Mr. Speaker, during their respective campaigns, the Liberal government and the Conservative government before them promised to amend the Access to Information Act, specifically by expanding the act to apply to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices. After the Conservative government failed to take the necessary steps to modernize the act, the Liberal government is making an attempt with Bill C-58, which seeks to amend the Access to Information Act,1983.
This law is essential because it allows Canadians to apply to federal institutions to get access to information on the government and on government institutions. With Bill C-58, the government's goal is to amend access to information, the Privacy Act and other acts that deal with the same subject.
Canada was a pioneer in access to information. We were one of the first countries to pass legislation about information, in 1983. Today, with this bill, the government is seriously compromising access to information.
The bill has many problems. Many recommendations from the Information Commissioner and from the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics have not been considered.
We are asking that all these recommendations be incorporated into the bill, which currently contains so few as to prompt us to wonder whether the government even read their work. It feels like it was all for naught. What is the point in asking expert organizations to make recommendations if those are not taken into account in the government's bill?
Members of the NDP, including the former member for Winnipeg Centre, tried several times in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014, to introduce proper legislation modernizing the Access to Information Act. All those initiatives were rejected even though the former government and the current government claimed to want to amend the act.
The NDP tried very hard to propose concrete amendments to modernize the act and allow people to have better access to information. However, the Conservative government and the current Liberal government both refused to listen.
Except for the fact that the Information Commissioner has the power to order the disclosure of information, which is one of the important points that we have long been calling for, and that the bill provides for a legislative review every five years, the NDP believes the bill is inadequate and does not go far enough. That is why the NDP is totally opposed to the bill at second reading.
Despite its election promises, the government does not really want to be transparent and that is unacceptable. I think it goes without saying that Canadians ought to have the right to review the information that the government does not want to publish. Since it governs at their pleasure, it is accountable to them.
The Liberals do not want to extend the act to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. Do they have something to hide? The government must set an example and obey the law. It cannot ask Canadians to obey the law if its own members do not. The government is not above the law, nor is it above Canadians.
Why is the government reneging on its promise? I know that this is not the first time that the government has broken one of its promises. The people have every right to wonder how many other election promises the Liberals will break, how much more backpedalling they will do, as they are doing now. The Liberals are hiding behind this bill and that is not right.
I will remind members what the Prime Minister kept saying during the campaign, which is, “A country's information system is at the very heart of the principle of open government.” “Transparent government is good government.”
The Prime Minister himself seems to be saying that the Liberal government is neither open nor good. He also claimed to want to extend the act to the Prime Minister's Office, to other ministers' offices, and to administrative institutions supporting Parliament and the courts. However, once in power, the government had no qualms about breaking this campaign promise, even though it was so important to Canadians, who have been calling for the modernization of the Access to Information Act for a few years now.
Perhaps the government should reacquaint itself with its election promises to realize that it did exactly the opposite in this bill. Canadians are increasingly interested in the government's actions.
In fact, they made 81% more access to information requests in 2015-16 as compared to five years ago, which is their right. Canadians want to know how their money is being spent and how the government acts by having access to some confidential documents. Canadians must be able to have access to information to avoid all sorts of scandals, such as the sponsorship scandal, in which the government lied to the public by refusing to release the invoices from its suppliers.
Canada currently ranks 49th in terms of right to information legislation. The bill would enable it to move up from 49th to 46th place, but this small gain shows full well that this bill does not go far enough. It is just window dressing.
With this bill, the government is making information less available to people. For example, the bill does away with the government's obligation to publish information about government organization mandates. It even gives officials the right to decline access to information requests that they feel, for whatever reason, are made in bad faith.
The NDP cannot support this bill at second reading for two main reasons. First, despite the election promise, it does not expand the act to cover the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. Second, it does not reflect crucial recommendations by the Information Commissioner and the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics produced a report with 32 recommendations, and the Information Commissioner's report contains 85. The government had plenty to draw on, but it included very few of those recommendations in its bill. The Liberals are so proud of their proactive disclosure idea, but it does not really give people better access to information. The government should also provide criteria for deciding whether a request is overly broad or cannot be processed. Departments will also not be required to publish their org charts, their powers, duties, and functions, or descriptions of all classes of documents they are responsible for.
The bill imposes no specific legal obligation to document cases of failure to comply or appropriate sanctions, which was a key issue for the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. This bill also fails to shorten deadlines for access to information, which are currently much too long at up to 200 days, and to reduce the number of extensions.
For example, in April 2016, The Globe and Mail reported that it took more than a year for the RCMP to provide them with statistics for its series of investigative reports titled Unfounded, which revealed that police dismiss one in five sexual assault claims as baseless. What makes the government think it can take so long to provide citizens with this information? This clearly shows that access to information is vital and that it can bring to light certain things that organizations and citizens need to know about.
Naturally, we want the government to extend the act to cover Prime Minister's Office and the offices of other ministers as well, which is a priority for citizens and one of the main changes they have been calling for. We support the recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics and the Information Commissioner. We need to modernize the Access to Information Act, but we cannot allow the government to take an authoritarian approach and do away with some of the rights currently provided under the act in its present form.
Canadians do not want their rights taken away. They are simply asking for the act to be modernized, because it is now out of date. Canada was seen as a pioneer in the area of access to information. With this bill, the government is trying to take rights away from people rather than to give them more, as it promised during the election campaign. Canadians deserve answers from the government. It must explain to us all why it has decided to limit access to information from the Prime Minister's Office and the offices of the other ministers and, in its bill, to remove some rights that were, in fact, in the act.
The government must explain to us all why it is not keeping one of its main campaign promises. It is the government's duty to provide explanations to the Canadians who are demanding answers.
In conclusion, access to information is the basis of democracy. Sadly, the government is trying to obstruct democracy with this bill, even though it promised to expand the legislation for Canadians. There was never any question of a bill of this kind during their campaign.