Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for sharing his time. It should be noted that all speakers from the Alliance party will be sharing their time from now on.
It was interesting to hear my colleague talk about being accountable. He lived in a small town that took five minutes to walk across. I lived in a town so small that if I looked out one window of the house I was on the east side of town and if I looked out the other window I was on the west side of town. People were really accountable there.
We are in the opening days of the 21st century. This is a century which has been characterized as the information age, yet we are in the House talking about how to get information out of the government.
People would think that rather than being in the information age we were in the days prior to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, for all the response we see to access to information requests and audits which are meant to be released as a matter of policy.
To quote from the 1998-99 annual report of the information commissioner:
As early as 1986, the Justice Committee reviewed the operation of the access law and unanimously recommended wholesale changes to strengthen it and keep it current with technological changes. No government since has had the motivation to implement the suggested changes and address, through law, the persistence of a culture of secrecy in the federal bureaucracy.
That was written in 1986 and quoted by the information commissioner in the 1998-99 report.
Nothing has changed. The official opposition currently has 29 requests for information filed with human resources development which are overdue. Of those 29 HRD requests, 8 are for departmental audits, which are supposed to be public information.
As I said earlier, this is the new millennium, the information age. The government's response times are prehistoric. They are stone age. There is no information forthcoming from the government.
Quoting from the same report of the information commissioner, this statement is still relevant today: “Frustration over weaknesses in the law has recently spilled over to members of parliament from all stripes in the House of Commons”.
That is why we are here today having this debate in the House. No one, not members of political parties, nor people in the news media, nor private citizens, nor researchers should have to request departmental audits under the Access to Information Act, and yet we find that it has become necessary to make such requests.
Even more unconscionable is the fact that the department is defying treasury board directives which require compliance within 30 days of acknowledging the request.
We only have to read the treasury board's words in a letter of decision dated May 26, 1999, which has been referred to before. Let us put it on the record again, so that anyone interested knows what was said:
To simplify the process for acquiring copies of reports, and to deliver on the government's commitment for more openness, the policy requires that departments make the final version of review reports, including internal audit and evaluation reports... accessible to the public, without requiring a formal access request.
Those are fine words, but actions speak louder than words, as the hon. member for Elk Island stated. If the government had lived up to its stated ideals, this supply day motion aimed at ordering the government to open up its information processes would not be necessary.
The public is probably at home asking themselves why there is a log-jam in responding to requests for information from the government. They are asking, are there legitimate reasons of national security? Or, are there problems with protecting vulnerable persons from exposure? Only if we subscribe to the view that it is in the national interest to protect ministers from public scrutiny, or if there are questions about the management of taxpayer dollars that might embarrass the government. All of the legitimate issues could be dealt with in an expeditious manner.
On March 20 the information commissioner testified before the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development. In his testimony he stated the reasons for this huge backlog at HRDC. I quote from his testimony:
With respect to the audit reports, there has been a slowdown, but the slowdown is government-wide, and the reason for that is that as a result of the HRDC experience...all audits now go through an additional process by Treasury Board and the Privy Council. What has happened is that Treasury Board and the Privy Council Office want to know what audits have been requested, whether they contain bad news, and what the official media line will be.
This is a regressive attitude for the government to take. It is not in the people's interest to have government manage bad news to avoid accounting for it. Ottawa is spin city for this Liberal administration when it comes to the release of information vital to holding it responsible for its actions. The current attitude has always been a major concern of the information commissioner.
In his recent testimony the information commissioner added “The communication concerns of the government are allowed to take precedence over the public's right to timely access to information”.
Despite ongoing concerns by the commissioner, it appears that HRDC had a fair track record when it came to the release of public information until recently. Now it is because of HRDC's intransigence that we are debating the issue.
Someone from another planet may not know why this is so, but in case there are other aliens who are listening, other than federal Liberals who have not figured it out, it can be summed up in three words: billion dollar boondoggle. That is the reason. That is a lot of taxpayer money and it is in question. Every time another audit or response to an ATI request is released there is more bad news for the government.
Being true to their roots, the Liberals are engaging in spin sessions to manage the message, when what they should be doing is reviewing the need for the programs and how to properly manage and account for them.
Information is crucial to accountability. If this government wanted to be truly accountable it would welcome scrutiny to improve its stewardship of the public credit card. And it is a credit card, because we do not have any money in the bank.
The information commissioner has rightly stated that the right of access is one of the cornerstones of our democratic process and one of the best tools available to ensure responsible government.
If the Liberals agree with that statement—and I bet they do privately, never mind what they do publicly—they should cast their ballot in favour of the supply day motion proposed by the Canadian Alliance in the name of the hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill.
It should be stated again that this is no trivial matter which is under consideration today. We could consider the list of outstanding audits and ATIs filed by the official opposition to get an idea of it. Human resources development is late in replying to five departmental audits which should be public information according to treasury board guidelines. All five are 45 days overdue.
There are outstanding ATI requests with agriculture and agri-food, and Canada Customs and Revenue, which asked for a 30 day extension on March 9, I suppose for the purpose of figuring out how to respond to the bad news included within the response.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation requested an undefined extension due to third party consultations. We do not need much imagination to figure out who the third party was. Citizenship and immigration asked for a 90 day extension. Then there is fisheries and oceans. Some audits received 30 day extensions requested for others. Then there is the National Capital Commission.
When the members opposite talk about open and accountable government, they certainly are not looking at the facts, they are looking at the spin. That is not acceptable.
I am not sure which report of the auditor general it was in, but there was an interesting quote. I cannot remember how it went, but it concerned a Tammany Hall organizer from the United States, and we all know what that is about. He said something like “If you don't have to speak, grunt. If you don't have to grunt, nod. If you don't have to nod, wink”. I am not saying that is an exact quote, but that is the exact meaning. That has been the attitude of the government when it comes to releasing information. A wink and a nod is all we get, along with a few promises and the questions “Why don't you believe us? Why don't you like us?” The answer is obvious.