Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-58, which seeks to address the important issue of transparency in government and Canadians' access to information.
Improving transparency for Canadians in their dealings with their government in and of itself seems a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, making government more accountable to the people it serves is a foundational pillar of our Conservative Party. In addition, it is something in which I personally and strongly believe.
It is important to all Canadians that there be better sharing of and access to information that makes the basis for the policies that impact them. It allows citizens to knowledgeably engage their government either in support of or opposition to a particular issue in question. Government and its bureaucracies have an unfortunate tendency toward secrecy and concealment. This institutional instinct toward a jealous defence of what they wrongly perceive as their turf rather than information that is for the good governance of Canadians is contrary to the spirit of the modern era.
The spirit of this age is one that values improved openness and access to information. That trend toward transparency is the natural reflection of what rapid advances in technology have made our new reality. The reality and expectation of today is that communications and knowledge is available instantly and in real time. In light of this, we know government has not kept pace with the changing needs of the citizens it serves, especially in regard to access to information.
The Information Commission of Canada said as much when, in March 2015, she presented a special report to Parliament on the very subject. In that report, the commissioner indicated that:
Over the Act’s three decades of existence, technology, the administration of government and Canadian society have been transformed in many regards. And yet, despite these changes, the Act remains largely in its original form.
She followed with recommendations, 85 of them in fact, to modernize the Access to Information Act. Consultations were held afterwards in the summer of 2016 regarding reform of the access to information regime, and a report in June of the same year by the Standing Committee on Access to Information resulted in 32 recommendations.
Therefore, on the surface at least, we can see some requirement to amend the Access to Information Act, which Bill C-58 purports to do, as well as amending the Privacy Act. We see some interesting aspects in a bill for Canadians seeking to bring documents under the control of federal institutions out into the light.
Not to oversimplify the contents of the 100 pages of the bill, but among the more relevant observations to be made are: first, the information and privacy commissioners would have some of their powers clarified around the examination of documents containing information that is sensitive; second, a system of proactive publication of some information would be made; and third, the information commissioner would have the ability to make orders that would force the communications and documents of federal institutions into the open. All of this sounds at first listen like a step forward. Certainly, the government promotes the amendments in such a manner, given some of the wording. For example, the proposed section 2 amendment outlining the purpose of the Information Act reads:
to enhance the accountability and transparency of federal institutions in order to promote an open and democratic society and to enable public debate on the conduct of those institutions.
This is pretty forward language. It certainly sets a positive tone, and from the outset portrays the intent of the bill as very progressive. The word in play is “progressive”. Is it not the word the government likes to claim for all of its actions? Is it not the same word the Liberals employed in trying to justify upsetting our long-established tax code in order to make a harmful and costly intrusion into the wallets and affairs of small business owners and job creators in Canada? However, I digress.
Returning specifically to the content of Bill C-58, it is difficult to imagine how an advocate of institutional transparency would stumble over the objective presented here. There is the rub.
There is a problem with the Liberals' progressive street cred in relation to the bill, and it is a glaring problem.
The reform to the Access to Information Act does not include the Liberals' campaign promise to extend the act to ministers' offices and to the Prime Minister's Office. Even stakeholders who have welcomed some of the provisions of the act that mandate proactive publication of certain information and the power of the commissioner to order publication also seldom fail to note how the Liberals have sidestepped their election vow to make changes to the access to information of the ministers' offices and the PMO.
In addition, the proposed amendments in the bill permit the government to refuse access to information if the request is deemed a misuse of the right to request the information. That is a highly subjective standard. It allows government officials, who may have a vested interest in keeping certain information under wraps, to refuse access requests if they consider them vexatious or made in bad faith. What bureaucrat anywhere on Earth would not consider a request aimed at uncovering his or her mistakes or misdeeds as personally vexatious?
The executive director of the Evidence For Democracy group argued that the subjective power to reject requests on undefined basis “jeopardizes the transparency and openness of government”. I tend to agree with that. The loopholes in the bill quickly become evident.
The co-founder of the Democracy Watch group expressed it in this way: that public servants should not have this authority because they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public the information it is allowed to know.
The Democracy Watch group is also apparently well aware of the institutional secrecy of governments and bureaucracy I referred to earlier. Defenders of transparency seek a government that is open by default, not by special request and certainly not one with the ability to choose which request to honour based on biased criteria.
The Liberals' flaunted claims of being progressive in offering new openness and transparency through the provisions of the bill simply do not survive the light of day. In one fell swoop, in a document that purports to reform access to information, the Liberals have instead chosen not to honour another election promise, chosen to be unaccountable in selecting what information to publish, and are giving themselves power to refuse requests.
The Liberals' amendments to the Access to Information Act require some amending. The bill should reflect the spirit of the principle of the act, which is, as its name suggests but which the Liberals obviously fail to grasp, access to information, not restrictions to information. It seems a simple concept, and I am surprised the Liberals have failed to grasp it. Although, as I watch the debacle of the small business tax hikes unfold and observe what the Liberals consider to be the wealthiest Canadians, perhaps their lack of comprehension should not surprise me that much.