Mr. Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today, so that I may contribute to the debate on Bill C-58.
Throughout the day today, I have heard my colleagues say over and over again that this is just one more broken promise from this government. Well, unfortunately, I have to say that I agree with them, because this bill does indeed represent yet another broken Liberal promise.
One could also say that this bill reflects Canadians' interests in decisions made by their elected representatives and government decision-makers, and that is only natural. Access to information arrived quite late in Canada, in the 1980s. If my memory serves correctly, the first country that granted access to information was Norway, at the end of the 19th century. We did so nearly a century later.
Access to information is very important in terms of the obligation of a country's elected officials and decision-makers to be accountable. It allows Canadians to keep an eye on what is happening with respect to decision making between elections so they can gain a better understanding of what is going on in their country. Furthermore, as several people have suggested here today, this is a very sensitive issue, because we need to find the right balance in such a bill, which seeks to amend the Access to Information Act.
I was in the army for a few years, and so I know how crucial information is. Having the necessary information is essential to reaching military objectives. In every sector, information is one of the keys to success. For 35 years, the Access to Information Act has obviously been very important, as it has increased accountability and allowed Canadians to better understand what is happening in their country. They can also know what businesses, elected officials, public servants and employees of democratic institutions are doing, because political staffers are also subject to that act.
It is also important to the media, who have to scrutinize and analyze every political decision and news story. That political scrutiny by the media and journalists helps Canadians understand how, why and in what context decisions are made. Access to information is vital for the journalists who keep Canadians informed.
The Liberals are claiming that Bill C-58 seeks to better inform Canadians regarding the decision-making process in order to maintain their confidence in their policy-makers and democratic institutions. That is my understanding, at least.
I really liked what the member for Trois-Rivières said about this bill. It truly is yet another patent example showing how image is everything to this government. This is something that has been obvious to me for the past two years. It used to surprise me every time, but not anymore. I am very disappointed that this government's bills, actions, speeches, photos, in short, everything it does is always aimed at managing its image.
The Conservatives were often accused of having communication and image problems, but at least we were brave, we made decisions, we put everything on the table and explained ourselves. The Liberals are so obsessed with maintaining a positive image that to avoid admitting to Canadians that they are breaking one of their own promises, they would rather table a watered-down bill that is nothing more than window dressing. It is designed to make you think the Liberals are making good on their promises, but if you read between the lines, you will realize they are doing the exact opposite.
I mentioned the example of the Canada Elections Act. The Prime Minister's practice of “cash-for-access” fundraising was uncovered thanks to the work of our official opposition. A few months later, instead of doing the honourable thing and pledging to put an end this undemocratic practice, the Liberals legalized cash for access by introducing a bill that, again, is very watered down. It seems to increase accountability and transparency around fundraising, but what it actually does is legalize the cash-for-access scheme.
This bill was introduced in June, and it would amend access to information, which was first brought in back in 1983. Now, 35 years later, the Liberals want to improve and enhance it, and they want to make some changes related to new technology. These days, access to information depends heavily on the digital tools we use every day. Here on Parliament Hill, in MPs' offices, ministers' offices, and the PMO, all politicians and all of our staff have telephones that they use to exchange information on important issues and make decisions. We can see how those decisions evolve via text and email messages between the PMO and ministerial offices.
In 2015, the Liberals made some key promises, and one of those promises was to make the PMO and ministerial offices more open by default. As it turns out, those offices will be exempt from the proposed amendments in Bill C-58, which is unbelievable, because their promise is right there on page 24 of the Liberal platform. The Liberals said it was important to facilitate access to information, and that applied to the PMO and ministers' offices too.
That being said, it was important for the Liberals to put these ideas forward during the election campaign in order to please certain groups who believe that it is important to have access to all information.
The Conservatives formed a responsible government and today we remain a responsible political party. Today, we heard a number of official opposition members say that we need to be careful about who has access to information from the Prime Minister's Office and the ministers' offices simply because a delicate balance must be maintained when giving the public access to information about the executive branch's decision making.
In Canada, we want above all to maintain an environment and conditions that are conducive to productive, vigorous, and heated debate, after which a decision can ultimately be made.
Debates in the House of Commons are open, transparent, and fully accessible to the public, because we do not make the final decision here. What is more, we are opposing parties, so the public expects us to squabble and debate. However, within the ministers' offices, there is a solidarity between ministers, even if they have differing points of view because they come from different regions and represent citizens with diverse interests. There may be acrimony regarding very important debates. The ministers will have very spirited debates among themselves, but when they come out of that ministers' meeting, they must all be prepared to uphold the group decision. Such decisions may pertain to Canada's internal or external affairs, but regardless of the reason for or the type of decision taken on an issue, it may require confidentiality.
We believe that at that level it is important to maintain some confidentiality in order to conduct government business properly. That is probably exactly what Canadian officials shared with the Liberal government. That is likely why this government waited so long to introduce the bill. I imagine that after the election, they wanted to move forward with opening access to information by default, but they were advised to the contrary.
Again, I think it is regrettable that the Liberals would have us believe that that is the case, that access is open by default, and they would have us believe that they are making information more accessible to the public when that is not necessarily entirely accurate.
By acting this way, as they do on a number of files, and breaking promises, they only fuel public cynicism, unfortunately. That is something we should all want to avoid, especially when we form the government.
That is why I go door to door when I am in my riding. Throughout the last election campaign, when I would go to seniors' homes, people kept telling me, and I respect this point of view, that I was only there because of the election campaign.
I told them I was honoured to be there, to meet them, and to listen to them, and that I would keep doing that once elected to prove that I meant what I said.
There are some positive things in this bill. The government promised to do more. For example, we all received the mandate letters shortly after the ministers were appointed. I recently read the Minister of Heritage's mandate letter because of my new role as the official opposition heritage critic. I think we can all agree that these mandate letters are quite broad. In fact, the first two pages are the same for every minister.
We can have briefings with the ministers, where we get information that is accessible under access to information. That remains in place, which is good.
However, access to information on more sensitive files will always be granted at the pleasure of the Liberals. Anything that has to do with enhancing access to information is based on a single word: proactive. Ministers, senior government officials, and the Prime Minister's Office will have to decide whether they will respond to a given request for information as they come in.
A number of journalists and a group that works to enhance transparency in democracy have spoken out about the Liberals' broken promise to extend access to information to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices.
I would like to share some of their comments with the House, because it is interesting and very telling to hear what these journalists and stakeholders think.
Katie Gibbs from Evidence for Democracy has said that by ruling out the possibility to obtain information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government open by default. This is coming from an external source; these are not our words. She added that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.
I had the opportunity to meet Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, on many occasions during the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates' study on protecting whistleblowers in the public service. He is extremely knowledgeable on the subject.
Mr. Conacher said that this bill brings some positive changes to the act by making disclosure more proactive and by giving the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information. However, according to him, the bill does nothing to address the enormous gaps in the Access to Information Act, as the Liberals promised. He believes that more changes will be needed to have a government that is open and transparent by default. The bill even takes a step backwards by allowing government officials to deny access to information requests if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith; this leaves the government considerable discretion. He believes that public officials should not be given this power, and I agree with him, as they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know.
Mr. Conacher is very well known in Canada and around the world. He participated in numerous analyses and reviews of whistleblower protection acts around the world.
No whistleblower protection in the world can be properly enforced unless it is supported by a strong access to information act.
What he wants us to understand is that despite the argument they are putting forward, the members of this government have not improved this pillar of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act and the Access to Information Act.
Stéphane Giroux, president of the Quebec federation of professional journalists, said that journalists were most excited about the prospect of getting access to ministerial records, but it was a false alarm. It was just too good to be true.
The groups that want to change the voting system in Canada would say the same about electoral reform. Small and medium-sized businesses would say the same as well, since they believed this government when it said it would reduce their basic tax rate to 9%. That is another broken promise, because the government is actually raising the tax on passive investment income to 73% for SMEs.
I would also like to share a few comments made by journalists. Mr. Maher of iPolitics titled his article “Liberals shockingly timid on access-to-information reform”.
This journalist is quite specific. On the second page, one of the first paragraphs, he mentioned the election platform of the Liberal Party, in which it stated in black and white that it was intending to open by default, access to information to the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet ministers' offices. He stated, “if you look closely at the changes proposed to access legislation, you can’t conclude that it matches his rhetoric.” He is talking about the rhetoric from the Liberal benches.
The next paragraph states:
The proactive disclosure of some ministerial documents may be a step backward, because the decisions about what to release and what to redact will not be reviewable by the information commissioner.
“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,”...
He was quoting from Robert Marleau, who was information commissioner from 2007 to 2009. This is quite powerful. These are big people supporting the opinion of the official opposition.
Another journalist, Carl Meyer, wrote an article entitled “Trudeau Liberals place restrictions on plan to end government secrecy”.
I will end with this. It is quite obvious, from advocacy groups, journalists, and our own evaluation of the bill, that the government is again breaking its promise and not doing what it said it would do. This bill does not at all reflect advancing or increasing access to information in Canada.