Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to this bill and share many of the concerns and disappointments that have been raised in the House today.
In my 40 years as an environmental lawyer working as a public advocate, working with governments, and advising other nations, I have been constant in pursuing citizens' rights to have a voice in decision-making and to ensure that those voices are informed and constructive through ready and timely access to information, and, as my colleague from Regina—Lewvan mentioned today, fighting for whistle-blower protection measures.
Time after time, when we were dealing with issues that might impact health or the environment, officials in the health department and environment department have given up their careers by stepping forward and revealing information that the government did not want to reveal.
It is disappointing that those measures have not yet come forward. I have, three times over, tabled in this place a Canadian environmental bill of rights that would have expressly guaranteed those rights, including access to environmental information. It is sad to share that the first time I tabled this bill and it actually went to committee, the majority on that committee—since only I was there, and the others were Liberals and Conservatives—struck down the simple provision in my bill calling for the government to provide access to environmental information.
Why are my bill and a strengthened Access to Information Act necessary? Among the greatest barriers Canadians face in seeking to provide a voice in decisions impacting their health and environment is a lack of access to information. They want information on the planned routes of pipelines and the locations of chemical plants before they are approved. They want information on potential or known impacts of toxins on their health and environment before they are approved for use, information on the safety of consumer products before they are made available for sale, and information on how the government intends to strengthen our environmental protections in a revised NAFTA.
Here I add that the government has circulated a call for public input on environmental impact, yet it has provided absolutely no information on what it is proposing to put in NAFTA. Talk about a vacuous call for consultation.
In successive reports by the parliamentary committee on environment and sustainable development, recommendations have been made to ensure greater public access to such information. We await actions on these recommendations by a government that claims priority for the environment and for these long-overdue reforms, and we wait for for the government to enact an environmental bill of rights.
As the Centre for Law and Democracy has stated in its comments on Bill C-58:
...the heart of a right to information system...is the right of individuals to request whatever information they want from government.
In other words, at the heart of the right of access of information is the right of Canadians to ask for the information they want, not to sit back and wait for the government to decide what information it might choose to disclose. Yes, we need both, but we need access to information and more willingness to disclose, and as my colleague has pointed out, the Liberal emphasis on proactive publication leaves government the discretion of what to disclose.
In reviewing Bill C-58, we need only consider this simple question: does it deliver on the Liberals' promise to improve access to information? Sadly, the clear answer is no, it does not.
Sadly, Bill C-58 represents yet another broken election promise, as has been said many times over in this place. The government, in presenting this bill, has blatantly disregarded the 85 recommendations for reform by the Information Commissioner and the recommendations by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. It has ignored the advice of legal experts and access to information experts.
The bill is completely at odds with the reforms proposed by the Prime Minister in the bill he himself tabled while in opposition. It fails to deliver reforms recommended in many bills tabled by the New Democratic Party. It contradicts the directives issued by the Prime Minister to all of his ministers in the mandate letters, and we have heard this mentioned many times in this place. As the Prime Minister said in every mandate letter:
We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government. It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves. Government and its information should be open by default.
Contrary to what the President of the Treasury Board has asserted, a statement in a mandate letter does not, in fact, extend a right to information. The government expects accolades for releasing these mandate letters, then abjectly fails to deliver on them.
The President of the Treasury Board gave accolades to the government because it was elected to this open government committee, yet one remains puzzled. An analysis by a recognized group, the Centre for Law and Democracy, pointed out that there are actually international criteria for assessing how well a government is delivering on access to information. There are seven criteria, and they have done an analysis. It is important to note that right now, Canada sits at a miserable 49th position globally. By implementing the measures in the bill, it is only going to rise to the 46th position. It shoots a cannon hole in the argument of the President of the Treasury Board that the bill deserves great accolades.
Canadians remember the broken election promise to end first past the post elections, which was an action mandated to the first minister of democratic reform and broken.
On balance, Bill C-58 is a very small step forward in improving public access to information, but it delivers us many steps backwards.
What are the key reforms the commissioner, the committee, members of Parliament, and access to information experts have long called for? First is expanding the scope of the act to require access to a broader array of information. Second is reducing the wait times and fees. The government is doing that. In fact, it has done it before. It would simply put it in law. Third is substantially narrowing the exceptions and exclusions, including access to prime ministerial and ministerial information, yet the bill would cut that back with the exceptions it includes. Fourth is empowering the Information Commissioner to issue binding orders. While that power would be extended, it would be cut back by additional powers that would be given to the government to short-circuit those powers. We would have hoped for protection for whistle-blowers.
What would the bill provide? Bill C-58 would provide a five-year review. We have waited three decades for a strengthened act, and now all we get is that in five years, we can review it again. It defies credibility. I find it astounding. Of course there should be a five-year review, but we should not wait for the amendments we have waited 30 years for.
The bill would formalize free waivers. It would grant powers to the Information Commissioner, which I mentioned, but they would be restricted.
Where have the Liberals failed? Well, there is no duty to document the decision-making processes. The bill would allow the labelling of information as cabinet briefings to deny access. It introduces yet more exceptions. It fails to require a harms test, which is a specific recommendation made by the parliamentary committee. It fails to prescribe in law an explicit public interest override, a recommendation of the parliamentary committee. Indeed, it empowers the commission to order information released but undermines it with other provisions it adds.
Absent government acceptance of significant amendments to the bill, and the record has been that the Liberals have not been open to amendments from this place, and given the abject failings of Bill C-58, perhaps the next measure we can anticipate by the government to cover off another broken election promise, and sad to say we will wait and see, is yet another amendment to the ministerial mandate letters to remove the commitment to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government.
The President of the Treasury Board has committed to be open to amendments. We are hopeful. We will have a good discourse in the committee. There have been a lot of concerns raised. We have had a lot of reviews—from the Information Commissioner, from previous reports by Parliament, and from experts. Let us hope that if the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee examines the bill in closer detail, it will speak to the Government of Canada and call for these kinds of changes to come forward to genuinely provide access to information to Canadians. If the Liberals will not listen us, perhaps they will listen to nations around the world.