Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my hon. colleague from Calgary Heritage.
I am pleased to speak on Bill C-58, which would amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, also known as another broken Liberal promise hidden behind talking points peppered with key words like “open by default”, “transparency”, and “historic”. That is just the working title.
This bill demonstrates once again that the lofty rhetoric of the 2015 campaign on openness, transparency, and accountability was just that: rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. That is pretty much what we have here with this bill.
That said, there are components of the bill I agree with. First, giving the information and privacy commissioners more resources to do their jobs properly and more power to do them effectively are both good. In her recent annual report, the Information Commissioner described the current condition of access to information succinctly as, “there is a shadow of disinterest on behalf of the government” in transparency and accountability. Her conclusion was no more complimentary in stating “that the Act is being used as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government.” Hopefully she can use the minor positive changes in this bill to transform the act into something more meaningful, because that is essentially where the good parts stop.
Moving on to the bad, let us first talk about some of the problems with the current system. Timely access to information is a key characteristic of a well-functioning democracy. The word I want to underline in this statement is “timely”. If an access to information request takes months or even years to fulfill, the government has failed in its responsibility to be accessible. This legislation does not prevent requests from taking months or years to be completed, but, amazingly enough, enables the process to take even longer. That is unacceptable.
I am an avid user of the Access to Information Act. In the year and a half since I was elected, we have submitted over 60 ATIPs. I freely admit that we like to take advantage of the opportunity to get information from the government. Take my words seriously when I say that the Liberal government is unbearably slow in responding to ATIP requests.
As I mentioned, since we were elected we have filed over 60 requests, and only half of them have been completed. Some were filed in March of 2016 and remain outstanding over 18 months later. Here are some of the other outstanding requests: as mentioned, March 17, 2016, 18 months; August 19, 2016, 13 months; September 2, 2016, happy birthday to it, as it has been over a year now; two filed on January 31 , 2017, nine months; and April 6, 2017, five months. We have over a dozen ATIPs that we filed in the last four months that are still outstanding.
The government promised to be better, to set a gold standard and exceed it by a mile. Exceed it? It still has not left the starting blocks.
What has been the government's response to this? It wants to give heads of government institutions the ability to decline requests on the basis that they are vexatious or made in bad faith. Who is going to define vexatious? Who is going to ensure that the government heads are not declining requests that are vexatious to the government or departments because they would embarrass them and are in fact requests for information that the public needs to know, such as our ATIPs on the Phoenix issue that showed very clearly that the government was told two months before it pulled the trigger on Phoenix to clear the backlog, which it ignored? Under these rules about vexatious requests, the department would have been able to cover that off.
Another ATIP we had on Phoenix had the CFOs from literally every single government operation—Transport, Public Services, Agriculture, Finance, and Revenue—all stating very clearly not to go ahead with it, that the training and testing were not done. The government went ahead. Again, without ATIPs we would not have found this. Giving the department heads or the government the opportunity to block that would cover this all up.
At a legislative briefing back in June, my staff asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board if ministers would be able to decline requests using the same clause. The parliamentary secretary refused to confirm that ministers would not have that power. This is ridiculous. Theoretically, every request filed by someone not in the government is vexatious or made in bad faith in a way. The government has so far worked incredibly hard to hide anything it can, everything from errant ministerial limo expenses to deep-pocketed donors to the Prime Minister and the proper analysis completed by the department on which the policy was based, and the true cost of the Prime Minister's vacation to a billionaire's island.
I have no doubt that it will use these new, poorly defined and inadequately described powers to declare as much as it can to be in bad faith. Never fear, the Liberals say, if a person disagrees with the Liberal denial, he or she can appeal to the commissioner or go to the courts. The latter is truly laughable. As we have heard repeatedly, the court system is so bogged down with cases and understaffed by qualified judges, almost exclusively because the government is unable or unwilling to appoint judges for some reason, that accused murderers are being set free. I spoke to a lawyer the other day who was complaining that it was taking him four years to get a single court appearance for a civil case and that the government was saying that if he has an issue with that he can go to the courts to get timely access. I do not think so.
My point is that the system of denial, appeal, denial, appeal could take a process that already takes upward of 18 months or more and counting to two years, three years, or four years. The beauty of this legislation for the government is that there is no upper limit on timeliness. However, it is not the same for the public or the opposition. The government claims that it is ensuring it is open by default. That is patently false. Open by default would include setting an upper limit, after which the government releases the requested information. This legislation ensures that the Liberals can continue moving the upper limit as long as is politically convenient.
The next ridiculous provision is proactive disclosure. This one is great to discuss, as the minister touted proactive disclosure in his press conference introduction and was lambasted by the media for his excessive optimism. The legislation tends to create a new part providing for the proactive publication of information of materials related to the Senate, the House, parliamentary entities, ministers' offices, etc.
I will quote John Ivison for the National Post because he summarized these provisions better than I can. He stated:
The information that will emerge from briefing notes or Question Period binders is sure to be as sanitized, and therefore useless, as the average sterile government press release.
Having read numerous iterations of the question period binders for the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, I cannot imagine what an even more sanitized book would look like. I wish I shared the optimism of the President of the Treasury Board in his belief that the legislation will produce any outcome other than what was predicted by John Ivison. The Liberals believe that proactive disclosure will help ensure that governments remain more accountable, and the legislation includes publishing ministerial mandate letters to confirm the government's priorities. Theoretically, this will make it more difficult for the Liberals, or any government, to cavalierly disregard its promises.
How did that work out, practically speaking? Does publishing mandate letters force the government to keep its promises? Remember the debt and deficit promise? That was in the finance minister's mandate letter, which was blown off. The electoral reform promise was in the democratic institutions minister's mandate letter, which was blown off. What about the promise to fix Canada Post, which was in the public services and procurement minister's mandate letter, and to complete an open competition for the fighter jets within the mandate period before the mandate finished in 2019? Maybe it should have said to commit to a sole source purchase of an almost out of production plane with absolutely no parts made in Canada, and at the same time start a trade spat with Boeing, and to make sure to use taxpayer money for bonuses for the billionaire owners of Bombardier. I think that is a promise the minister can keep from the mandate letter. What about the promise to modify the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act? That was in the Treasury Board Minister's mandate letter and is also a failure.
The Liberals have clearly demonstrated that they do not care about mandate letters. They will disregard whatever promises happen to be inconvenient at the time. So much for proactive disclosure.
John lvison summed up his thoughts decisively when he stated:
It’s a farce, and...[the minister] has been around long enough to know the changes he’s just unveiled will not make the slightest difference to helping citizens understand the government for which they pay so richly.
That is it. Apart from a few other minor amendments, that is all the legislation intends to do. Have the Liberals lived up to their promise to bring the legislation into the 21st century? I will let the House know when I get my ATIPs back, perhaps sometime in the 22nd century.