Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on the amendments to the Access to Information Act and the significant reforms our government is proposing in Bill C-58.
Ours is the first government in 34 years to substantially revamp Canada's access to information system, and it is about time. Our existing access to information legislation came into force in 1983.
The word that some have used to describe this legislation is “antiquated”. It is hard to disagree with this view when we consider that in 1983 government information was mainly recorded on paper and stored in filing cabinets.
Moreover, the federal government has grown over the past 34 years, and the sheer volume of government-related information has grown right along with it. The number of requests to access that information has gone up too.
Since 1983, more than 750,000 access to information requests have been processed, and the number of requests the government receives has grown by an average of 13% annually.
The current access to information system is under considerable strain. The information age has resulted in higher expectations for access to government information. Digitization and the Internet have made information readily available and at our fingertips 24/7. Canadians now expect this level of accessibility from their government as well.
Canadians expect an open and transparent government. They expect access to government information so they can engage meaningfully in the demographic process and demand government accountability.
In the access to information, privacy and ethics committee, the one thing we heard over and over again was that the 1983 Access to Information Act regime was not built for our times and is insufficient to meet our needs. That is why we are committed to modernizing the act to make government more open and transparent. This is what we are proposing to do in Bill C-58.
First, the bill would amend the act to create a new part relating to proactive publication. This would entrench in law for this government and future governments the requirement that government organizations proactively publish a broad range of information in a timely manner and without anyone having to make an access to information request. This new part of the act would apply across more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations. For the first time, the act would also apply to the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges in the superior courts. This would create an obligation to proactively publish information that is known to be of interest to Canadians. The system would be routinely reviewed so that the information that would be proactively disclosed would remain relevant and of interest to Canadians.
This information would be available to all Canadians on the government website, no ATIP request required. Our goal is to continue to expand the type of government information that can be disclosed proactively. This measure is consistent with our view that the government should be open by default.
It reflects the future of access to information in the digital age, and the future is now.
Bill C-58 would put in place a range of measures to ease the strain on the antiquated access to information regime. Specifically, we would invest in tools to make processing information requests more efficient; provide training across government to get a common and consistent interpretation and application of the new rules; allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share the request processing services, for greater efficiency; and develop a new plain-language guide that would provide requesters with clear explanations for exemptions and exclusions.
Government institutions would also have the authority to decline to act on requests that were vague or made in bad faith. We want to make sure that people are using our access to information system properly and that it is not being used to intentionally bog down the government. As an example of the type of requests we are talking about, there are some requesters who ask for millions of pages worth of documents without providing a clear reason for that request. Others submit hundreds or thousands of requests at a single time. Such requests are not in keeping with the purpose of the act, which is to give Canadians access to the information they need to participate in decisions about public policy. At the same time, Bill C-58 would amend the Access to Information Act to provide the Information Commissioner with the oversight of this new authority.
Requesters can file an appeal with the commissioner if an institution or organization refuses to process their requests. The Information Commissioner can then examine the complaint and, if it is justified, she can exercise this new power to order the release of information to resolve the matter.
At the same time, this legislation would affirm the right of Canadians to make broad and deep information requests that were consistent with the spirit of the act. The bill would also give the Information Commissioner's office more financial resources to do the job.
The Information Commissioner's power to order the release of information is an important step that will strengthen access to information in Canada. It is an innovative proposal that would change the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with the power to order the release of government records.
Bill C-58 proposes a mandatory review of the Access to Information Act every five years so that it never again becomes outdated. The first review would begin no later than one year after this bill received royal assent.
We can never become complacent when it comes to transparency. By revitalizing access to information, our government would raise the bar once more on openness in government.
With this bill, we will be modernizing our law and the access to information system, which is outdated.
With this bill, we would modernize our antiquated access to information law and system. We would strengthen the trust between Canadians and their government, and we would reaffirm the principle of openness and transparency as a hallmark of our democratic system. I am proud, as both a parliamentarian and a member of the ethics committee, to support this legislation.