groups who noted that some provisions in the bill would make it harder for them to get access to justice and information, all these people oppose the bill. That is a lot of people; they are starting to add up.
This all means that not only the members of the opposition, but also civil liberties groups, journalists, and the Information Commissioner, who is neutral, all oppose the bill and prefer the status quo. That says something when we prefer the status quo, with its many flaws, rather than this Liberal reform presented today. We understand that there is work to do to improve the situation. All these people share a common belief that Bill C-58 does not implement any of the requested reforms to the Access to Information Act, and furthermore, that it introduces new obstacles to the process that Canadians will have to follow to make legitimate requests for government documents. After this, we still wonder why the population is so cynical about politicians.
The reform therefore does nothing to address the enormous shortcomings of the act, as the Liberals promised during the election campaign. In fact, it is a step backward. Governments in power, regardless of the party, constantly introduce bills to improve the situation. As I was saying earlier, it is unbelievable that so many people see only regression in a bill that should improve the situation.
This is also double talk: the Liberals say that they are open and transparent, but they missed a great opportunity to prove it. They must be totally disconnected to believe that Canadians will not see through them, particularly when we consider the scandals that have emerged every day for two years now.
As the reform currently stands, the government will be able to choose which information it will make public and protect the information it wants to hide from Canadians. It will be free to decline requests for access to information for obscure and arbitrary reasons.
My colleagues can rest assured that no information that could be even minimally embarrassing will be disclosed. We know how the Liberals work. By choosing to disclose only what makes them look good—and we know how much our Prime Minister likes to look good, no need to mention the selfies—I think that everyone knows exactly what the Prime Minister is doing: the Liberals are now turning the Access to Information Act into a new communications strategy. What we are talking about is serious.
This act is one of the very few tools that citizens, journalists, and members of all official opposition parties, who have the responsibility to monitor this government to prevent the types of breach of trust we are seeing today, have to exercise their right to information and do their jobs properly. Make no mistake, the Liberal government is centralizing power around the Prime Minister and his cronies, who control even the various ministers’ offices, despite what it is letting on with its nice words and pretty pictures, while publicly condemning such acts.
Lastly, when we look at the bill as a whole, what we take away is “do what I say, not what I do”. It is a sad state of affairs.