Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-58, the access to information reform legislation. It is with considerable disappointment that I must, on behalf of the NDP, be opposed to the initiative. However, I am also pleased to hear the President of the Treasury Board acknowledge that at committee, there might be a possibility for improving the legislation to give it some credibility.
If I may be permitted at the outset to make a personal statement, access to information, freedom of information, has been one of my passions. I did graduate work on this topic. In law, I worked with the Government of British Columbia in drafting the legislation there, as well as in Yukon. Back in the early eighties, I worked on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association to try to get the first access to information act through in a credible way. The former member of Parliament for Peace River, Conservative member Jed Baldwin, gave me an award of merit from the House for my work on freedom of information. Therefore, I come to this with a passion for the topic.
Three things are necessary for any credible law and, after 34 years, we all agree that this law needs modernizing. I salute the government for finally doing something in that regard. First, it has to have a clear statement that information is a right. Second, there have to be exceptions to the rule of openness that are narrow and have to demonstrate some harm from the disclosure. Third, there has to be an umpire, someone neutral, who can order a government that does not wish to provide the information to make it public. Those are the three things by which any reform must be evaluated. Sadly, this bill comes up short.
People sometimes have their eyes glaze over when we talk about access to information. That is usually the end of a conversation. People go back to doing something else. I want to tell Canadians who may be watching this why it is important. How many times have we read an article that starts with “Information released today under the Access to Information Act” reported thus and so? The answer is frequently.
The Globe and Mail used the Access to Information Act for its April 2016 investigative series “Unfounded”, which revealed that police had been dismissing one out of every five sexual assault claims as baseless. It took a year to get the information. The delays were ridiculous, and I will come back to that. That was the tool that was necessary for Canadians to understand what their police were and were not doing about sexual assault.
Just last week, the CBC reported that the Prime Minister's controversial Bahamas vacation cost Canadians over $215,000, far more than was initially disclosed to Parliament. That came about through a document released under this act.
Yesterday morning, I woke up to hear that after a year, reporters finally obtained the original contract from the Phoenix pay fiasco, once again thanks to this act.
Transparency is important. It was a major theme for the Liberal Party during the 2015 election. In fact, before that, the Prime Minister introduced Bill C-613, an act to amend the Access to Information Act. I would invite all Canadians to look at what the Prime Minister wanted to do with that bill while in opposition compared to what is being proposed today. I think they will see a yawning divide. What he said, though, in introducing that legislation, was that “a country's access to information system is at the heart of open government”. He is right.
Our Supreme Court also said that what we are talking about today is in fact quasi-constitutional in nature. This is not an ordinary act. It is something that the courts have recognized as essential to an open, modern democracy.
The New Democratic Party has introduced private members' bills to modernize the act so many times I do not want to list them all, but in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2014, this is something we tried to fix. Every time, the Conservatives and then the Liberals voted them down.
In March of 2015, the Information Commissioner released 85 recommendations to modernize the act. I invite Canadians to look at that list of recommendations and what we are left with today.
The point is that this is essential to fix, as the President of Treasury Board properly pointed out.
When we introduced this bill in the early eighties, computers were hardly a fact of life, email did not really exist in the public service, and record-keeping was very different than it is today. Clearly this is long overdue. It is too bad that the government has not taken the opportunity to do the job properly. Almost all civil society groups that have studied this have been outspoken in their opposition, some angry, but most simply sad and disappointed that this is what we are left with.
Let me talk about what the government did not do. That is how we have to assess this exercise. The exemptions to the rule of disclosure, the list of the things that the government can properly withhold, are very badly drafted, very discretionary, do not even have to show a harm. However, there is one that is different from all the others.
Back when this bill was introduced under the former Prime Minister Trudeau regime, it decided to cut out a category of records called “cabinet confidences”. It does not even apply to cabinet confidences. Everyone who has ever studied this has said that this is the Mack truck clause. In fact, some of the more humorous commentary describes this as “cabinet laundering”. All the government has to do if it does not want something disclosed is to slip it into a cabinet briefing book, and voila, the black hole. It never gets to be seen. It is not even subject to the act. One would have thought that after 34 years, job one would have been to maybe talk about that. It is not even mentioned. The black hole remains. Cabinet laundering can continue.
Information delayed is information denied. Every journalist in the land understands that. I had a journalist stop me on the street the other day, and she said that when she is asking for information, she usually gets something on the very last day of the 30-day period. Day 29 she is told that there is going to be a delay, and then the government asks for another delay. If she complains to the Information Commissioner, she is told that the office is swamped and it might take several months to get the story out. Even then, if the government does not want to do it, the Information Commissioner would recommend that it can say no.
Information delayed is information denied. That will not be fixed by this bill in any meaningful way.
The other thing is that we live in an oral culture. In fact, one of my colleagues refers to it as “the Post-it culture”. I will explain. If a government member has a record that they know is going to be subject to disclosure, maybe they put a little Post-it note on the document that says what the juicy bits are. That happens. I know that the Speaker will be surprised to hear that.
The duty to document decisions is not even part of this bill. I talked earlier about computers where we can delete transitory records and the like. However, the fact is that an oral culture is alive and well and living in Ottawa.
Let me get to the bill. What does Bill C-58 do, and why can we not support it? I would first like to quote from the Centre for Law and Democracy which said:
the Bill is far more conspicuous for what it fails to do....
It fails to expand the scope of the Act. It does place a number of proactive publication obligations on various actors – including the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices...but this falls far short of bringing these bodies within the ambit of the Act.
Certain types of information have always been available, at least in recent years, such as travel expenses, contracts over $10,000. By policy, these have been available for years. Now it is put in the bill, and the government thinks it should get a gold star for doing that. I am not sure why.
Again, quoting from the Centre for Law and Democracy:
While more proactive disclosure is always welcome, as anyone who has used the Act knows, it is absolutely not a substitute for the right to be able to request the information one is interested in from public authorities.
I think that is clear.
Today the minister made a lot of the notion that there is to be order-making powers under this bill. It is true that if we look closely, we can see that it is, in the words of a colleague, a chimera. It does not really do that.
Let me talk about how it works in the provinces. Let us take British Columbia, for example. The Information Commissioner makes an order: “Disclose that record, government. I know you do not want to do it, but it is not able to be withheld legitimately under the exceptions.” That is it. If the government wants to seek judicial review of that decision, it does so.
Let us compare that to the convoluted order-making power that the minister was so proud of in this bill. It seems to say that if the government agrees with a decision of the commissioner to release the document, it will be released. So what? If the government disagrees with the commissioner's recommendation, then the government could take him or her to Federal Court. Imagine how expensive and litigious this would all be. The government has created, in my submission, an unwieldy, unnecessary, and unaffordable system.
I wish I had time to go into the section that deals with this. It talks of the ability to make an order, but in the interest of time, suffice it to say that it is beyond complicated and likely unworkable. It would not really do what the minister has said it would do. I wish the Liberals had followed the simple route that most provinces have followed.
Though it is true that there would be proactive disclosure of a number of kinds of information from ministers' offices, the point is that Canadians would still not be able to request the information they want from those offices, appeal to the commissioner, and get an order to release it. It is just not there. The promise made in the election that we would have open offices and that people would get the information is not what is happening. That is very disappointing.
The Liberals also talked about the five-year review that is a feature of this act, and thank goodness it is there. That is nothing new. However, it is not like the Bank Act, for example, under which the legislation would sunset if that review did not take place by that time, so who knows how long it will actually take before we get to the review that is promised? That is very different from what the platform promised.
The Liberals talked today about something new, which is the ability to go after bad-faith, long, frivolous, and vexatious requests. That is a new restriction, not a change for the positive. I can appreciate why it is necessary, and, yes, it exists at the provincial level, but here is the punchline: this bill would give the final decision to the government to decide whether the request is too big, too long, or frivolous. Everywhere else, of course, it is the commissioner who gets to decide. Do members remember what I said about an umpire in the game who is neutral? I do not think the minister who does not want the information to be disclosed is in the best position to do that. I cannot believe they think that is a significant reform that we should be proud of.
The government is probably going to pat itself on the back for this bill. It is probably going to say, “We promised openness and transparency, and openness by default, and that is what we delivered.” The truth is far from that. I want to be optimistic—I always try to be—and give the government the benefit of the doubt. The minister stood in this place and said, “We will be open to amendments at committee”, and we are certainly going to be there to try to give him the opportunity to make this credible, because it is not credible now. It is kind of like the promise the Liberals made in 2015, when they said that 2015 would be the last election that would be fought under the first-past-the-post rules. That was a different promise. That was a different time and place.
The Prime Minister came to my riding when he was running in the election and said that he would have a full review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal. Do members remember that promise? That kind of did not happen either. There was one about mail delivery. We were going to be open to mail delivery, I think. That was another promise.
Canadians deserve better than this bill. It is a start, to the extent that it adds exemptions; it does not go after the big changes and exemptions. Members heard me talk about cabinet confidences; the other nice one is the policy advice to the minister. They did not touch it. All they have to do is put all these documents into something that they give to the minister, and that is policy advice to the government. That massive loophole remains.
Once again, what they did not do is how we judge their reform initiative. It actually adds a loophole that would allow the department to refuse to process a request if it deems it to be overly broad, deems it would unreasonably interfere with the operations of government, or deems it to be made in bad faith. It is quite remarkable that the Liberals are patting themselves on the back. By simple comparison to the other legislation in the country, it is obvious that this bill does not pass muster.
The bill also ignores so many of the recommendations made by the Information Commissioner, as I pointed out, and by the ethics committee that also studied this legislation. It appears the government did not even read those. Much like the Harper government, the Liberals continue to disregard the recommendations made by the non-partisan watchdog. One sympathizes with the Herculean efforts made by Ms. Legault over the years to try to get both sides of this place, Conservative and Liberal alike, to take seriously the citizens' right to know. I salute for her efforts, futile though they have been to date.
I want to say by way of conclusion that the New Democrats have long advocated for giving the Information Commissioner real oversight and order-making powers. We believe that proactive disclosure is important and offer congratulations for putting into legislation what has been the practice to date so far, but I point out that the commissioner does not have oversight powers with respect to that proactive disclosure, so I guess we have to take the government's word for it.
Even if the Liberals were well intentioned, let us remember that we are making legislation that applies for future Canadians, for future generations of Canadians. How long did it take to get to this place with a new bill? It has taken 34 years. We have to get it right. We cannot say, “Don't worry; we are going to have a review in five years, or maybe another year or two after that”, because they do not have to do that if they do not want to. That has been our history, excepting the Bank Act.
We have to do it better. We can do it better, and I am not the only one saying this. The Centre for Law and Democracy, which has been cited already, has made the same point. Democracy Watch has explained it. Professor Mark Weiler, the web and user experience librarian who testified, wrote to our critic, the hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, on this file, as follows: “I am greatly concerned that Bill C-58 will actually diminish the capacity of Canadians to access unpublished materials held by the government. The Access to Information Act should enhance the ability of Canadians to access information the government chooses not to publish.... Bill C-58 would actually make the Access to Information Act more difficult to use.”
What are we going to do about this? To go back to the basics, there has to be a strong statement of the right to know, and there is some verbiage to that effect in the new law. The exemptions have to be narrow, and they have to be about injury, not just in a box, a particular category of records, such as policy advice. It has to be shown that disclosure would harm some government interest. The Liberals did not do that; they didn't touch any of them. They only added one.
The third thing is that there has to be real order-making power when the umpire says the government has got it wrong. That did not cause a revolution in British Columbia when we did it, and that order-making power led to something like 90% of cases being mediated without the need to have a formal order-making hearing. Very, very rarely do we go to court; it is statistically insignificant.
There are ample precedents for doing this right. The order-making power that is in the bill is beyond comprehension. It will be expensive and it is totally unnecessary. Why do we have to make it so complicated when the principle is so obvious and when there are so many examples across the land?
I want to end on a positive note. We hope the government was serious when the President of the Treasury Board stood in the House earlier today and talked about the need to modernize this law and said that this is only the first phase and it is only a work in progress. He said he welcomes reports at committee, including amendments.
Trust me, we will have many of those amendments. We can do better. We must do better for Canadians.