Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for this opportunity to speak to Bill C-58, and to perhaps set the record straight with respect to some of the remarks of my colleagues opposite. They love to quote criticisms of the bill that took place before the committee study, before amendments were made to address those very issues, and before the bill was even further strengthened to build on the historic improvement to access to information.
Our government is firmly committed to being open and transparent. That is the kind of government Canadians expect and deserve. These reforms were made with that in mind.
We remain committed to upholding this principle, which was first applied in the 1983 Access to Information Act.
Now, 34 years later, our proposed reforms advance the original intent of the act in a way that reflects today's technologies, policies, and legislation, and keeps this an evergreen process as well.
I am proud our government is the government to finally update this act. This is in contrast to the government of the members opposite, the Conservatives, who promised to reform this act in their election platform, spent 10 years in government, and failed to do a thing.
I experienced the former government's control tactics around access to information first-hand as an opposition member of Parliament. I filed an access to information request to find out more about the process for building Canada's pavilion for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games. The pavilion was to be built in Vancouver, and there were questions about it in the media. Lo and behold, when I received the response from the government, every line in the document had been blacked out. There was not a scrap of information. I would contend that Canada's Olympic pavilion was hardly a national security issue that had to be protected.
That is what the Conservative government of the day was doing instead of fixing the Access to Information Act. Perhaps it was also too busy becoming the first government in not just the history of Canada but the history of the Commonwealth to be found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide information to Parliament.
Let us not forget the extent to which the New Democrats were hesitant to join the trend when the Liberal MPs became the first party to begin a practice of proactive disclosure of expenses. They needed to be dragged along with that. However, I digress.
Our government is acting. We are following through on our election promise to reform the Access to Information Act.
Our efforts started over a year ago. In May 2016, we issued a directive that enshrined the idea of a government that is “open by default”.
Open by default means having a culture across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course, unless there are specific reasons not to do so.
Now, with the amendments proposed in Bill C-58, we are taking the next step.
Bill C-58 would advance the Access to Information Act in some key areas. It would give the Information Commissioner the power to order government to release records. She has been asking exactly for that. That is a significant increase in the power of the commissioner. No longer is the office of the commissioner simply an ombudsperson. It would now have the power to compel government to release records.
The bill would put the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices inside the act for the very first time, as promised, through legislative requirements for proactive disclosure. It would also legislate proactive disclosure for administrative bodies that supported the courts, Parliament, and other government institutions. This dramatically broadens the reach of the Access to Information Act.
The bill also mandates five-year reviews of the act. Therefore, it is an evergreen process of improvement. What is more is that it would require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act.
This will help us understand and increase the kinds of information that could be and should be proactively published.
We are also developing a guide to provide requesters with clear explanations for exemptions and exclusions. We are investing in tools to make processing information requests more timely and efficient. We are allowing federal institutions with the same minister to share request processing services for greater efficiency. We are also increasing government training to get common and consistent interpretation and application of ATI rules.
We are moving to help government institutions weed out bad faith requests that put significant strain on the system.
By tying up government resources, such vexatious requests can interfere with an institution's ability to do its other work and respond to other requests. However, let me be clear. We have heard the concerns expressed about how we must safeguard against abuse of this proposed measure. In particular, we have heard the concerns raised by indigenous groups regarding land claims.
As the President of the Treasury Board said during second reading debate, “A large or broad request, or one that causes government discomfort, does not, of itself, represent bad faith on the part of the requester.” Broad requests, particularly historical records to substantiate indigenous claims, are legitimate and consistent with the spirit of the act.
However, it was not enough for our government to clearly state our intentions in the House of Commons. Therefore, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics further strengthened Bill C-58 by amending the bill to make it explicit that no department could refuse a request simply because the subject, type of record or date of record was not specified.
The bill was also amended to give the Information Commissioner veto power in advance over whether a department could reject a request. The committee also passed an amendment that would give the Information Commissioner the power to publish the results of their investigations and orders, giving further leverage to the commissioner's new powers, as was intended by the President of the Treasury Board and requested by the commissioner. Our government firmly supports these amendments.
In addition to the government's duty to assist, which is a fundamental obligation built into the Access to Information Act, our government is fully committed to fulfilling Canada's fiduciary obligation to assist first nations in furthering their land claims.
After 34 years, Canada's ATI system needs updating, and this will be a work in progress.
I am disappointed that the members opposite in both the Conservative Party and the NDP have been playing politics with this very important bill. They have been raising issues that were already addressed at committee, where amendments were passed to put to rest the concerns that were raised.
The Conservatives, who never did anything for 10 years even though they solemnly promised in their platform to update access to information, are acting as though this is a step backward. In fact, it is a step in forward in many respects. It would broaden the scope of the act, respect the commissioner's request to have additional powers to determine if a department could refuse to fulfill an access to information request. It also includes order-making power to ensure the order is published and publicly available to review.
A great number of key steps have been taken to advance the openness and transparency to the Canadian public with respect to information to which they should and will have access.
Members opposite are pretending that no amendments have been made, that the commissioner's report is still valid when it was written before the amendments to respond to her concerns were debated and voted on by committee members, including the New Democratic Party members and Conservative members, and wholly supported by the Liberal President of the Treasury Board and Liberal members. The fact that those are being ignored, that those parties are aiming to confuse and confound the public debate, and mislead members of the public listening to their speeches and questions and answers is very discouraging and disappointing. This is one of those kinds of policy measures that everyone agreed needed to be improved. That is exactly what we are doing, for the first time in 34 years.
To try to confuse the public into thinking that this is a step back, when it is a major leap forward, is doing a disservice to the public. It is providing inaccurate information to the public. It is raising unnecessary fears around individual access to information and around indigenous people's access to information in pursuit of potential land claims. These things have been addressed. We have a great deal of respect for the importance of reconciliation with indigenous peoples right across this country, and one part of that is to support and aid individuals and groups that are seeking access to information to pursue the reconciliation, partnership, and co-operation our government is so committed to.
Therefore, I would request that the members opposite stick to the facts, reflect what happened in committee in terms of the amendments that were made, and reflect the ways in which the commissioner's requests and others were actually built into those amendments by committee. Let us have a debate on the merits of this policy using the actual up-to-date, factual information. That would be a public service on the part of members opposite.
As I said at the start of my speech, I am very proud that it is our Liberal government that is finally following through and giving the Access to Information Act some much-needed reform. There would be a review just one year after the coming into force of this bill so that we would be able to have continuous quality improvement of this very important piece of legislation. This very important aspect of our public policy, whereby reviews are done and improvements are made in a timely way, is built into our new act. We are looking forward to continuing our work to help make government more open, transparent, and accountable.