Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address you today to speak to Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts. It is sponsored by the hon. President of the Treasury Board, whom we all know and enjoy listening to. It is also a very special bill by the way in which it is introduced. It seeks to amend the Access to Information Act, 1983. It is a rather old piece of legislation that deserves to be cleaned up and made more current.
The amendments were meant to affect any organization that shares information with federal government institutions, and allow anyone seeking to obtain that information to access it, according to the Liberal government's election promise. The first important observation is that this change to the Access to Information Act does not include the Liberals' electoral promise to extend the application of the legislation to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. I think that is the most glaring omission in this bill.
Under the new provisions of the act, the government can decline any access to information request it feels is vexatious, made in bad faith, or is an abuse of the right to make a request for access to records. If these reasons could be properly assessed, we might find that provision acceptable. However, the problem is that these reasons are subjective. It is possible that the Liberal Party, particularly when we look at how it governs, would use these reasons to prevent Canadians, the opposition parties, and groups that monitor the government to ensure it is doing its work properly from having access to all of the information.
Since it was founded, our party has been relentless in its efforts to make the government more accountable to Canadians. When our party was in office, it was not a scandal-ridden government like the previous Liberal governments and particularly the government that has been in office for the past two years. The bill provides for an increase of $5.1 billion in the budget of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. Is that simply to determine whether requests are vexatious or illegitimate? We are wondering why the Liberal government cannot do that work itself with all of the staff it has at its disposal, particularly since it always seems to be able to find a way to dip into people's pockets.
I would like to quote a few stakeholders, since people might say we are bound to criticize everything the government does simply because we are the official opposition. I will quote some people who are neutral and need access to information, people who are guardians of our democracy.
The first is Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence For Democracy. She says that the Liberal government is not keeping its election promise. She believes that by ruling out the possibility of obtaining information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government open by default. She added that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.
In addition, Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, has said that the bill does nothing to address the enormous gaps in the legislation, as the Liberals promised. He believes that more changes are needed to have a government that is transparent and open by default. He said that the bill takes a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous, which is entirely subjective, or made in bad faith. He believes that public officials should not be given this power, as they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know. Yes, he called this a step backwards. This does not improve things. Theoretically, when a bill is introduced, it is usually meant to improve things and move society forward.
Stéphane Giroux, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, said, “What interested us most was having access to cabinet documents. It was a false alarm; too good to be true.”
The next quote is from Robert Marleau, Canada's Information Commissioner from 2007 to 2009. This is not just anyone. We are not quoting opposition members, but rather experts in the field. He said, and I quote:
For the ministries, there’s no one to review what they choose not to disclose, and I think that goes against the principle of the statute. They’ve taken the commissioner out of the loop. If you ask for these briefing notes, and you’ve got them and they were redacted, you had someone to appeal to. So there’s no appeal. You can’t even go to a court. It’s one step forward, two steps back.
The British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association said that the bill leaves black holes in the act that will prevent certain kinds of information from being released. That is why we must strongly condemn the fact that the Prime Minister is breaking yet another election promise.
Yes, another promise has been broken. Let me review some of the other broken election promises. For those who may not have been keeping up with the news, the government promised electoral reform, but did not deliver. They changed their minds on that one. They talked about a small deficit, just $10 billion per year. That was another broken promise. These past two years, the deficit has been in excess of $25 billion.
The Liberals promised to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. They failed to do so. They talked about re-evaluating the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project, but they did not do so. They promised to provide cost analyses for all bills, and they have not done it. They talked about lowering taxes for the middle class. We are examining the tax reform right now because the tax rate was supposed to drop from 11% to 9%. That was an election promise. Instead, the government wants to raise taxes for the middle class, businesses, and entrepreneurs across Canada. The Liberals were supposed to reduce the federal debt-to-GDP ratio by 31% in 2015-16, but they failed to do so. They wanted to immediately begin reinvesting $3 billion over the next four years to support home care, and that has not been done. That is eight broken promises, and I have not even come close to mentioning all of them. They also promised to set a cap on how much can be claimed through the stock option deduction, and they failed to do that too.
The Liberals promised not to buy F-35 fighter jets and to immediately launch an open and transparent bidding process. Once again we see the words “open” and “transparent“ getting bandied about a lot, but they do not really mean anything.
The Liberals promised veterans that they would cover the cost of four years of post-secondary education for every veteran who wanted to go back to school, but they did not do so. They talked about investing $100 million to give veterans' families better support, investing $80 million a year to create a new education benefit for veterans, and restoring lifelong pensions for soldiers wounded in action, but they did not do any of these things. I see that I am running out of time, but I still have many more examples. The Liberals have broken so many promises that I will not have time to mention them all.
The Liberals promised to invest $300 million more in the youth employment strategy in order to create 40,000 jobs, including 5,000 green jobs during each of the next three years. We know how much young people need work experience, but the Liberals did not follow through. They talked about investing $40 million annually to help employers create new internship opportunities, but that did not happen. They said they would change the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to put an end to the use of omnibus bills that prevent proper debate in the House, but that did not happen.
They promised to invest $50 million more a year in the post-secondary student support program, but that did not happen. They said they wanted to immediately eliminate the 2% funding cap for first nations programs, and Lord knows that they are constantly saying that they are working hard for first nations, but that did not happen. They promised to guarantee indigenous communities the right to veto the development of natural resources on their territory, but that did not happen. It goes on and on.
The government told us that it would introduce a bill to guarantee more transparency. We are currently seeing the opposite. It is nothing new. As the experts I cited said, we are taking one step forward and two steps back.
Despite their virtuous election promises, the Liberals have failed to make the government more open and transparent. A government that chooses what information to publish and when not to be accountable to Canadians is dishonest. In fact, the Liberals are giving themselves the power to refuse to respond to requests for access to information that they find embarrassing. As a result of the Liberals' proposed changes, Canadians will have access to less information. The Liberals are doing nothing to correct the delays that have become irresponsible.