Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to Bill C-58 and the proposed amendments to Canada's Access to Information Act.
To begin, it is important to note that we have thoroughly consulted many individuals to get where we are today, including Canadians at large, parliamentarians, the Information Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner as well.
Our government is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people. The Access to Information Act, which received royal assent in 1983, enshrined in law the fact that citizens, both as individuals and as corporations in Canada, have the right to see government information.
This is especially important, as it enables Canadians to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.
Providing access to government information makes the government more responsible, because it gives Canadians the information they need to ask informed questions. The legislative updates we are proposing reinforce this original objective and take into account Canadians' expectations with respect to technology, openness, and the availability of information in today's digital age.
The rise of the Internet since 1983 puts information at the fingertips of most Canadians. People who care about how our government provides services to Canadians are keenly seeking that information. Canadians' information expectations of their government have necessarily changed: faster, easier, better, and more open is what citizens are demanding of us.
Since the act came into effect in 1983, more than 750,000 access to information requests have been processed, and the number of requests received has grown by 13% annually. For instance, more than 65,000 requests were received in 2015-16.
Self-identification by requesters suggests that 41% of these requests came from business and 35% from the public. Members may be surprised to hear that only nine per cent of the self-identified requests for that year came from the media. Five per cent came from organizations and four per cent came from academia. The source of the remaining six per cent is unknown.
We recognize that although the access to information system is not perfect, overall, it has had a positive impact on government transparency and accountability. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to protect certain information.
This includes personal information, information about international affairs and defence, and cabinet confidences. Our democratic traditions provide for and protect a safe place for ministers to candidly debate and discuss policy choices, and will continue to do so. Unsurprisingly, the cost of administering the act has gone up, with federal institutions spending more than $64 million to cover direct costs in 2015-16 alone.
Those costs have gone up by an average of about 8% per year. Those figures do not include costs associated with the research and document review done by employees who handle the material in question. The process can take a long time. It all adds up, but living in an open and democratic society makes it worthwhile. In general, the system has served Canadians well.
However, we are committed to modernizing the act to make even more progress toward open and transparent government. In May 2016, we issued an interim directive that entrenched the principle of open by default.
That is our guiding principle for making government information available to Canadians because we want to make sure they can consult their government about policies, programs, and services.
The interim directive also eliminated all fees except the $5 filing fee and instructed officials to release information in more user-friendly formats whenever possible.
The Government of Canada would continue to collect only the small five-dollar filing fee for each access to information request and would not charge processing fees.
The amendments we are proposing in Bill C-58 will enhance Canadians' access to government information.
For example, this measure will legally require the government to proactively publish a broad range of information on a predictable schedule without the need for ATIP requests.
It would apply to more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations, departments and agencies that we all know well, as well as the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices; senators and members of Parliament; institutions that support Parliament; administrative institutions that support the courts, and over 1,100 judges of the Superior Courts. We would also be putting into law the proactive publication of travel and hospitality expenses of ministers and their staff, as well as of senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000 and all contracts for MPs and senators; grants and contributions over $25,000; mandate letters and revised mandate letters; briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers; lists of briefing notes for the minister or deputy minister, including the titles of these notes and their tracking numbers; and the briefing binders used for question period and parliamentary committee appearances.
Once more government information is available to the public on a predictable schedule, people will have a better understanding of how government works, they will feel prepared and empowered to participate more, and they will have greater confidence in the government.
That is why, as well as making great strides in proactive publication, we would also develop a new, plain-language guide that would provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions, invest in tools to make processing information requests more efficient, allow federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request-processing services for greater efficiency, and support new legislation with training across government to get common and consistent interpretation and application of the new rules. Government institutions would also be able to decline to act on overbroad, vexatious, or bad-faith requests whose intent is clearly to obstruct the system.
Along with these changes, we will continue to affirm Canadians' right to submit broad and comprehensive information requests that meet the important objective of the act, which is to increase the government's accountability in order to promote an open and democratic society and to allow public debate on the conduct of its institutions.
In addition, we are taking this a step further. The proposed amendments would change the Information Commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority with the power to order the release of government records.
These are innovative improvements to our access to information regime that will build trust between citizens and their government.
The amendments also require a review of the act every five years to ensure that it never again becomes outdated.
The first review would begin no later than one year after the bill receives royal assent. In addition, government institutions would be required, through policy, to regularly review the information being requested under the act.
This measure will help expand the type of information that could become more easily available and will also inform the five-year reviews.
After 34 years, the Access to Information Act is undergoing significant revitalization. These reforms affect the whole of government, including areas never before touched by the legislation.
I am confident that by working together to strengthen access to information, we will make government more open, transparent, and accountable.