I must admit that I am happy to be back in the House because, now, there can be another side to what the government tells the public. Thanks to the magic of democracy, people always have the ability to help governments strike a balance and sometimes improve bills. However, in the case of the bill before us today, there is so much to do that I am not sure we will be able to do much at all.
I would like to begin with a quote. In 2015, the Prime Minister said, “transparent government is good government”.
It is a short sentence. The idea and the sentence are clear. A good government is a transparent government. However, after two years in office, it is obvious that the Liberal government is still struggling with the notion of transparency. Bill C-58, which we are opposing at second reading, does absolutely nothing to improve the situation, and there are many others like it.
For example, I could mention the whole process that led up to this monumental fiasco with electoral reform, which was nowhere near transparency. It would not take much to turn the Prime Minister's slogan around and say that a government that is not transparent is a bad government. We will see.
However, before I make that assertion, I will try to describe the major shortcomings of this bill and thus demonstrate how the Liberals' proposal mangles the principles of transparency and accountability.
Historically, we got off to a good start. Back in 1983, when Canada passed the Access to Information Act, we were a pioneer of transparency. Things have changed, however, and that is sadly no longer the case. According to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada is now 49th in the world on access to information. We went from leader of the pack to practically bringing up the rear.
Over the years, the Conservatives and Liberals have promised to be more transparent, but they have not kept that promise. Now we have before us Bill C-58 on transparency and access to information. At first, it is hard to see how such a bill could make things more confusing than they already are. Who is opposed to transparency? I know very few people who would oppose improved transparency in communication between the government and the public.
However, we once again underestimated the Liberals, who are all about appearances. I spoke about this several times both today and in the context of other bills. The Liberals are all about appearances; they are masters of empty rhetoric. If there are indeed some major changes to the Access to Information Act in the bill, most of them only make things worse.
Once again, the law does not apply equally to everyone. The Liberal government is developing quite a reputation for treating party cronies and rich folk one way and everyone else another. In 2015, the Liberals promised that access to information would apply to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices. That is pretty straightforward. I am pretty sure everyone got exactly the same message from what was said during the last campaign: the Access to Information Act was going to apply to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. That is clear.
No doubt the House can guess what comes next. Ministers and the Prime Minister make decisions about measures that directly affect our constituents. It is therefore our duty to make sure that these decision makers are accountable to all.
Here is an example. My office submitted an access to information request to the Department of Finance concerning the elimination of the public transit tax credit. Our goal was simple: we wanted to know how this measure would affect Canadian families. In the answer we got, much of the information that was crucial to understanding which groups would be hurt by the government's decision to eliminate the credit was redacted.
It was covered in thick black lines and could not even be read under the light. The answers to the question of whether eliminating the tax credit would create more barriers for certain segments of society were blacked out. The government refuses to even reveal what advice the Minister of Finance based that decision on.
I could also reference the time I used the Access to Information Act to obtain a copy of the Credit Suisse study on the privatization of airports. Once again, the government refuses to release a study that was paid for and commissioned by the Department of Finance. Privatizing Canada's airports could threaten jobs, create new user fees, and ultimately increase the price of airline tickets for passengers. Given the many potential repercussions for workers and passengers, I find it unacceptable that the government is hiding the findings of a study paid for by the taxpayers. The Liberals also refuse to disclose how much they paid Credit Suisse for its advice on the privatization of our airports.
All this happened under the current legislation, while Bill C-58 will allow the government to make the situation even worse, if that is possible. That is one of the reasons that the Information Commissioner recommended that documents from the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices be subject to disclosure.
Many other civil society stakeholders have been highly critical of the current legislation. Mr. Holman, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, told the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that Canada is known for coming in last place when it comes to access to information. Although we were considered forerunners 35 years ago, now we are trailing behind. Quite frankly, the current legislation reinforces a culture of secrecy. That is why the Canadian Association of Journalists recommends closing and eliminating 75 loopholes in the current legislation. What does Bill C-58 do to achieve that? It does precious little.
Federal institutions use these loopholes to redact documents before releasing them. Here is part of Mr. Holman's testimony:
Section 21 of the Access to Information Act permits the government to refuse access to any advice or recommendations developed for public officials, as well as accounts of their consultations or deliberations for a 20-year period. In addition, section 69 prohibits access to any records related to cabinet, government's principal decision-making body.
These two sections are bad for our democracy. With tongue in cheek, Democracy Watch coordinator Mr. Conacher called the existing act a “guide to keeping secrets”.
I was talking about the existing act, but I should make it clear that Bill C-58 will further complicate the access to information request process. No matter how well-intentioned the government, if access is not guaranteed, the act is pointless. Proposed section 6.1 reads as follows:
6.1 (1) The head of a government institution may, before giving a person access to a record or refusing to do so, decline to act on the person’s request if, in the opinion of the head of the institution,
(c) the request is for such a large number of records or necessitates a search through such a large number of records that acting on the request would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the government institution...
How is that for transparency?
The government sets out vague conditions and broad concepts by using a kind of language we see so often in its legislation, whether it is around the concept of decent jobs or unreasonable numbers of documents.
There are other examples, but I see that time is running out, melting away like snow in sunshine, though snow in sunshine is hard to come by these days.
In closing, I would remind the House that in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, the NDP introduced private members' bills specifically to improve the Access to Information Act, bills that took into account the various recommendations made over the years by the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
I hope that, if it ever gets to committee, we will have a bill one day that reflects those recommendations. Time is running out. I will take the time to answer questions instead of continuing this speech.