Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Vancouver Quadra.
I am proud to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.
Our government was elected on a promise to reinforce public trust in our democracy, and over the course of our time in office, we have put action behind our words. For example, we are reforming campaign finance laws to make one of the world's most respected democracies even more transparent. We have introduced legislation to make Canada's democracy more accessible to all Canadians. The debate today is about another of the fundamental concepts of any modern democracy.
We know Canadians cannot meaningfully participate in democracy when they are in an information vacuum. Access to government data is vital. Without it, neither the public nor the media are able to hold governments to account. That is why our government promised to firm up one of the key pillars of our democracy: access to information.
We told Canadians we would make information open by default, and in formats that would be modern and simple to use. Canadians pay for the information that is assembled in the Government of Canada, so why should they not have access to this data? This greater openness in turn will lead to greater confidence in our democracy, which is why this government has put such a great emphasis on amending the Access to Information Act with Bill C-58.
This is the first major overhaul since our predecessors in this very institution voted in favour of the current act 35 years ago, so it is long overdue.
The act, which was enacted in Parliament in 1982, and took effect the following year, came long before anyone had ever heard of the Internet. Governments in those days had far more administrators and clerks, because there was so much paperwork to file and record. One could not just flip a written message to a colleague by email. If one wanted to send an interesting news article to a counterpart in another department, one could not just forward a link. One's options were limited to things like a fax machine or an inter-office courier.
Today, technology has dramatically changed how governments operate, and we need to align our laws to take into account this new reality. We have a responsibility to make it easier to obtain information and once Canadians get it, that information should be in easy-to-use formats. We can think of the graduate students, like those at Dalhousie University or Saint Mary's University in my riding of Halifax, who are out there doing groundbreaking research but operating on tight timelines. We want them to be able to, when possible, obtain an electronic version of government records so they can more easily navigate and analyze the documents. Think of the time that will be saved if they do not have to go through hundreds of pages to find what they are looking for.
Now Bill C-58 has many components, but for now I would like to focus on how it impacts parliamentary institutions. I am talking about the Library of Parliament, the parliamentary budget officer, the Parliamentary Protective Service, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer, and the administration of the Senate and of the House of Commons. These institutions are foundational components of our democracy, and Bill C-58 proposes to bring them under the Access to Information Act to make them more accountable. The proposed legislation will require these institutions to publish each quarter their travel and hospitality expenses as well as disclose over the same timeline any contracts with a value above $10,000.
Another important component of Bill C-58 is the new powers it would give to our Information Commissioner. This is of particular interest to me, both in my role as a Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Democratic Institutions as well as the member of Parliament for Halifax.
Not too long ago, I met with representatives from a group based in Halifax called the Centre for Law and Democracy, whose mission is to:
...promote, protect and develop those human rights which serve as the foundation for or underpin democracy, including the rights to freedom of expression, to vote and participate in governance, to access information and to freedom of assembly and association.
Some members may be familiar with the centre's work on the right to information rating, or RTI, which is developed along with Access Info Europe to calculate and rate the overall strength of countries' right to information laws.
The topic of the Information Commissioner was one I discussed with representatives of this group in my office during a meeting in the spring. They believe, as I do, and so too does our government believe, that the Information Commissioner ought to have the ability to order the release of records, or so-called “order making”. I am proud to say that Bill C-58 would give the Information Commissioner that power. I would like to congratulate and thank the Centre for Law and Democracy on its strong advocacy on this point, and for its ongoing work in Canada and across the world to strengthen democratic institutions.
It is important to note that the legislation would also give government institutions the ability to decline requests that are excessively broad or requests of information already in the public domain.
The government has limited resources, and this will free up government institutions to respond to other requesters. Of course the applicant subjected to a decision like this would be able to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner.
Bill C-58 would also oblige members of Parliament and senators to publish all travel and hospitality expenses, and all service contract amounts. In both cases, this information would have to be made public on a quarterly basis.
We know senators and members of Parliament already publish travel and hospitality expenses pursuant to their own internal rules, and senators disclose service contract information, while MPs publish the total costs of awarded service contracts.
Importantly, Bill C-58 would enshrine the current practice of also requiring additional details on the service contracts and travel costs of MPs.
This legislation will require a review of the act every five years, starting in 2019. This will give Canadians an opportunity to look for further improvements.
We believe Canada deserves a vibrant democracy that is transparent, open, and accountable, but our efforts do not begin and end with changes to the Access to Information Act.
We have been relentless since taking office to look for other ways to improve our democratic system. For instance, Bill C-33 would amend the Canada Elections Act to increase voter participation and improve the integrity of our electoral system. Bill C-50, meanwhile, if passed, will make important changes to the same act to make political fundraising more open and transparent. We are also taking action against cyber threats and the danger they pose to our electoral system.
We live in one of the most respected democracies in the world, but our government will remain relentless in ensuring that any weaknesses are dealt with. Bill C-58 is a major part of this effort, and I am proud to work with the Minister of Democratic Institutions to advance it. With that, I welcome any questions from my colleagues.