Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise in the House, and I am particularly pleased to be able to speak to this bill. This is not the first time that I have risen in the House, and I have had even more opportunities to do so since being appointed to the shadow cabinet as Treasury Board critic. However, this is the first time that I have had a chance to talk about a subject that comes straight from the Treasury Board. The hon. President of the Treasury Board introduced this bill just before the House rose for the summer in June, which means we had time to look it over and make observations about it. I am very honoured and proud to take on this essential role of providing positive, constructive, and, above all, vigilant opposition.
As such, I am very pleased to rise and speak to this extremely important bill that amends the Access to Information Act. That act was first introduced some time ago, so we have been living under its provisions since 1983. Fundamentally, our party is in no way opposed to carefully scrutinizing any act, statute, or procedure in order to enhance or improve it. A number of changes have been made over the past 35 years, since the bill was first debated and passed here in the House, particularly when it comes to information technology. Everyone agrees that access to information has changed over time. Simply put, we are not opposed to scrutinizing this act from 1983.
Still, we need to be logical and consistent, since this is about drawing a very fine line between access to information, which is necessary in a democracy, and for which I would be the first to fight as a former journalist, and the ability of the executive branch to do its job, for which it requires certain information. Some of the exchanges and debates that take place within cabinet are crucial and healthy for a democracy, but they need to remain behind the closed doors of cabinet. The same is true in parliamentary life, considering that every Wednesday morning, each parliamentary group has caucus meetings, where we can discuss the issues that matter in a positive, constructive way that lays a foundation for the future, while also sometimes having different points of view. That is democracy at work.
The government says that it tabled this bill to fulfill a political commitment. Really? Let us look back at the promise made by the Liberal Party two years ago during the campaign, which was, “Real Change. A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class.” That was the Liberal Party's program. On page 24, regarding access to information, it states, “We will make government information more accessible.” No one can disagree with that. It is like apple pie. No one is against better access to information.
The Liberals' specific objectives are, “We will ensure that access to information applies to the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.” That is where the problem lies, because the first of these objectives has not been met and access to information still does not apply to the PMO. That is a broken promise by the Liberals.
I will come back to that a bit later on. We will show that the commitment made during the campaign, the very reason why Canadians elected this government, was once again, unfortunately, not upheld by the Liberals. We believe that it fuels public cynicism towards politicians. When a government does not keep its promises, which we strongly condemn, every single politician pays the price.
Let us take a closer look at what Bill C-58 entails exactly.
The real novelty of the bill is that the government is imposing a system of proactive publication, which is not so bad.
Let us look at what the government has tabled in the bill. Access to information lies in ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's office to properly publish the following information: mandate letters, and we have the mandate letters and everybody has seen them, so there is nothing new there; documentation on the training for new ministers; title and reference numbers of briefing notes; development notes for question period; backgrounders for occurrences before parliamentary committees; travel and hospitality expenditures; and contracts of more than $10,000.
This is the main problem. We are talking about proactive tabling of documents. That is great. Nobody can disagree with that, but on the other hand, and we will see it later, this is the end of the mandate for the Prime Minister and ministers.
Government organizations will also have to proactively publish the following information: travel expenses and shared travel expenses; reports tabled in Parliament; briefing packages for deputy heads; information about briefing notes; briefing materials for parliamentary committee appearances; contracts over $10,000; contributions over $25,000; and reclassification of positions.
The big change with this new bill is that the government is now deciding to publish this information proactively, which is not a bad thing, but the problem is that it ends there. That is why we have serious reservations about this bill, which does not really honour the Liberal Party's campaign promise. This bill is actually at odds with that promise.
Broken promises lead to disappointment. When people have expectations, they want those expectations met. People, especially those in the information sector, felt that this was one of the Liberal Party's key promises, so they expected the Liberal Party, once in government, to keep it. Unfortunately, people's faith was wasted on the Liberal Party because it did not keep that promise. That is from them, not me.
Let me read some quotes from important stakeholders about this important issue.
Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy group, says 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”. Moreover, she says, that the possibility to refuse access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of the government.
That is the problem. The Liberal Party promised to be more open, but proactively publishing information and then leaving it at that poses a problem.
I do not want to undermine this approach, but the reality is that the documents that are released and that will be proactively released, are general access documents, or documents that almost anyone can access, such as the ministers' mandate letters that were made public by the Prime Minister on the day the ministers were sworn in, which was a good thing. A minister's mandate letter is indeed published on the day he or she is sworn in, if memory serves me correctly. It was a good idea. That has been the practice for the past two years, and it is working out well enough. However, when it comes to preparing ministers for question period, we are talking about factual information, facts, figures, and basic information. When we ask for a technical briefing, or a refresher course on the ins and outs of a bill, then we are generally given more specific information. We have an excellent working relationship with the ministers' offices and departmental officials who are there to serve all Canadians.
Then, once we all have the same background information, we can prepare our arguments for or against the topic in question. This is what is great about democracy. There will always be people for something and people against it. It would be odd if everyone were in favour of the same thing.
As Katie Gibbs, the executive director of Evidence for Democracy, said, this bill falls short, and that is disappointing.
It is the same thing for another important stakeholder.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch group, says:
The bill take a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith. 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.
Mr. Conacher is on the same page. It is all well and good to be proactive, but there is no recourse if access to a document is denied because it is an executive-branch document and cannot be disclosed. That is the problem.
The government can go on and on about how open it is, but the government's actions and this bill do not reflect that reality.
Some people in Quebec have been very disappointed in the Liberal government. These people may have been seduced by the Liberal Party's big promises during the last election campaign, but now reality has caught up with them. Stéphane Giroux, the president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, said, “We were most interested in getting documents from ministers' offices. False alarm. It was too good to be true.” This is yet another disappointment.
This bill is a complete letdown. I have one more very interesting stakeholder to mention. He is so important that I saved him for last, because he is someone who really knows what he is talking about. His name is Robert Marleau, and he served as information commissioner from 2007 to 2009. He said, and I quote:
For the ministries, there is no one to review what they choose not to disclose, and I think that goes against the principle of the statute. They have taken the commissioner out of the loop. If you ask for these briefing notes, and you have got them and they were redacted, you had someone to appeal to. So there is no appeal. You cannot even go to a court. It is one step forward, two steps back.
This was not some big bad Conservative or New Democrat speaking, or even anyone from the Green Party or the Bloc Québécois. This was Robert Marleau, a man who spent years enforcing the Access to Information Act as information commissioner from 2007 to 2009, pointing out very clearly the problems stemming from this act.
The government claims to want to be open and proactive, which in theory is not a bad thing. However, in reality, it is no longer possible for people to appeal if the information they requested is not provided. Robert Marleau pointed out that problem.
Other observers have been extremely critical. I am not talking about people with a direct interest in the issue, or about pressure groups, or anything like that. Rather, I am talking about observers like Shawn McCarthy of The Globe and Mail, who said the following in an article published on September 18:
The Liberals also vowed to amend the ATI law to make government “open by default.” But C-58 would give government departments the right to ignore information requests that they deem to be “frivolous or vexatious.” That exemption is being imposed without warning or justification, and is a power that should not be held by a government department that could benefit by wide interpretation in its own interest. It should be removed from the bill.
Once again, that was said by a well-intentioned individual who wants to see things change. He believes that things have to change. He thought that the Liberal government would be the one to bring about those changes, but that is just another disappointment for those who are unhappy to add to the list.
Another such person is Stephen Maher, who wrote the following in an article published in in iPolitics:
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.
That is similar to the point that was raised by the former commissioner, who said that, from now on, there would be no appeal process and that this was a step backward. I would like to once again quote Mr. Maher. He said:
This bill takes baby steps toward greater openness, but it does not offer what [the Prime Minister] promised—that government documents would be open by default.
In the business community, Fasken Martineau issued a notice, not to say a warning, to its clients concerning Bill C-58, which reads:
What if an application is made that raises grounds of contestation which do not respond to the third party's real concerns or interests? Despite this drafting, we expect that the Court will nonetheless allow the third party to file its own application to raise its concerns and interests—although it would be ideal if Parliament avoids useless battles in Court on the standing of third parties and clarified the provision immediately.
In other words, Fasken Martineau is saying that, as it stands, this bill will result in court challenges.
God knows, we certainly do not need yet another process clogging up our justice system, considering that this government is dragging its heels on appointing the judges that Canadians want and expect.
In Quebec, the justice minister has been waiting for months for this government to appoint 14 federal court judges. Of that number, barely half has been appointed so far. Until the appointment process is complete, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of Canadians awaiting a fair trial will not get one because the government is dragging its heels on this.
We certainly do not need to further clog up our courts by passing this bill. It may have been drafted with good intentions, and we are not against scrutinizing legislation that has been in effect since 1983, but we need to do things properly, which is not the case. Politically speaking, the Liberals should at least keep their election promise.
Is it any wonder that this bill only adds to the government's track record, which is a long list of broken promises? On top of that, just two years ago, this government said that it would not raise anyone's taxes, and yet what does it intend to do with its tax reform for small and medium-sized businesses? It intends to create even more obstacles and impose additional taxes on business, like the 73% tax, which is nearly 50% higher than the tax rate for large corporations.
Meanwhile, this government was elected barely two years ago on a promise that it would run small deficits of $10 billion. Where is the deficit now? It is about 80% higher than what the government promised. The Liberal Party also promised to return to a balanced budget by 2019, which happens to be the next election year. Now this government is abandoning its commitment, since it does not even know when Canada will return to a balanced budget. At no time in living memory has there ever been a government, a finance minister, and a prime minister who could not tell us when the budget would be balanced, except perhaps in times of crisis.
As many members will sadly recall, deficits became necessary in times of war, but it was the current Prime Minister's father who invented deficits in times of prosperity. That said, at least he had some idea as to when he would balance the budget. This government, however, has no idea when it will achieve that, which is a first in Canadian history. It has been one broken promise after another, and the same is true of Bill C-58.