Mr. Speaker, Canadians deserve a government that is accountable and open by default. For that to be possible, Canadians must have access to information about government decisions and practices to hold their government to account. While the Liberal government pays lips service to those ideals of openness and accountability, it has consistently fallen short of implementing them. We have seen this in a variety of areas, particularly with the statement by the Prime Minister on open and accountable government.
The stated aim of Bill C-58 is to update the Access to Information Act with necessary reforms. However, as with many Liberal promises, it fails to achieve them. We have heard them invoking flowery language and buzz words and making grand-sounding claims as a substitute for action in many instances in this Parliament. This bill is no different in many respects, and I will get to some of them.
An open and accountable government requires citizens to have access to information about decisions made by Parliament and government entities. Since the first Access to Information Act was introduced in 1983, the act has provided Canadians with the means to request information about themselves, or decisions affecting them. However, because of significant changes in information technology and in government operations and the passage of time, the act has not been meaningfully updated since it was first introduced, and many critics across all party lines have identified the need for reform.
The Conservatives introduced the idea of openness by default in the previous parliament. In 1983, it was originally a Liberal government that introduced the act. However, successive Conservative and Liberal governments have neglected to update it as required. Although I guess the current Liberal government is to be commended for undertaking the task in the first place, we see many shortcomings in the resulting bill. Bill C-58 does not adequately address many of the flaws in Canada's current access to information regime that we heard about in detail at committee.
When I was a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, we conducted a detailed study of the act and the issues surrounding it. We heard from numerous witnesses, from accountability watchdogs to ATIP officers in government departments to Canada's Information Commissioner, and others. We reviewed the commissioner's comprehensive report on the state of access to information in Canada and adopted many of her key recommendations in our own report. All three parties on the committee co-operated to draft a thoughtful report, with sensible recommendations for access to information reform. However, the government's response to our report is both late and underwhelming. The Liberals promised that phase one of the ministerial level review of Canada's access to information regime would be completed in time to produce legislation in early 2017. Here we are in late September and just beginning today to debate the bill, which many critics consider to be a half measure.
One of the primary flaws that witnesses at committee pointed out is the culture of secrecy throughout government. Such a culture runs contrary to both Liberal promises and Conservative initiatives. This has run across party lines over time. For example, the Conservatives hold that Canada's government should be open by default. In the last parliament, the Conservative government released a study titled “Canada's Action Plan on Open Government”, in which the Conservatives recognized the following:
The key challenge for governments is how to shift to an environment where data and information are released openly to the public by default while respecting privacy, security, and confidentiality restrictions.
Such an environment represents a fundamental change in government culture that requires government-wide direction to drive the release of federal information and advance overall objectives for transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement.
Such an environment of disclosure would be a stark departure from what witnesses at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics described as a culture of secrecy among government entities.
According to witnesses like Sean Holman, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the general attitude of the public service is one of withholding instead of disclosing information, and one of caution instead of candour. This attitude flows from the act and from cabinet. Mr. Holman put it clearly when he said:
We have a cultural problem when it comes to secrecy....Fixing the Access to Information Act is only one part of addressing those problems....the problem with the Access to Information Act when it was introduced was that it was grafted onto a secretive political system. We did not deal with the actual problem; we instead introduced legislation that conformed to the system as it currently existed.
He was referring to the adoption of the original act in 1983, which has remained virtually unchanged since then.
This is not to criticize Canada's public servants, since they respond to direction from the top. Those that enter the public service walk into a culture that already exists. Bringing about a culture of openness by default requires buy-in from ministers, the Prime Minister, deputy ministers, and senior managers among all departments. Culture cannot be changed overnight and simply by adopting a new law in Parliament.
Openness and accountability require timely responses. Witnesses at committee complained bitterly about the delays in the service standards for responding to ATIPS. They mentioned that extension after extension can take response times of up to over a year in some cases. This diminishes the news value of information for journalists. It puts people's lives on hold in some circumstances when they need vital information, and brings to mind the adage that justice delayed is justice denied.
Bill C-58 includes some of the committee's recommendations, the most significant of which is granting the commissioner the power to issue binding orders for the disclosure of particular information. Although it should increase the public's access to information, such order-making power is not a panacea for solving a culture of secrecy. Also, it was not uniformly endorsed in witness testimony, although it was the final recommendation of the committee.
The committee heard from witnesses like Professor Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and access to information and privacy lawyer. He argued that switching to an order-making model is unnecessary because the issue and the problem that existed was the culture in government and the lack of openness in which departmental ATIP officers responded or operated in.
If within a department the ATIP officers and other members of the public service have a mindset and a culture to openly disclose information and to think first of ensuring that it is released on a timely basis, we might not be arguing about whether or not order-making power is necessary to compel disclosure. Delay is the biggest failure perhaps, which will not be solved by merely establishing order-making power for the commissioner.
We are glad to see that Bill C-58 requires the minister to undertake a review at least within one year of royal assent and every five years thereafter. Hopefully, that will prevent us from going another 34 years without a review of the act. It is important, because we know that the pace of change in information technology and the evolution of that technology is very fast, and as long as political will continues to exist to review the act in the future, it is good to have the built-in provision for review.
The provisions in Bill C-58 requiring proactive publication of materials related to Parliament, ministers' offices, superior courts, and other government institutions are a welcome addition to the access to information regime and should contribute to the culture of openness by default, but there is certainly a long way to go to establish that change of culture.
Proactive disclosure of sought after information should increase democratic accountability and pre-empt many requests, but proactive disclosure by various parliamentary and governmental entities is not the same as extending the scope of the Access to Information Act to cover them. It is not what the committee recommended nor what the commissioner recommended and not what the Liberals promised in their 2015 election platform, and it is not what the Prime Minister ordered in the mandate letter of the President of the Treasury Board.
The minister's mandate letter instructs him to lead a review of the act and implement certain reforms, such as ensuring that “the Act applies appropriately to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.”
Ensuring that the act applies to the prime minister's and ministers' offices requires more than proactive disclosure of a limited list of useful information, but this is not the only recommendation that the bill either ignores or only partially addresses.
Our report suggested several matters that the government should consider or consult on during the second phase of its review. I welcome an update from the government on the state of those considerations and consultations.
Open and accountable government requires an access to information regime that ensures timely responses to ATIP requests. This applies to all elements of the Government of Canada, with a few important exceptions, namely, to protect parliamentary privilege, cabinet confidence, and national security. This prevents government entities from wiggling out of disclosure obligations. That is why the committee recommended that the minister consult the organizations that support Parliament, such as the clerks of the Senate and the House of Commons, and the parliamentary librarian to determine how to effectively protect parliamentary privilege and create an independent review process for such provisions.
To improve timely response to ATIP requests, we recommended limiting extensions to only those cases where strictly necessary, and even then, only for a maximum of 30 days. We also recommended repealing exclusions in the act and replacing them with exemptions as needed. As Ken Rubin mentioned, when responding to a question at committee, we cannot expect to change a culture of secrecy just by giving order-making power to the commissioner, and especially not if all the carve-outs remain in place through the retention of an extensive list of exemptions.
Eliminating exclusions, which are stated areas that the act does not cover, and replacing them with exemptions, which would allow government entities to refuse requests on specific grounds, would provide greater oversight of Canada's access to information regime. It would also shift the culture of the public service more toward openness by default.
To protect the vital governance work of Parliament, the committee recommended adding a mandatory exemption for cabinet confidences when disclosure would reveal the substance of cabinet deliberations, except when such discussions cover a period of factual or background information when there is consent for disclosure of the information, and so forth.
For ease of understanding, to reduce the volume of requests received and to contribute to a culture of openness by default, the committee recommended that institutions respond to ATIP requests by providing information in open, reusable, and accessible file formats, such as pdf, Word, Excel, and similar formats, instead of obscure and highly specialized ones.
Although useful in their own right, the measures the committee recommended would not create a comprehensive access to information regime with great swaths of government entities that are not subject to the act.
Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pointed out at committee that “as a general principle the federal Access to Information Act should cover all of the federal government, including both government-controlled and government-funded areas.” The principle here is quite simple: where taxpayers' money is being spent, the public deserves accountability and transparency.
To address such an extension of the act, the Information Commissioner stated that “The use of criteria as a way to determine which entities should be subject to the Act is a rational approach to coverage, as it promotes predictability with respect to which entities are subject to the Act.” Moreover, it guarantees that institutions performing similar functions are also subject to it. Her criteria included whether an entity is covered because it is publicly controlled in whole or in part by the government; whether it performs public functions under federal jurisdiction because it has power to regulate and set standards under federal jurisdiction because it is charged with executing federal policy; whether it is established by federal statute; or whether it is one of the many covered by the Financial Administration Act.
The government has undertaken a review of Canada's access to information regime and has made a first attempt at updating the act. We are disappointed that the President of the Treasury Board has ignored many of the committee's recommendations. What could have been a good start on a worthy project has become something of a disappointment to the members, witnesses, and the Information Commissioner herself, who contributed to a detailed study on the topic. The President of the Treasury Board seems to expect extraordinary credit for these meagre steps that do not seem likely to fix all of the problems in an access to information system that is widely described by critics as broken.
This morning, the minister made it out as if Bill C-58 would instantly transform Canada into a world leader in access to information. That is simply not the case. Many of the problems will remain in place. Comparatively, we have a country like Serbia, which was not even a sovereign nation but part of a federation under a communist dictatorship in 1983 when our act was brought in. It is ranked ahead of Canada by international observers. This is not a credit to the current system. As well, we can compare to countries like Sweden that have had access to information law for 250 years. Witnesses could not believe that in Canada it would take months and months to get information that would routinely be released in 24 hours in countries like that.
The government is trying to take far too much credit for this reform. I urge the minister to reconsider Bill C-58 and correct its many deficiencies. I encourage the new members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to take advantage of review stage and amend it. Canada indeed deserves an open and accountable government, with a sensible and comprehensive access to information regime. We deserve better than Bill C-58.
I will not support this bill. To do so would be to reward the government for breaking its election promises and taking credit for window dressing, which it has described as a grand and comprehensive solution.