Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak to Bill C-58, a comprehensive set of amendments to the Access to Information Act that would deliver on our government's key commitment to improve openness and transparency in government. If passed, these amendments would make progress in bringing Canada's access to information legislation in line with the communication advances of the last three decades.
The act has not been significantly updated since it came into force 34 years ago, when fax machines were cutting edge and information was stored in huge filing rooms. As we all know, however, the world has evolved considerably since then. Today, it is smart phones and social media, big data and high-speed Internet.
Canadians seek out information through digital channels, and government can now interact with the public through the web and social media. Moreover, the volume of information the government manages has dramatically increased.
I think we can all agree that the current act needs to be brought up to date.
We have certainly been hearing that so far in the debate.
This is why the government committed to reforming Canada’s access to information program. This modernization began with early action to improve access to information.
In May 2016, the President of the Treasury Board issued an interim directive that enshrined the principle of open by default. He eliminated all fees, apart from the $5 filing fee, and directed the release of government information in user-friendly formats wherever possible. Fees for processing large-volume requests could run into the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars and sometimes deterred people from having access to public information.
Those were good first steps. Today we are maintaining that elimination of fees, and we are bringing forward transformative measures to enhance Canadians' access to government information.
Let me begin with one of many ground-breaking features of our proposed legislation. For the very first time, the Information Commissioner would have order-making power. No access to information regime is complete without powerful and meaningful oversight. We promised Canadians that we would find ways to empower the Office of the Information Commissioner to order government information to be released.
The bill before us today would do just that. This is something that has come up again and again in the debate as one of the key things that are a necessary change, and we are making that change. This change would strengthen the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with a legislative ability to order government institutions to release records.
The legislation also proposes to entrench in law, for future and current governments, an obligation to proactively publish a broad range of information on a predictable schedule and without the need for anyone to make an access to information request for that information.
The amendments would create a new part of the act on proactive publication which builds on current best practices, applies consistent requirements across government institutions, and seizes on the opportunities of our digital age.
These amendments would result in the proactive release of key information throughout government.
This is a process that would take place across literally hundreds of offices and departments of the government. It would allow our citizens a greater understanding of government and would demonstrate effective stewardship of public funds.
Here is another first. Through this legislative system of mandatory proactive disclosure, the act would, for the first time ever, include ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's Office, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges of the superior courts.
This system of mandatory proactive disclosure puts a strong emphasis on increasing the information that is open by default and making information that is of interest to Canadians freely available on the web.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few more features of the reforms we will make to our access to information regime.
Having just spoken about the proactive publication that is key to our commitment to openness by default, I also want to mention a few other things we are doing in the bill.
We will develop a new plain language guide that will provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions. The rationale for these exclusions will be laid out, a rationale that will be in the public interest.
We would invest in tools to make processing information more efficient. That is an important way to address one of the key weaknesses of our current system, which is how many access to information requests are not responded to in a timely way.
The bill would allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request processing services for greater efficiency and timeliness. It would support the new legislation with government training. There are many things we would do.
It is important to note that many of our changes were initiated at the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
It would be subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner. The bill proposes that if a department decides to decline to act on a request, the requester will have the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner, and the Commissioner could use the new order-making power to resolve the issue.
This is a new authority that could significantly improve the system, but it needs to be implemented with care.
We look forward to debating the proposed provisions with parliamentarians in a thoughtful way. All these changes were designed to address criticism from Canadians about delays and inconsistencies in the current request-based system and recommendations from stakeholders, such as the Information Commissioner and our colleagues at the ETHI committee.
We can never become complacent when it comes to openness and transparency. That is why the reforms before us today are the first legislative phase in what would be an ongoing review and modernization of the act.
The legislation would require a review of the act every five years, and as I pointed out earlier in the debate, the first review would start no later than one year after royal assent, so this is really an ongoing improvement process. These five-year reviews would provide an important opportunity for Canadians to have their say on access rights and would help us make sure that the system met their needs.
These reviews will assess what is working and how, and ensure that the act is never allowed to become so outdated again. Today, I am proud to be part of the first government to bring significant change to the Access to Information Act since it was first introduced over 30 years ago.
I encourage all members to support this work and this bill, and in doing so help us take a great step forward in updating the Access to Information Act.
I also look forward to continuing to work with Parliament, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, and other stakeholders to further strengthen our access to information regime.