House of Commons Hansard #245 of the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was c-58.

Topics

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

December 5th, 2017 / 4:35 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, it is always a pleasure to be in the House when you are presiding.

I participated in the debate at second reading, hopeful that for once the government would be open to amendments. As I recall, the President of the Treasury Board promised they would be open to amendments. Regrettably, every amendment tabled by my colleague was rejected.

Why is that important? As the representative for the Conservative Party stated, great promises were made by the Liberals when they ran for office, a new world of openness and transparency and sunshine. What are they offering? Like many of the bills they have brought forward, they tell us not to worry, that they have not made those changes they promised, that in five years when we review the bill again, they will think about whether they will bring those forward. It is getting very tiresome.

It is time for the government to deliver on its promises and on requests by Canadians, by experts, and by its own commissioners to open access to information.

I have shared in the House that in my 40-plus years as an environmental advocate, I championed the cause for the rights of citizens to have a voice in environmental decision-making. Critical to that is having the opportunity to participate in the review of standards and the review of projects, policy, and trade deals. For the public to constructively participate, it is very critical they have ready access to information. The government has failed on that.

The Liberals have said that they will have a proactive disclosure, but then it is up to the government to decide what the public will receive. Yes, it would be nice if the government were more open with access to information, but let me give a concrete example of where it has abjectly failed to deliver on this promise.

We are in the middle of negotiations on a “modernized” NAFTA. Very late in the day, the government suddenly remembered it would have strong provisions for environment in any NAFTA deal, yet there is no environmental adviser to the foreign affairs minister who is negotiating the deal. To her credit, she has industry representatives and representatives from labour, but no representative with environmental expertise.

Very late in the day, at the eleventh hour, the environment minister established an advisory committee. We have no idea what role it is playing, whether its ideas are passed on to the negotiation table. We have no idea whatsoever what the government is proposing for environmental provisions in the NAFTA deal, unlike the Americans. We can criticize the Americans as much as want, but they tabled and made publicly available all the provisions they were intending to seek for environment in a negotiated trade deal. So much for openness and transparency.

Nothing in Bill C-58 will improve that, because the government has made its own decision that it will not disclose that information in advance to the public. To make matters worse, the Liberals issued a call for public comments on a revised NAFTA, when we did not even know what a revised NAFTA would say. I do not know what the outcome of the consultations were but I heard from a lot of Canadians who asked how they could comment on a trade deal when they did not even know what it would include. The Liberal Party's idea about open access to information and timeliness is a bit of Russian roulette.

Why is it important for Canadians to have access to information? From my perspective, as the environment and climate change critic and as an advocate for environmental rights for over 40 years, these are the kinds of things the public wants. They want to know in advance, before they are consulted, if they are consulted, what the planned routes are for pipelines. They want to know the locations of chemical plants before they are approved. They want information on the potential or known impacts of toxins on their health. That request was made very strongly by very many people who testified before our parliamentary committee.

The government has been in power now for over two years. What was one of the Liberals' big election promises? They promised they would immediately restore all federal environmental laws. Well, there is nothing stopping them from tabling today or tomorrow a revised Canadian Environmental Protection Act to extend these kinds of rights. We had a review by our committee with all kinds of recommendations to amend the act, but there has still been no action, and we will not hold our breath for a response.

We want to know about the safety of consumer products before they are made available for sale. Again, it is a specific request made by experts to our parliamentary committee. We are still waiting for action to make that information available. It is a vacuous offer to increase and improve access to information when, in fact, the Liberals bring forward a bill that provides very little.

As my colleague did, I will also share from the Information Commissioner's report on Bill C-58 entitled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency”, which reads:

In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver.

The government promised the bill would ensure the Act applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices appropriately. It does not.

The government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. It does not.

The government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.

Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.

That is from the report of the Information Commissioner, and it is a scathing review, yet members of the government stand and defend the bill they have brought forward.

The bill could have been strengthened if the government finally delivered on the undertaking in this place by the President of the Treasury Board that he would welcome amendments to strengthen the bill, and yet the government refused every single amendment brought forward by my colleagues. This is not open and constructive government. It is not listening to experts. It is not listening to its own commissioners. It is not listening to the public.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Madam Speaker, on a point of order, the member is giving an interesting speech, but I do not think there is quorum.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

NDP

The Assistant Deputy Speaker NDP Carol Hughes

We do have quorum now.

The hon. member for Edmonton Strathcona.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from the Conservative Party for getting a few more members to join us to hear my recommendations to strengthen the bill before us. Of course, we do not mention names in this place, but it is nice, and I can feel the room warming up already.

Where have the Liberals failed?

Well, there is no duty to document decision-making processes. The bill would allow information to be labelled as cabinet briefings to deny access. It would introduce yet more exceptions. It fails to require a harm test, which is a specific recommendation made by the parliamentary committee. It fails to prescribe in law an explicit public interest override, another recommendation by the parliamentary committee.

The Liberals are not willing to listen to the recommendations at committee. They are not willing to listen to the amendments brought forward. It really begs the question of why we work so hard in this place, why we diligently go through the bills, have witnesses come in, and make recommendations to strengthen the bills before us, because the government simply dispenses with them.

Therefore, it is with great sadness that, yet again, we have legislation tabled in this place that breaks an election promise. The Liberals have not provided sunshine and greater access to information for the public. They have not included what is most important of all. They say they are going to provide for proactive disclosure, but the best way to do that is to include provisions for whistle-blower protection. They have not done that, and so have put a cork in the mouths of their officers, who would otherwise readily disclose information to the public.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Speaker, obviously, I do not share the opinions of the member opposite. We made a commitment, and that commitment will be realized by the eventual passage of this legislation.

There is no question that the legislation includes measures that will allow for more accountability and transparency. When the member quotes individuals, I believe the quotes she cites date from before the amendments were made. Yes, there were no NDP amendments accepted, and the Conservatives did not offer any amendments, but the government does more than just listen to New Democrats and Conservatives. There are other stakeholders, and there were many amendments made to the legislation. Could the member tell us whether those quotes she just listed were before or after the amendments were made?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, there were no amendments made, so I have a hard time responding to the question. The hon. member says we did not list other people. How about Duff Conacher, the founder of Democracy Watch? How about Mark Weiler, web and user experience librarian? How about Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy? They also gave scathing reviews of the bill.

If the government is not even willing to listen to the testimony of its Access to Information Commissioner, who is it willing to listen to? The Liberals made a big promise. They broke the promise. The President of the Treasury Board promised that he would be open to amendments and he rejected them all.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Madam Speaker, many times in the House today we have heard increased rhetoric about more accountability, often referencing the mandate letters. I had an opportunity on a number of occasions to refer to the Minister of Finance's mandate letter, dated November 12, 2015. The very first bullet point of the letter the Prime Minister delivered to the finance minister says, “In particular, I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory, and Cabinet processes, including our first Budget, to deliver on your top priorities:”

The very first priority was to “Ensure that our fiscal plan is sustainable by meeting our fiscal anchors of balancing the budget in 2019/20 and continuing to reduce the federal debt-to-GDP ratio throughout our mandate.”

Balancing the budget in 2019-20 is a clear promise of the Liberal platform. It is clearly outlined in this mandate letter, yet we have often heard today how great these mandate letters have been. I wonder if my colleague would agree the mandate letters do not seem to be worth the paper they are written on.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, not speaking to the specific provision the member read from, I do recall that every single mandate letter stated that every member of cabinet would be accountable for greater openness and transparency and consultation with the public. I used to be on the transport committee. Now I am on the environment and sustainable development committee. It is the same requirement for both ministers. The government, because it has delivered a poor bill before us, is simply not delivering on that overall promise for greater sunshine in access to information.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Madam Speaker, just to seek clarification, does the member opposite believe there were absolutely no amendments brought forward to the legislation?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, I do know they accepted one from another party, and it is my understanding that they rejected every single one from my party.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Daniel Blaikie NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I am going to speak to Bill C-58. Prior to its tabling, it offered a lot of promise to Canadians, who have been concerned for a long time about the access to information regime in Canada.

Unfortunately, I do not think my remarks will differ from those I made early on in the debate about Bill C-58 before it went to committee, because not a lot has changed substantially about the bill. We are still largely confronted with the same issues as when the bill was originally tabled.

The main point is a sense of lost opportunity. That is clear, not just to members of the NDP caucus, but to a lot stakeholders who have criticized the bill, as well as the stakeholders within the access to information community who testified at the access to information committee during what was a long and thorough study of Canada's access to information laws.

There have not been any real changes to the Access to Information Act since it was first brought introduced in 1983. I am sure that members of the House will appreciate that the way government does business has changed radically since 1983. If we think of the technologies that were available in 1983 versus the technologies available now, and the way those have become part and parcel of the way that government conducts its business, it is clear that reform of the access to information laws is necessary.

With changes being proposed to the laws, there was a great opportunity to address a number of problems. What were some of those problems? One of the important problems in my view is that cabinet ministers can say that whatever information is being requested falls under the purview of cabinet confidence. If it said to be advice to a minister, it cannot be touched. Fine, I think there is a legitimate space for some advice to ministers to be protected, except there is no ability for anyone, including the Information Commissioner, to assess whether that information has been denied properly, under the rubric of advice to ministers, or whether ministers were just making it up or saying that it was advice to ministers when it in fact it was not really advice to ministers.

Canadians must have confidence in the access to information system to know that when they are being told that something is advice to a minister and cannot be shared because it would hurt the public interest, this is true. I do not think we are in a situation in which Canadians have that confidence. I do not think Canadians had that kind of confidence in the last government, that is for sure, and I do not think Canadians have that kind of confidence in the current government.

Let us consider one of the important themes in question period for months now, indeed throughout the fall. It is about whether or not the Canada Revenue Agency made a deliberate decision to change its interpretation of a policy in order to deny the disability tax credit to people with diabetes. It turns out, as we found out this week, that in fact there was a memo circulated within the CRA back in May of this year that said very clearly that CRA staff who were evaluating those applications ought to err on the side of denying those applications, regardless of the advice of a physician or a nurse.

What has the minister said in the House? The minister has denied that a decision was made to this very day, despite the evidence that a decision was indeed made. What confidence can Canadians have in a system that might have allowed that minister to say that the memo was covered by a cabinet confidence? If she had invoked the exclusion, and I do not want to give them ideas, that would assume that the memo came through the access to information process. I am not sure that one did.

The point is that had someone made an access to information request and the minister's office had decided to call the memo an excluded document because it was advice to the minister or something else, no one would have been able to circle back and evaluate whether that was true or not. I think it is pretty clear that a memo to employees is not advice to a minister.

However, the point is that the Information Commissioner would not have been able to circle back, look at that document, and make an assessment as to whether or not that exclusion was rightfully applied. Canadians would still be in the dark about that very clear decision by the CRA to change the way it interprets its own policy.

While it is true for the minister to say that the policy on paper has not changed, it is misleading. Clearly, there was a directive given on how to interpret that same policy that radically changed the balance of acceptance and denial with respect to people with diabetes who are applying for that tax credit. That is the kind of thing that Canadians want to have access to and demonstrates why Canadians would want to know. Canadians want to know as it has a real and material effect for people who are living with diabetes, on their taxes, and what comes back to them from their tax return.

People also want to know because that document contradicts what the minister has been saying. They want to have that evidence and be able to follow through, to see if what the minister says is true and borne out within departmental directives.

One of the important things coming out of the study on access to information was the idea that an independent third party needs to verify a minister's use of that exclusion. Otherwise, it just becomes a huge blanket by which ministers can snuff out all sorts of information that would be politically inconvenient for them but important for Canadians to know and assess the government's performance. That is one of the ways that this legislation has failed.

Another obvious failure is with respect to the black and white commitment by the Liberal Party in the last election to have this apply to the PMO and ministers' offices. We did not make that up. It is not a partisan statement. That was a real commitment. It was part and parcel of the Prime Minister's own private member's legislation in the last Parliament. However, that is not in this legislation or something they chose to do.

Whether we think it is a good idea to have those things apply to the PMO or the ministers' offices, it was a very clear commitment of the Liberal Party that they would do so. The question is why is it not borne out in the legislation? They created a real mandate for openness and transparency and have the backing of Canadians, to the extent that they want the government to be more open and transparent.

They could have done a lot of things to help Canada be a model for openness and transparency. The problem is that is not what Bill C-58 delivers. It does not deliver that because it does not address serious problems that have come out of other jurisdictions.

It was in the news for some time that B.C. had an issue with documentation of government decisions that could be accessed through access to information. Government staff, and particularly political staff, responded by simply not documenting the outcomes of important meetings where decisions were made. That rightly created quite a stir. It was, and continues to be, a strong recommendation of the information commissioner that a legal duty to document needs to be established so that the political staff of ministers cannot get around accountability by not writing down the substance of important decisions made in private meetings. Eventually, it would be accessible under access to information. The government has not done that, and it is disappointing.

I do not want to sound naive or silly. When I first became a member of this House I was a member of the access to information committee and we had the President of the Treasury Board come a number of times. He repeated that one of the things he was looking forward to doing and glad that he had a mandate to do, was to change Canada's access to information laws. That was a real priority for him. He gave timelines, which he ignored.

Bill C-58 came much later than originally promised. When it did finally come, it did not honour what critics and stakeholders said we needed as an ideal access to information regime in Canada or the Liberals' own concrete, black and white election commitments. If that is what it means to be a priority of the Liberal government, Canadians should think twice about being on their priority list. There is a lot of other stuff being done that was promised in the last election. Those things are being done and this is not.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Speaker, I am somewhat hopeful that I might have a better chance of getting a response from my colleague from Winnipeg.

Many of the quotes that the New Democrats are using in their speaking lines are quotes that are actually from before the amendments were made, and there were a number of amendments made to the legislation that we are debating today. I was just looking for confirmation as to whether the NDP had the opportunity to update its speaking notes given the changes to the legislation.

Second, and what is important here, is in regard to the whole issue of proactive disclosure. What we see here is more proactive disclosure, whether it is ministers, the Prime Minister's Office, or departments. We are seeing a more empowered commissioner who would actually be able to request reports and get the reports. This is legislation that would ensure more transparency and accountability, as opposed to what the unholy alliance from across the way is saying. I wonder if the member across the way would at least acknowledge that with those changes there would be more accountability.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.

NDP

Daniel Blaikie NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I do not think proactive disclosure by ministers who decide what to proactively disclose, without any independent oversight or input from Canadians, is more accountability.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, I would like to ask my colleague from Winnipeg a very simple question. He alluded to it during his remarks of just a few moments ago. It seems that Canadians have been misled in the intentions of the Liberal government with its stated purpose of improving access to information when in fact, what we know now about the details of Bill C-58 demonstrates quite clearly that it is more difficult right now for the average Canadian to access information from the current government. I would like to hear my colleague expound a bit about why he thinks that is and what might be done to try to improve this badly flawed bill.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.

NDP

Daniel Blaikie NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, maybe I will come back to this point about proactive disclosure because this is the sleight of hand that the government is trying to use. The Liberals are trying to say that Canadians are going to have more information because now the government is going to have proactive disclosure by ministers. Of course, the access to information regime is not about ministers deciding what they want to share with the public. Ministers have always been free to share that. In fact, they do not need to change the law to allow for proactive disclosure. Listening to the Liberals, one would think that somehow ministers have been prohibited from sharing any information they liked with the Canadian public up to now and thank God we have a Liberal government that is going to let ministers share their own information with the Canadian public as if that is what is needed, when it is clearly not.

Therefore, this whole thing is just a really rinky-dink talking point to try to cover over the fact that very clear commitments were made about improving the access to information regime before the election by the Liberals and after the election. They are trying to pretend that somehow ministers were being gagged by anyone other than maybe the PMO, although it is not like this would allow ministers to release information that the PMO does not want released because presumably the PMO is going to have something to say about what information those ministers release. If they somehow were protecting ministers from the oversight of the PMO in terms of the information they want to release, that might get to be an interesting legislative fix, but of course, that is not what it is.

Therefore, the Liberals' whole centrepiece of this legislation is proactive disclosure. It is a solution to a problem that did not exist and they want to talk about that instead of talking about the commitments that they did want to talk about just two years ago when they were running to be government, criticizing the previous government for its culture. We have heard critics of the bill who were involved in the access to information community say that actually this would make things worse. Now we have an access to information bill passed in 1983, the year before I was born, people calling for change because they want to make it better, and we have a bill that is actually going to make it worse.

We have a 30-year-old bill that needed to be changed, not for the worse but for the better, and now we are passing up that opportunity, for reasons unknown. This whole talk about proactive disclosure, as if somehow that is a substitute for meaningful reform, is just ridiculous.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my good friend and colleague from Edmonton West.

All through today's debate, I kept reflecting on an old proverb that we have all heard many times before, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The government at one point in time actually had some good intentions about reforming the Access to Information Act. At one time, the Liberals might have been genuine when they said they wanted to improve the Access to Information Act, but somewhere along the line on that road, something went terribly wrong because the bill we have before us now, Bill C-58, is far more regressive and prohibitive to Canadians seeking to access the government's information than any access to information bill before its time.

I should say at the outset that I believe that over the last 34 years, ATIPs have proven to be extremely helpful to Canadians. Clearly they have been helpful to politicians who are trying to find out more information about the government of the day, particularly opposition politicians. These access to information requests have also been extremely helpful to journalists, because we have seen over the last number of years journalists break stories about some unethical action of the government of the day. Has that improved the ability of Canadians to learn more about their government? It certainly has.

Now Bill C-58 tends to want to reverse some of the strides that may have been made over the past several years. One of those strides was made by our government, when we were in power, to reduce the amount of money it cost the average Canadian to file an access to information request. We reduced that to $5, meaning that any Canadian who wanted to get more information about a government department could fill out a form and with only a $5 fee, receive an answer from the government department they were querying. That was a good thing and one of the things that helped Canadians become more comfortable with their own government.

However, ATIPs have been invaluable not just to Canadians, to politicians, and to journalists, but also to society as a whole because they have allowed Canadians to learn more about their government in a fashion that gives them confidence in the government of the day. We know of many ATIPs that have been successful and have been newsworthy. The one that most Canadians recall was the sponsorship scandal. It is ironic that we are debating Bill C-58 today, because the sponsor of the bill was, in the early 2000s, a minister in the Liberal cabinet, I believe as minister of public works, who day after day during question period had to stand and defend his government against opposition attacks as we found out more information from the Gomery commission and its investigation.

I recall vividly, as some of my colleague will too, the minister of the then public works department standing and saying in response to opposition questions, “Let Justice Gomery do his work.” That was his standard talking point. He would not answer any direct questions. He would simply say let Justice Gomery do his work. At the end of the day, Justice Gomery did fine work because he exposed the ethical shortcomings of the Liberal government of the day. He exposed the rampant corruption within that government and, frankly, the stench of that corruption stays with me today because I recall how the government abused the trust of the Canadian people when it came to the sponsorship scandal, particularly how Liberal ministers ignored the very fact that their own party operatives were charging for work that was never done and pocketing the money themselves, to benefit themselves financially.

How did we find out about that corruption? It was through an ATIP, through one reporter, Daniel Leblanc, who studiously examined what he thought was a corrupt system in the Quebec government of the day and started asking questions.

Finally, his request for information was answered. That was the start of the sponsorship scandal.

The point I make today is simply this. If the changes proposed by the government on Bill C-58 are enacted, reporters like Daniel Leblanc and others who expose such clear wrongdoing by the government would be the unable to access that information. That is simply wrong. That should never be allowed to happen. Any government, whether it be a Liberal government, a Conservative government, a New Democratic government, or any government in this country, should not be allowed to deny access to Canadians about information of their government.

We all know that governments are a servant of the people. We serve the public. We are supposed to be serving the public's interest. The public's interest in this case will be denied simply because we have a government that is embarrassed about some of its previous ethical lapses and frankly wants to cover them up. I can only point to the most recent example of what might happen if Bill C-58 is passed in its current form, and that is with the most ethical transgressions by the Minister of Finance.

We know now, thanks to an ATIP from reporters at The Globe and Mail, what the current Minister of Finance was hiding from Canadians and from the Ethics Commissioner. We know now, thanks to an ATIP, that the current Minister of Finance had a villa in France that he did not disclose to the Ethics Commissioner for two years, a villa that we can only assume is worth in the millions of dollars because of its locale in one of the wealthier regions of southern France.

We know now, because of an ATIP, that the same Minister of Finance had a numbered company in Alberta that was not disclosed to the Ethics Commissioner. It contained approximately $20 million in shares in a company called Morneau Shepell, which the Minister of Finance formerly used to run, a family-founded, family-run, very successful company, that had obvious direct ties to the Minister of Finance. We know that now, because reporters, journalists, requested access to information that uncovered those ethical transgressions.

If Bill C-58 is adopted, those opportunities will be lost. That should not be allowed to happen. Governments must be accountable for their actions. Governments must be accountable to the public. One of the ways to ensure that it is accountable is by allowing the public, whether it be opposition politicians, journalists, or advocacy groups, to gain information from their government without fear of retribution and without fear of censorship.

Bill C-58 is so desperately flawed that Canadians who have been examining this legislation and listening to this debate must feel that they have no more confidence in the government. In fact, what Bill C-58 does is to make information unavailable to Canadians should the government determine that it does not want to release what it considers to be sensitive information. That is right. It is not up to the government to release information upon request. The government feels that it is within its purview to deny information if it feels it might embarrass them, if it feels that the information is not in its best political interest. That is not only shameful, it is offensive, and should not be allowed to happen.

I know that my comments are falling on deaf ears when it comes to speaking to members opposite, but I beseech them to reconsider this flawed bill, take it back to the starting board, and if it truly wants to make access to information a reality, redraft and redraw this bill.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Speaker, I do not necessarily need a lecture from the member opposite on the importance of access to information. I sat in opposition for over 20 years. I can appreciate the importance of access to information. This bill will in fact ensure that opposition members, along with other Canadians, news agencies, and so forth, will have more tools to get more information. They will not have to request as much information, because some of it will be proactively released.

I thought it was interesting that the member opposite talked about the Minister of Finance and misinformation. The Conservatives continuously attempt to say that. They talk about a villa. What they are really talking about is a house. There is a house in France, but I guess “villa” sounds better. The Conservatives want to put that kind of a spin on it. They say that it was not declared, which is not true. It was declared. That is the truth. It was declared weeks after the election, not two years later. He is reading from speaking notes, but he needs to understand that the reality is different than the Conservatives' spin on the issue. Access to information should not be used to foster misinformation, which is what we are seeing in some of these speeches. My question is why?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, once again, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader is trying to defend the indefensible. The reality is that contained in Bill C-58 is a provision that states the government determines whether or not it will give answers to an access to information request, and in what form. If the government feels that the request is either vexatious, frivolous, or made in bad faith, it does not have to answer. If it does answer, it can redact as much of the information that it feels is necessary. That is not true access to information, that is censorship. The member opposite knows it, and his government knows it. Shame on them for bringing forth a bill that is so regressive that most Canadians, should they understand the content of this bill, would rebel. I again ask the Liberals to do what is right for once in their lives, and to bring this bill back to the drawing board and redraft it. It needs a complete rework and overhaul.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Erin Weir NDP Regina—Lewvan, SK

Madam Speaker, the member for Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan and I worked together on the government operations committee to put together a report on whistle-blower protection in the federal public service. We heard harrowing stories about public servants enduring hardships and taking risks to blow the whistle and release information to the public. It struck me that if we had a stronger access to information system, where citizens could obtain information that the government does not want to divulge, there would be far less need for our brave public servants to take those risks. I wonder if the member for Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan would care to reflect on that observation as well.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, SK

Madam Speaker, my colleague and friend from Regina—Lewvan is quite right. He and I, and my colleague from Edmonton West, sit on the government operations committee. We heard compelling testimony from whistle-blowers who felt they were being let down by their government because the information they would bring forward to expose wrongdoing within the government was falling on deaf ears. In fact, it was even worse. Sometimes they came with stories about being punished for bringing forward these legitimate exposés of government wrongdoing, and in some cases outright corruption.

Will changes in Bill C-58 help or hinder those who expose wrongdoing in the government? Quite clearly, it would hinder the ability of public servants to come forward. That is just one of many examples I can put forward in this place to demonstrate quite clearly how flawed Bill C-58 actually is.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, a lovely resort town, for sharing his time with me. W.C. Fields was famous for his comment about not wanting to work with children and animals because they showed him up. Following his speech, I feel the same way.

I am pleased to speak on Bill C-58 today, which would amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. I also call it another broken Liberal promise hidden behind talking points peppered with key words like “open by default”, “transparency”, “historic”, and “whole of government”, but that is just the working title. I threw in “whole of government”, because Liberals use that for every other bill, so I figured why not this one as well.

The last time I spoke about this bill, I mentioned how it demonstrates the lofty rhetoric of the 2015 campaign on the Liberals' plan for openness, transparency, and accountability, and it was just that: rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as, “Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect” on its audience, but “often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.” That is pretty much what we have with this bill.

The Liberals defended their poorly thought-out bill by saying they were open to amendments. The Treasury Board president appeared before committee and repeated his intention a few times, and then realized that repeating this again and again does not make it true, much like “open by default”. It is shameful that the Liberals continue to talk about being open to amending their terrible legislation, but when the opportunity presents itself to make decent changes, the Liberals almost always shut them down.

This bill has been roundly ridiculed by experts, and what is the Treasury Board president's defence? He likes to say this is the first reform in over 34 years. This is a laughable excuse. One cannot defend bad actions by saying that at least it is an action, but that is the minister's key talking point. It is a lot like the executives of Coca-Cola sitting around an office table, talking about the recipe for Coke, and saying they have not amended it for 35 years or 100 years, so rather than broadly consulting for modifications to the formula, they launch an entirely new brand. Some of my colleagues in the House do not remember new Coke, but I can speak from experience that it did not work out very well.

The minister goes on about the virtues of his work by saying that, for the first time, Liberals are making government open by default, except that they are limiting it to sanitized briefing books and mandate letters that even the Liberal government has shown no intention of following. When faced with public outcry over their ruthless willingness to abandon their principles and promises in favour of whatever is politically convenient, the Liberals refuse to own up to their shameless actions with openness and transparency, but rather, mislead, re-profile, re-label, or try to change the story.

The minister then repeatedly touts the new powers given to the Information Commissioner. He repeats this point so often because it is probably the only positive point of the bill. The minister seems to have stopped listening after that point, and conveniently forgets that the commissioner herself is one of the harshest critics of the bill. Specifically, she said:

After studying the Bill, I have concluded that the proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act will not advance government transparency. The proposed Bill fails to deliver on the government’s promises. If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights.

That statement is on her website, plain for everyone to see. Perhaps the minister should read it.

The person charged with carrying out and overseeing access to information considers this bill “regressive”, but like many things, because the commissioner's statement is counter to the Liberal message of the day, she does not need to be listened to, it seems. This is ironic. In defending their unending parade of scandals to members in this place, the Liberals claim to hold independent officers of Parliament in the highest regard. I can think of nothing more disrespectful than claiming to agree with the Information Commissioner, but then ignoring her thoughts on this disastrous legislation.

Let us talk about some of the problems with the current system. Timely access to information is key to a well-functioning democracy. If an access to information request takes months or even years to fulfill, the government has failed in its responsibility to be accessible. This legislation would not prevent requests from taking months or even years to be completed, but, amazingly enough, enables the process to take even longer.

I am an avid user of the Access to Information Act. In the two years since being elected, I have submitted over 60 ATIP requests. Take my word for it when I say that the Liberal government is unbearably slow in responding to ATIP requests. As I mentioned, since elected, I have filed over 60 requests, and only half of them have been completed. Some were filed in March of 2016 and remain outstanding over 20 months later.

I am now coming up to my second anniversary of this outstanding ATIP, and apparently cotton is the gift for second anniversaries. I am out looking for something to celebrate the two years outstanding for that ATIP.

Other requests include October 19, 2016, 18 months outstanding; September 2, 2016, 14 months outstanding; two filed at the very beginning of this year, almost a year old now; and April 6, 2017, 10 months outstanding. We also have over 24 ATIPs outstanding that were filed over half a year ago. For reference, I gave the same numbers the first time I spoke to Bill C-58 back in September. My office has not received a single one of them back yet.

The government promised to be better, set a gold standard, and exceed it by a mile. Exceed it? It has not even left the starting blocks.

What is the government's response to this? It wants to give heads of government institutions the ability to decline requests on the basis they are vexatious or made in bad faith. Who is going to define vexatious? Who is going to ensure the government heads are not declining requests that are vexatious to the government or departments because they would embarrass them and are in fact requests for information the public needs to know, such as our ATIPs on the Phoenix issue, which showed very clearly that the government was told two months before it pulled the trigger on Phoenix to clear the backlog before going ahead, which it ignored. Under these rules about vexatious requests, the department would have been able to cover that off.

Another ATIP we had on Phoenix had the CFOs from every single government operation, Transport, Public Services, Agriculture, Finance, and Revenue, all stating very clearly not to go ahead with it, that the training and testing were not done. The government went ahead. Again, without access to information, we would not have found this.

We asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board if ministers would be able to decline requests using the same clause. She said that she could not confirm that ministers would not have that power. This is ridiculous. Apparently, the government itself is stating that it will decide what is vexatious. I have no doubt it will use these new, poorly defined, and inadequately described powers to declare as much as it can to be vexatious or in bad faith.

“Never fear”, the Liberals would say. If a person disagrees with the Liberal denial, he or she can appeal to the commissioner or go to the courts. However, as we have heard repeatedly in this place, the court system is so bogged down with cases and understaffed by qualified judges, almost exclusively because the government is unwilling or unable to fill these roles. Because of that, we are now letting accused murderers off the hook. Imagine how tied up our courts will be when we add in all the appeals on DWI because of impairment for pot. We know we do not have a valid and proper way to measure impairment.

My point is that the system of denial, appeal, denial, appeal could take a process, which already takes upward of 18 months or more and counting, two years. It could take three years or perhaps four years. The beauty of the legislation for the government is that there is no upper limit on the timelessness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the public and opposition do not see beauty in this.

The government claims that it is ensuring it is open by default, and we know this is patently false. Open by default would include setting an upper limit, which the government would then release the requested information. This legislation ensures that the government can continue moving the upper limit as long as is politically convenient.

The Liberal government talks about all the published mandate letters. How does publishing mandate letters force the government to keep its promises? We remember the mandate letters referring to debt and deficit. That was in the finance minister's mandate letter, which was blown off. The electoral reform promise was in the democratic institutions minister's mandate letter, which was blown off. The promise to complete an open competition for fighter jets was blown off.

There is one mandate the minister can keep, which is to perhaps mess up the procurement, create a trade fight with Boeing and the U.S., and then further subsidize Bombardier.

What about the promise to modify the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act? That is also in the Treasury Board's mandate letter, and is also a failure.

John Ivison from the National Post sums it up very well. He said, “It’s a farce, and... [the minister] has been around long enough to know the changes he’s just unveiled will not make the slightest difference to helping citizens understand the government for which they pay so richly.”

This is it. Apart from a few minor amendments, the legislation has done nothing to meet the campaign promise of the Liberals.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Liberal

Mark Gerretsen Liberal Kingston and the Islands, ON

Madam Speaker, I am so glad that the member raised Phoenix, because this is an issue that I hear about quite a bit during question period. The member talked about how the government was warned not to push the button. The truth of matter is that the Conservatives fired 700 compensation advisers who used to do that work. The path was set. There was no option to go back by the time the current Liberal government came along and took over the disaster of a program that the former government had set up.

I would also like to reference the member's comments about Coca-Cola and that “if it ain't broke don't fix it”. The difference between Coke and new Coke is that Coke was already a great product. It had been around for many decades.

Is the member suggesting that the existing policy that has been around for decades is also a great policy and should be the benchmark we use by today's standards of information?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Madam Speaker, I can probably say that no one in the House knows more about Phoenix, unfortunately, than me, and perhaps my colleague for Regina—Lewvan. We have looked at this inside and out, and I have gone over probably 2,000 pages of ATIPs.

The government was told in advance not to go because the training was not done. We were told in advance to clear the backlog before we go and for the government not to do it. We were told in advance to do the training, but the government did not do that. On the issue about the terminating, we asked the minister and the previous minister how many of these employees were fired or terminated after October 2015. It was actually several hundred. Why were they laid off, if the government knew it was such a problem? Crickets, absolute crickets.

We asked the current minister that, and perhaps my colleague across the way wants to stick to “crickets” for his answer, instead of his accusations.

On the member's second point about the access to information law, the President of the Treasury Board stood up and said what a great job the Liberals have done and that it has been 35 years since the last time it happened. Sure, but the experts say it is horrible. The commissioner herself said that it is regressive and that the former government was a lot more open than the current government.

But, hey, it has been 35 years, and good on them for doing nothing. The Liberals can congratulate themselves for a great job of doing nothing.

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison NDP Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, BC

Madam Speaker, I have to say that it is good to have the Conservatives onside in opposing Bill C-58, which rolls back access to information and would do nothing to eliminate delays.

However, being the festive season and to be charitable, I will say that the member for Edmonton West was not here in Parliament from 2006 to 2015 when the Conservative government did not take this issue seriously and did nothing to improve it. I know that the member was not here in 2011 when the Harper government got the lowest mark possible from Canadian journalists for free expression on access to information, which was an F.

I am being charitable to the member, because he was not here. I am glad to have the Conservatives onside, in some kind of conversion on the road to opposition from the Conservatives here, but, in this Parliament, if the bill is so bad, why did the Conservatives present zero amendments in committee?

Access to Information ActGovernment Orders

5:35 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Mr. Speaker, I wish I had sat on that committee. It would perhaps have given me a break from explaining all the issues on Phoenix which the Liberals have inflicted on Canadians. I was not part of the committee, and I was not aware, but very clearly presenting amendments, just like the NDP did, would have had absolutely no effect. The minister made it very clear from the beginning that this was the world's greatest proposed law, which would bring in changes to access to information. The government would brook no advice or changes from anyone else. Why we did not, I am not sure, but it would have made no difference.

However, another colleague talked about the whistle-blower act. My party, together with the NDP and Liberals in the government operations committee, put through a unanimous report to protect whistle-blowers, presenting a lot of great suggestions on how we can make amendments and legislative changes to improve it. However, the same President of the Treasury Board, who shot down all the amendments in the committee on Bill C-58, took the whistle-blower suggestions and put them in the dustbin with all the other great amendments that were suggested by the NDP and other parties on the Access to Information Act.