Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my good friend and colleague from Edmonton West.
All through today's debate, I kept reflecting on an old proverb that we have all heard many times before, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The government at one point in time actually had some good intentions about reforming the Access to Information Act. At one time, the Liberals might have been genuine when they said they wanted to improve the Access to Information Act, but somewhere along the line on that road, something went terribly wrong because the bill we have before us now, Bill C-58, is far more regressive and prohibitive to Canadians seeking to access the government's information than any access to information bill before its time.
I should say at the outset that I believe that over the last 34 years, ATIPs have proven to be extremely helpful to Canadians. Clearly they have been helpful to politicians who are trying to find out more information about the government of the day, particularly opposition politicians. These access to information requests have also been extremely helpful to journalists, because we have seen over the last number of years journalists break stories about some unethical action of the government of the day. Has that improved the ability of Canadians to learn more about their government? It certainly has.
Now Bill C-58 tends to want to reverse some of the strides that may have been made over the past several years. One of those strides was made by our government, when we were in power, to reduce the amount of money it cost the average Canadian to file an access to information request. We reduced that to $5, meaning that any Canadian who wanted to get more information about a government department could fill out a form and with only a $5 fee, receive an answer from the government department they were querying. That was a good thing and one of the things that helped Canadians become more comfortable with their own government.
However, ATIPs have been invaluable not just to Canadians, to politicians, and to journalists, but also to society as a whole because they have allowed Canadians to learn more about their government in a fashion that gives them confidence in the government of the day. We know of many ATIPs that have been successful and have been newsworthy. The one that most Canadians recall was the sponsorship scandal. It is ironic that we are debating Bill C-58 today, because the sponsor of the bill was, in the early 2000s, a minister in the Liberal cabinet, I believe as minister of public works, who day after day during question period had to stand and defend his government against opposition attacks as we found out more information from the Gomery commission and its investigation.
I recall vividly, as some of my colleague will too, the minister of the then public works department standing and saying in response to opposition questions, “Let Justice Gomery do his work.” That was his standard talking point. He would not answer any direct questions. He would simply say let Justice Gomery do his work. At the end of the day, Justice Gomery did fine work because he exposed the ethical shortcomings of the Liberal government of the day. He exposed the rampant corruption within that government and, frankly, the stench of that corruption stays with me today because I recall how the government abused the trust of the Canadian people when it came to the sponsorship scandal, particularly how Liberal ministers ignored the very fact that their own party operatives were charging for work that was never done and pocketing the money themselves, to benefit themselves financially.
How did we find out about that corruption? It was through an ATIP, through one reporter, Daniel Leblanc, who studiously examined what he thought was a corrupt system in the Quebec government of the day and started asking questions.
Finally, his request for information was answered. That was the start of the sponsorship scandal.
The point I make today is simply this. If the changes proposed by the government on Bill C-58 are enacted, reporters like Daniel Leblanc and others who expose such clear wrongdoing by the government would be the unable to access that information. That is simply wrong. That should never be allowed to happen. Any government, whether it be a Liberal government, a Conservative government, a New Democratic government, or any government in this country, should not be allowed to deny access to Canadians about information of their government.
We all know that governments are a servant of the people. We serve the public. We are supposed to be serving the public's interest. The public's interest in this case will be denied simply because we have a government that is embarrassed about some of its previous ethical lapses and frankly wants to cover them up. I can only point to the most recent example of what might happen if Bill C-58 is passed in its current form, and that is with the most ethical transgressions by the Minister of Finance.
We know now, thanks to an ATIP from reporters at The Globe and Mail, what the current Minister of Finance was hiding from Canadians and from the Ethics Commissioner. We know now, thanks to an ATIP, that the current Minister of Finance had a villa in France that he did not disclose to the Ethics Commissioner for two years, a villa that we can only assume is worth in the millions of dollars because of its locale in one of the wealthier regions of southern France.
We know now, because of an ATIP, that the same Minister of Finance had a numbered company in Alberta that was not disclosed to the Ethics Commissioner. It contained approximately $20 million in shares in a company called Morneau Shepell, which the Minister of Finance formerly used to run, a family-founded, family-run, very successful company, that had obvious direct ties to the Minister of Finance. We know that now, because reporters, journalists, requested access to information that uncovered those ethical transgressions.
If Bill C-58 is adopted, those opportunities will be lost. That should not be allowed to happen. Governments must be accountable for their actions. Governments must be accountable to the public. One of the ways to ensure that it is accountable is by allowing the public, whether it be opposition politicians, journalists, or advocacy groups, to gain information from their government without fear of retribution and without fear of censorship.
Bill C-58 is so desperately flawed that Canadians who have been examining this legislation and listening to this debate must feel that they have no more confidence in the government. In fact, what Bill C-58 does is to make information unavailable to Canadians should the government determine that it does not want to release what it considers to be sensitive information. That is right. It is not up to the government to release information upon request. The government feels that it is within its purview to deny information if it feels it might embarrass them, if it feels that the information is not in its best political interest. That is not only shameful, it is offensive, and should not be allowed to happen.
I know that my comments are falling on deaf ears when it comes to speaking to members opposite, but I beseech them to reconsider this flawed bill, take it back to the starting board, and if it truly wants to make access to information a reality, redraft and redraw this bill.