Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Richmond—Arthabaska.
As we have heard many times today, again, the legislation before us, Bill C-58, which the Liberal government is steamrolling to pass through the heavy-handed imposition once again of the legislative guillotine of time allocation, has been characterized in many ways.
The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association dismissed the so-called proactive disclosure provisions as a bizarre sleight of hand.
Democracy Watch calls Bill C-58 a step backward.
The Canadian Association of Journalists ridiculed the President of the Treasury Board for “outstanding achievement in government secrecy” and conferred on the Liberals a “code of silence” award.
La Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec said that rather than the promised greater openness from this Liberal government it was a false alarm, too good to be true.
The Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University says Bill C-58 is little more than a cosmetic touch-up.
The Algonquin Nation Secretariat, on behalf of the National Claims Research Directors, rejected Bill C-58 as it was originally written for installing “significant new barriers for First Nations” trying to access historic information for their land claims. They have a right to access that information.
From experts on open government principles across the country there has been condemnation of the parts of Bill C-58 that allow the government to deny access to documents the government claims contain confidential cabinet information, which the experts characterize still today as the deepest black hole in Canada's access to information system.
As well, there are any number of other negative characterizations of the flawed legislation before us, but the most telling comes from the Information Commissioner herself.
After the Liberal majority ignored the unanimously negative votes from this side of the House at second reading by Conservatives, the NDP, the Bloc, and the Green Party, Commissioner Legault sent her own strongly worded message to the government, to members of the House, and to all Canadians. It was titled “Failing to Strike the Right Balance for Transparency—Recommendations to improve Bill C-58”. It is relevant to read just a few of the commissioner's remarks into the record.
Commissioner Legault reminded us that, “The Liberal government was elected on a platform of openness and transparency... promising to renew Canadians' trust in their government....to lead a review of the outdated Access to Information Act to enhance the openness of government.” Commissioner Legault concluded, “In short, Bill C-58 fails to deliver.”
She said the government promised the bill would ensure the act applies to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices appropriately. “It does not”, she said, with emphasis.
She said the government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. Again, with emphasis, she said, “It does not”.
She said the government promised the bill would empower the Information Commissioner, to empower her, to order the release of government information. Again she said clearly, “It does not”.
The commissioner summed up her assessment of Bill C-58 with telling finality, “Rather than advancing access to information rights, Bill C-58 would instead result in a regression of existing rights.”
She then, across some 45 pages of detailed criticism, marked the government's proposed legislation section by section, paragraph by paragraph, as a disappointed high school teacher might mark an under-fulfilling student. There are 12 red-line failures, regressive elements, in the commissioner's assessment, a couple of neutrals and a couple of positives.
When the commissioner came before our committee, she reiterated her conclusion that Bill C-58 is overwhelmingly a regressive piece of legislation that diminishes Canadians' right to know.
She spoke again to the fact that Bill C-58 does not truly empower her to order the disclosure of information while, at the same time, it adds burdensome stages to the investigation process.
The Information Commissioner effectively said that should the government fail to accept her top 28 recommended amendments, the status quo, what we have now as access to information legislation, as imperfect as it may be, would be preferable to Bill C-58. Her most telling example of the glaring flaws of Bill C-58 was to explain to our committee that if passed as originally tabled, it would have blocked the journalistic requests that exposed the notorious sponsorship scandal.
Now, this example gave the Liberal government pause and moved the Liberals to retreat somewhat. Therefore, one of the few improvements or amendments accepted by the government for the current form of the bill before us was the removal of what the commissioner termed “massive regression” in terms of excessively specific criteria in any access to information request.
This removal is to be welcomed, but it seems some government departments and individual officials are nonetheless already implementing its stringent provisions. The commissioner revealed in her testimony before committee that she had a newly documented case where one institution was applying criteria in Bill C-58, which is not law, and thanks to the government retreat in this area will not be in the law. However, at least one institution is already using those now deleted criteria to deny legitimate requests for information. Therefore, I think that any reasonable person has to wonder how officials in departments and agencies across government will respect and follow the letter of the law in this very slightly amended but still deeply flawed piece of legislation.
The government has not only ignored and rejected the wise advice of the Information Commissioner, journalists, stakeholders, human rights advocates, and ordinary citizens who would like to see meaningful improvements to access to information, but the current Liberal government has also ignored almost all of the recommendations made by the Liberal-dominated committee of the House that carried out an exhaustive study of the law a year ago before Bill C-58 was written and tabled.
Members probably already noted that I have not addressed the false advertising of the Liberals' 2015 election promises on reform to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. Members may recall the then leader of the third party of the House making promises across a spectrum of tax cuts, modest deficits, electoral reform, restoration of home mail delivery, the United Nations peacekeeping, revenue-neutral carbon prices, just to name a few. The Liberal leader also said “...we're going to have to embark on a completely different style of government”. He then added an interesting metaphor when he promised, “A government that both accepts its responsibilities to be open and transparent, but also a population that doesn't mind lifting the veil to see how sausages are made”.
I am not sure whether members can see the Prime Minister or the President of the Treasury Board as sausage makers, but if they do, then they must truly see Bill C-58 as “the wurst”. This is not a great pun, but I think it appropriate in this situation.
The President of the Treasury Board, a loquacious and good-humoured individual, asked us when he appeared before committee to recognize the government's daring in attempting the first meaningful updating of the Access to Information Act in 34 years. He had spoken abroad at the summit of Open Government Partnership extolling the virtues of the Liberal government's commitment. However, in the face of overwhelming criticism of the deeply flawed Bill C-58, the minister has rejected virtually all of the recommended improvements and amendments from our committee, from the commissioner, and from Canadians. He effectively said not to worry, be happy, and that this aromatic sausage may not be perfect, but he will look at it again in a year and perhaps consider improvements. He said, “Don't let perfection be the enemy of the good”. However, as I said earlier today, there is very little good in Bill C-58.
We recognize on this side of the House that Bill C-58 is a classically regressive piece of legislation that is about to be steamrollered into law by the Liberal majority. Shame on Liberal backbenchers. As I have said, they are using the legislative guillotine of time allocation, cutting short debate on an issue that is at the heart of the our democracy, which is the right of Canadians to know how they are governed.