Madam Speaker, I recently became chair of the access to information, privacy and ethics committee, where this bill was brought. We talked about all of its positives, which were few, and many of its shortcomings. The shortcomings were highlighted by the many witnesses we heard from.
I think the most significant would be the commissioner herself, who said:
When I was preparing for this committee, I went back to the request that was made by Daniel Leblanc, the journalist who uncovered the sponsorship scandal. That request would not have met the new requirement under Bill C-58.
That highlights what I want to speak to today. We have heard many talking points. It is one thing to actually be in committee and hear all the testimony exposing all of the problems with Bill C-58, but another to hear other members regurgitate talking points that just demonstrate their lack of knowledge of the opposition to the bill.
That is what I want to point out today, the contrast between that and a government that came in with sunny ways and wanted to have sunlight shining on problems to highlight issues.
I neglected to announce that I will be sharing my time with the member for Kitchener—Conestoga.
What I think people watching this debate today need to understand is that they have been sold the idea that the government is more open and accountable, and that what is really happening is the opposite. What is happening through Bill C-58 is actually more cover-up, from ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's staff, etc.
We are going to see more cover-up and more protection of information. Frankly, as the commissioner mentioned, access to information is why we found out about the sponsorship scandal, and why a previous Liberal government failed and did not get re-elected, because of that particular scandal and the really bad things that were happening that we found out about as a result of that information.
I am just going to read through a few quotes for the benefit of those watching today, from a few of the people who oppose the bill. It is not just Conservatives who are opposed to this, or New Democrats, although both parties are. It is groups outside this place who have spoken against it. I will first cite one particular quote by Mr. Marleau, the information commissioner from 2007-09:
For the ministries, there's no one to review what they choose not to disclose, and I think that goes against the principle of the statute.
He further stated:
They’ve taken the commissioner out of the loop. If you ask for these briefing notes, and you’ve got them and they were redacted, you had someone to appeal to. So there’s no appeal. You can’t even go to a court. It’s one step forward, two steps back.
Again, let us let that sink in a little. Liberals give the illusion that they are moving forward on the issue, and, really, they are moving backwards. It is deliberate, because they want to cover up or have the ability to cover up some things being communicated in the Prime Minister's Office.
Again, I have another quote, this time from Vincent Gogolek, another individual speaking against this bill:
All they have to do is claim it’s a cabinet document, and then with her new improved powers she still can’t look at it, which is ridiculous.... So, when in doubt, call it a cabinet document. That’s the big problem, and that remains untouched.
All that needs to be said about a particular document in government is that it is a cabinet document, and therefore black ink will go across it whenever it is requested. Again, it is one thing to say this about any particular government that does not make claims about being more open and accountability, but another to say it about a government that campaigned on being more open and accountable. This is what the Prime Minister's schtick was about: sunny ways and shining a light where there previously were shadows. It is is simply a bait-and-switch. It is saying one thing and doing another.
I have another quote, this time by Katie Gibbs, executive director of the Evidence for Democracy Group, who said:
By excluding the ability to request information from ministers' offices and the PMO, this government falls short of meeting their campaign promise to make government 'open by default'....
Moreover, the possibility of refusing certain access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and openness of the government.
Once again, another person outside this place is saying that the proposed legislation is supposed to be doing one thing, but it is doing completely the other. It is causing more cover-up to be possible rather than exposing the truth.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said that the bill proposes good amendments by requiring a more proactive publication of some information and giving the information commissioner the power to order the publication of some information, but it does nothing to fill the huge gaps in the act as was promised by the Liberals. Therefore, we need more changes to have a government which is transparent and open by default.
Let us think about the sponsorship scandal and the evidence that was being put forward, and the government just saying no, that it is not going to talk about it.
Mr. Conacher says the bill is “a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith.” Public servants should not have this authority, because “they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right to know.
I will speak as chair of the access to information, privacy and ethics committee. Some of the information that was brought before committee really attempted changes based on the recommendations. It was our party's position to support the recommendations of the Information Commissioner, and there are several. It was our position to see those go through. Well, the bill was not changed. The bill has not been significantly changed, and therefore it is still a problem for us.
I was hopeful that the Liberals would take the Information Commissioner's recommendations and understand that maybe it was a flawed document initially, which they would now fix. However, that did not happen in committee, and I want Parliament and people watching today to understand that. Again, the government is saying one thing and doing another.
An article in iPolitics by Steve Mayer is entitled “Liberals shockingly timid on access-to-information reform”. This does not sound like a government that wants to change access to information in a positive way. It sounds like it is going the other way, as I said before. However, the article reads:
We don’t really know, though, because the emails that would tell the tale are in the inboxes of the prime minister’s staff, and the Access to Information Act does not apply to ministerial staff...What the government has decided to do is not what Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault recommended, which is to have Access-to-information officers determine whether emails and memos from ministerial staff are political or parliamentary (in which case they would remain confidential)
The commissioner does not even have the ability to decide which is which. It is all in the hands of the Prime Minister's Office and ministers.
The article continues with:
or pertain to running a department (in which case they would be releasable). Instead of doing that — which is what they promised —
Again, this is an article talking about what the Liberals said they were going to do in Bill C-58. It continues with:
[the minister's] changes to the act would provide for the proactive disclosure of documents — briefing books and notes for question period — that until now have been released only in response to requests.
This means many useful documents will be released routinely, and it follows similar measures that Trudeau began in opposition, when he unilaterally released personal financial information and got his MPs to start posting their expenses online.
Again, the article is not criticizing him for the positive steps that he has made, but certainly the cover-up continues.
As chair of the committee, there was a hope that this would be something that the Liberals would follow through on and take the recommendations of the Information Commissioner. However, we saw quite a different story. We saw a government that would talk one game in front of the cameras and one game on the campaign trail, but when it came to making solid legislation that would expose those shadows that I had mentioned, it did the complete opposite and would give the ability for ministers to shadow even more information.
Sadly, this is what we are debating today. I hope the government does see sunnier ways and votes against Bill C-58.