New Democratic Party
M. Yvon Godin
Mr. Speaker, members of the NDP are voting no to the motion.
Subtopic: Criminal Code
M. Yvon Godin
Mr. Speaker, members of the NDP are voting no to the motion.
Mr. John Herron
Mr. Speaker, I will be supporting the motion on concurrence.
Mr. John Bryden
Mr. Speaker, I am voting no to the motion.
(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)
I declare the motion carried.
It being 6:32 p.m. the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's Order Paper.
Mr. John Bryden (Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, Ind.)
moved that Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker,I rise this evening to speak to Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act.
This legislation has a very long history. In fact, exactly 10 years ago, plus 15 days, I sent a letter to the then justice minister in which I proposed to him that the government undertake to re-examine the Access to Information Act with the eye in mind of making certain substantial reforms.
By that time, it had been evident to anyone who used the Access to Information Act or had any encounter with it whatsoever that the act which was by then 10 years old had many flaws. It was good legislation for its day, but needed to be repaired.
The justice minister of the day replied, and I can actually read his letter to the House. He said:
I recognize the need to consider reform in this key area...It will likely be autumn before we can do so, and I will speak to you again about it as we prepare a strategic approach.
That was 10 years ago.
What time lost, what opportunity lost. We now have a government that is engaged in a situation, and some would call it a scandal, involving the sponsorship of various organizations using government funds. That scandal, as revealed by the Auditor General, has involved crown corporations. This very day we are to understand that the government is prepared to discipline members of some of the crown corporations mentioned in the Auditor General's report.
Had the government moved on access to information reform 10 years ago and done what was so obvious to everyone, and that was to include all crown agencies under the Access to Information Act, it would have been impossible for this situation to have occurred, where it is perceived that officials of crown corporations have acted improperly in the handling of certain financial files. Transparency is always the answer and always has been the answer.
I suggest that had the government moved 10 years ago, this problem would never have emerged. I would suggest that the government with this bill, which includes all crown agencies under the Access to Information Act, should move with this legislation forthwith.
Let me give members a sense of what is the problem. Right now, under the current Access to Information Act, out of 246 crown agencies and corporations, only 49 are covered by the Access to Information Act. Only 49 crown agencies are required to keep a regime of transparency, such that the ordinary Canadian citizen at any time can look at the operational documents to ensure and satisfy themselves that a particular government agency is conducting itself with prudence and probity.
Why not have all agencies under the Access to Information Act? Why have, for example, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority under the Access to Information Act or the Bank of Canada and not Canada Post and VIA Rail?
So it is, with literally hundreds and hundreds of crown agencies and corporations and other bodies that are not under the Access to Information Act. The Canadian public knows there is no justifiable reason for not bringing them under the Access to Information. I proposed that 10 years ago and I repeated that proposal in legislation and private member's motions before the House, and still it has been rejected.
Bill C-462 that is now before the House does much more than simply address the question of whether crown corporations and other government agencies should be under the Access the Information Act. It does something that is really elementary. As its first amendment, it changes the name of the Access to Information Act to the open government act. The idea is very simple.
The legislation states:
The purpose of this Act is to extend the present laws of Canada to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution because it is the Government of Canada’s obligation to release information that will assist Canadians in assessing the Government’s management of the country and in monitoring the Government’s compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
If the government is committed to open government, then it should be prepared to pass legislation that makes it the fundamental mandate of the government to be open and transparent.
There are other amendments that are very important to reforming the Access to Information Act. It addresses a problem that caused a scandal in the past involving the government. It brings ministers and their exempt political staff under the Access to Information Act. That amendment was put in this legislation by myself to answer the problem that occurred a couple of years ago pertaining to the expense accounts of ministers and their political staffs.
This legislation would bring the access to information and privacy commissioners under the Access to Information Act which, as the House knows, is one of the reasons why we had the Radwanski scandal. Mr. Radwanski was able to submit expense accounts that he signed himself. By bringing the Office of the Privacy Commissioner under the act, the likes of Mr. Radwanski would no longer be able to do such a thing.
There are other very important amendments that I would have thought the government would be quick to support. One of them is to bring cabinet confidences under the act. Presently, the deliberations in cabinet are excluded from the act. That means that it is possible to never know what occurred in cabinet. There is a 20 year rule in which some things are disclosed, but there is nothing in legislation that ensures that the cabinet confidences are covered by the Access to Information Act because right now they are outside the act entirely.
There are other amendments that extend secrecy to areas in which we need secrecy. Two of those vital areas deal with protecting information pertaining to ecological and archaeological sites. The reason for that is to prevent individuals from discovering that the government has access to plans and reports involving archaeological sites that could have treasures in them that could be sold on the open marketplace, or ecological sites where property owners might wish to destroy the animals in order to ensure that they can sell the land as they see fit. Those instances would be protected under the legislation.
Also, and very pertinent to this day and age, post September 11, is the provision to protect information pertaining to critical infrastructure. We must do that because right now we have no means in law to ensure that terrorists cannot get pertinent information about facilities that could become the target of an attack.
Ultimately, the issue today is the whole question of the transparency of crown corporations. The bill has gone through many vicissitudes. It was a private member's bill in 1999 and the government voted it down. Then a task force on access to information reform was struck in the year 2000. It was a task force that was sponsored by the justice department and Treasury Board. That task force reported and many of the amendments in my bill reflect the amendments proposed by that task force.
The legislation itself is very sophisticated, I like to say, because both former and present access to information and privacy commissioners were involved in making recommendations to it.
Finally, it is certainly true that there is resistance to this type of legislation. It is quasi-constitutional. It always gives a sense of unease to those organizations that have operated for a very long time without transparency and are reluctant to come under a new regime in which they have to be conscious that the public is looking in constantly on what they do.
I talked to a number of crown corporations and various individuals. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I set up a committee of backbench MPs, an ad hoc committee, to review the Treasury Board's task force on access to information reform. It was a committee that did not have standing, but we met and we invited witnesses. One of those persons I sent a letter to, asking them to appear before the committee and react to the proposals to bring crown corporations under the Access to Information Act, was none other than the president and chief executive officer of Canada Post.
He replied to my letter saying:
Dear Mr. Bryden:
I am writing in reply to your letter of March 21, 2002, regarding your request that an official of Canada Post appear before your Committee studying the Access to Information Act.
I am pleased to accept your offer to appear before your Committee. I have reviewed my schedule, and I would be available sometime near the end of May and the beginning of June.
Thank you for writing, and I look forward to meeting with you shortly.
What happened in fact was that the message went out from government ordering that bureaucrats and officials not appear before my committee because my committee was not a committee of standing. I think there was some fear that it would set an unwanted precedent if officials testified before a committee that was composed of backbench MPs trying to get to the truth of an issue. So Mr. Ouellet never appeared before our ad hoc committee on access to information reform.
It is a pity because had the government got behind the initiative that was its own initiative with its review of the Access to Information Act that reported in 2002, we would have this reform, this transparency, and this accountability in government operations that the public cries out for and the government talks about.
I wish to point out that in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, the government is proposing to again review the Access to Information Act, again using Treasury Board, and again with the prospect in mind that crown corporations should come under the Access to Information Act.
I suggest that no new review needs to be done. It is established. I think the consensus out there among professionals and the ordinary citizen, among MPs, is overwhelming. All crown agencies and organizations that spend a substantial amount of taxpayer money should come under the Access to Information Act.
I would dearly hope that this piece of legislation, which has been worked on by so many backbench MPs, would get the support not only of the opposition side of the House, which I know it has, not only of the government backbench, which I know it has, but also of the government itself.
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ)
Mr. Speaker, allow me first to praise the work of my colleague. I had the pleasure of working with him for more than a year. I think he did a wonderful job.
He raised many points in his speech that we touched on. There was one in particular that I would like him to expand on a little more. I did not hear him talk about it, I may have missed it, but it concerns the cost of access to information. We are always told that for the federal government, the cost of access to information is exorbitant.
People who have access to information tell us all the time that they often have to go through incredible hoops to get to see a document that, sometimes, is completely censored. I have seen documents with full pages blocked out making it completely impossible to see the content of the document. One could barely follow the thread.
I would like my colleague to address an important argument. Cost should not be an impediment to the truth today. Moreover, this sort of extreme censorship should not continue to exist in new legislation, which, we hope, could deal with access to information.
Mr. John Bryden
Mr. Speaker, I think the Treasury Board-Justice Department task force itself determined that the cost of administering the Access to Information Act for any government department or crown agency is quite reasonable. It is more than reasonable in the context of the management efficiencies that always accrue when there is a reasonable amount of public transparency.
One of the problems right now is that the Auditor General or internal audit is the only control ensuring that management within government, where agencies are under the Financial Administration Act, is operating in the proper fashion. That is a spot process. It comes in casually.
However, if access to information were to apply to all organizations that are subject only to audit--and there are a great many of them, Mr. Speaker, just so you understand, that instead of being under the Access to Information Act are only occasionally audited--the management efficiencies would more than pay for the cost of actually implementing the Access to Information Act.
As for the passages blanked out that my colleague referred to, he is quite right. The Access to Information Act is so desperately in need of reform, after passage in 1982, that there is all kind of information that is deleted that should not be deleted. For instance, information that may have been received from the United States as American historical documents is blanked out in Canadian documents. There is information that is 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 years old and completely useless to anyone in terms of national security or sensitivity and is blanked out.
That is one thing that Bill C-462 would do, in addition to bringing crown corporations and other agencies under the act. What it would do is clean up a lot of these idiocies of the old act where information is protected for no fathomable reason. The Access to Information Act was a good act when it came in, but it is an old piece of legislation and it needs cleaning up.
Mr. Chuck Strahl (Fraser Valley, CPC)
Mr. Speaker, the hon. member has an encyclopedic knowledge of this subject and I thank him for his remarks.
I would like to ask him a question, but not on the Access to Information Act. From what we have seen lately in the House, the scandal that is kind of gripping the House, should we also have another piece of legislation called the information management act?
Mr. Reid made a proposal and it is basically another act that Parliament should be seized with which would make it illegal to destroy documents that are the property of the Government of Canada. They would then be archived and accessed through the Access to Information Act by all Canadians.
We need one more pillar. We have the Privacy Act to protect people and the Access to Information Act to give us access to information. We need one more thing, which is to preserve the information itself and ensure that all Canadians have access to it.
Mr. John Bryden
Yes, Mr. Speaker, the archives act does need to be upgraded for the reasons that the member mentioned. However, he might like to know that the current act provides a penalty of two years in jail for people who deliberately try to circumvent the content of the act. I would suggest that anyone who fails to keep documents or destroys documents is breaking the existing law and that should come out in the sponsorship inquiry that is underway right now.
Mr. Grant McNally (Dewdney—Alouette, CPC)
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-462 and I commend my colleague from Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot for it. I had the great opportunity to sit on this ad hoc committee that he and many others have referred to. That was an enjoyable experience.
It was a committee struck at the initiative of the member. He put out a call to backbenchers from all parties. The committee did not have standing as a parliamentary committee, but it operated very much like a parliamentary committee and came up with a very good report. The committee was very non-partisan, as members can imagine, and was on top of all of our regular parliamentary duties.
Many of the proposals that came from the committee's report are included in my colleague's private member's bill and I want to commend him for that. I want to commend him in particular for including the overriding notion that releasing more information, rather than concealing information, is the way to go. If a government wants to elicit support from people and claims to be transparent but does not put mechanisms into place to allow transparency, then those really are hollow words. Bill C-462 goes a long way toward putting in place specific mechanisms that would allow greater access to information.
Something that came up during committee testimony was the idea that if government were ahead of the curve it would be more open to releasing information, and if it were more open in releasing information, then there would not be such a need for reform to the Access to Information Act.
At the same time, a government that chooses to be more open and chooses to release more information, rather than to manage it in such a way that it is like pulling teeth to get any information, would be seen as a positive by people. There would be more transparency and more availability of information. This would be a good thing not only for the government but for all Canadians.
Bill C-462, my colleague's bill, goes a long way toward improving the current act. The member is to be commended for his hard work. He is known in this place as an independent minded member, one who knows his information very well. He is a knowledgeable member of the House. We commend him for that. As chair of the ad hoc committee, he was fair and open and he really wanted to get to the bottom of concrete changes to improve access to information for all Canadians, to improve the way that we do business here in the capital and in the country, to provide information to Canadians.
One of the important pieces of his bill is the inclusion of crown corporations and, in fact, many institutions that receive government funding. This is something that we in the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance and now the Conservative Party have been saying for a long time. We need more openness and more transparency. If taxpayers are paying the bill, they should have the ability to see where their dollars are going.
That is where the bill leads us and that is a good thing, particularly given the climate that my colleague from Fraser Valley just mentioned, with the questionable spending and the missing $100 million in the sponsorship scandal and the fact that five crown corporations have been involved in this current debacle.
If we had this legislation in place, we would have the ability to get that information right away and it could be done without going to a special commission or a special committee. There would be more accountability. We would be able to see where the dollars went--
And the documents.
Mr. Grant McNally
Exactly, Mr. Speaker. My colleague says that we would be able to see the documents and the dollars. Right now, who knows what happens? As my colleague from the Bloc alluded to, we get a piece of paper that is blanked out, with one or two words on it. All that does is leave more doubt in people's minds as to where the government is going and what it is trying to hide.
If a government wants to stand on the claim that it is open, that it wants to improve a perceived democratic deficit, that it wants to enlist the trust of Canadians, then these are the kinds of changes needed, and not just in word. They must be followed up on by deed, by implementing these kinds of ideas and putting them into place.
As my colleague from Fraser Valley also mentioned, an information management system would be another good, third pillar to the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act. Also good would be putting in place a structure to make sure that we have the documents. Sometimes around this place the shredders go faster than a speeding bullet. Who knows how fast they have been working lately?
My colleague's bill also looks at the idea of including cabinet confidences in the Access to Information Act. It is a novel idea and I am sure it is one that worries some people. At the same time, I refer back to the current situation with the scandal that is going on. The Prime Minister mentioned the other day in this place that he would be willing to unseal some cabinet memos related to the current misspending of the government. That would be more of a routine practice if this act were to be implemented.
My worry is that the good suggestions that are contained in this act are not going to be implemented, that they are not going to be listened to by the current government because of the culture that is there now, the culture of maintaining a cloak or a control of information in such a way that there is no openness. We can clearly see that in this place. Extracting information through access to information requests, or however that information may come to us, is a very hard and convoluted process much of the time. Why not put in place these kinds of reforms that are going to send a message to Canadians that this government cares about openness and transparency and that put in place the tools to do it in this place and across the country?
Those are the kinds of things that are going to reduce the cynicism of Canadians. They are not just going to see hollow words but structural changes, so that if they have a concern they will be able to get information about where their tax dollars went. As is said to people now, “I am sorry, we cannot find out where those dollars went because that happened under a crown corporation or that happened under an agency of the government”. That is just not acceptable. Canadians across this country work very, very hard and send their tax dollars here. When the government puts them into questionable use, as in this scandal we have seen through the crown corporations named just recently, that just shakes the confidence of all Canadians.
In many ways, this bill has been a bit of a foreshadowing. Really, it tells a tale of neglect within the current government. The member has alluded to this: that the current Access to Information Act has not had significant change to be modernized, to bring it up to where it should be. As a result, we find ourselves in a situation in this place in which the government is wearing the scandal and trying to get out from underneath it but in many ways cannot.
I will conclude my remarks by again congratulating my colleague for his hard work, particularly through his endeavours with the ad hoc committee, for his continued efforts with the bill even prior to that committee and now after the committee in staying with it and pursuing it, because he sees it as a way to increase people's trust in the government if we change the systems of government and reform them in such a way that there is more access to information, not less. It is a laudable goal. We should make these changes and we should put them into place as soon as we can.
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ)
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise this evening to address Bill C-462 introduced by my colleague.
While I have the floor, I would like to thank the hon. member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot once again for all his work. I was on this committee, along with the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques. We have worked on this for over a year. We also need to look at my colleague's intention.
A task force was set up by the Department of Justice and the Treasury Board, because the government was beginning to have a few twinges of conscience. Since 1982, there had been no changes to the act. When we look at the evolution of society and the current importance of transparency, it is important for people to know what the government is doing. We all thought it was important to get this act updated.
The government saw it coming, a little, and set up a task force that submitted a report. Following that report we waited—and we were still waiting. That was when my colleague decided to set up a committee of members, acting independently, representing various parties, to move the issue forward.
One thing remains, and that is the huge tradition of secrecy at the heart of this government. We have had more flagrant proof again today. It is as if there were a state of panic every time an access to information request is sent in to the government. They try to find out how they can block it or slow it down, give the least information possible, apply as much censorship as possible, so that the thread is lost and the citizen, the member of Parliament, or anyone at all in Canada cannot get all the information or gets incomplete information.
There was a huge amount of work done. This government's tradition of secrecy is so strong that at one moment, it panicked, when it saw that our work was serious and that we were making progress. When we asked senior officials to come and testify, the House leader at that time sent a letter to all civil servants forbidding them to appear before us. Of course, the reason they gave was that it did not meet House of Commons standards and was not a recognized committee. The government's true intention, however, was to prevent this committee from doing what it set out to do.
Nonetheless, we managed to move things forward. Today, we have clear proof that we were right. This government has a tradition of keeping secrets. There is no way of knowing anything. The questions always need to be raised in the House. This government will never take the lead and disclose all the details needed to clearly understand all of these issues.
There are certain things about the bill that we like. However, we have reservations about other things. If this bill goes to committee stage, we could make eventually propose amendments to it. We like the title, for example. It is no longer the Access to Information Act, it is the Open Government Act. That is precisely what we have been condemning during the past few weeks with the sponsorship scandal and during this government's mandate. I have been here since 1993, and we always have to dig deep. We always have to endlessly interrogate this government to find out anything at all.
This bill is no longer just about access to information, it is about government transparency. This is a very interesting shift.
Also, what is currently happening with the crown corporations would be covered by an open government act. So, if we request to have access to information about the board of a crown corporation, we could obtain answers and not be told, as is currently the case, that they are sorry but they are not covered under access to information legislation.There is a major problem. This legislation would give us access. We could find out what is going on. We could ask if contributions had been given to the Liberal Party, and the crown corporation would have to answer.
As for the issue of crown corporations, the culture of secrecy is still the same. It exists there too. Unfortunately, tough measures are always necessary to obtain information from crown corporations. I find this should be simplified a little more.
There is also the whole issue of accountability. When we ask ministers questions, they often answer, “It is a crown corporation”. And they slip in the expression at arm's length from government. This issue of government accountability is at play too. I think that, with this bill on crown corporations, we will know a lot more from now on.
The same is true for closed door cabinet meetings. It is understandable that sometimes we have to wait a long time to find out what really happened. Moreover, in time, after 20 or 25 years, we find out the cabinet secrets. As we speak, these are still secrets of the Trudeau cabinet.
It might be important to have more information on a more recent period. Not too many problems going far back in time. Our problems are related to the present or to recent history. A typical example occurred just this week or last week.
And in fact the Prime Minister said, “the government is quite prepared to have those cabinet documents pertinent to this matter released”. Someone in opposition asked, “Can we also have the documents from the previous Cabinet, that of Mr. Chrétien?” To that, the Prime Minister replied, “I will have to ask his permission. I may not get it”.
Thus, we see that this bill could eventually reward us with important things for the improved public knowledge and information.
They continue to protect certain things at any cost, as my colleague mentioned. In my opinion, with regard to the critical infrastructure program under the defence department, a file I am very familiar with, we should not be able to say, “Here is where you will find the weak point in the Pickering atomic plant”. I understand that, and my colleague's bill has a provision for that. We worked for a year on this bill. We got it all together and then released it to the media.
As for ease of access to documents in federal institutions, it is the same thing. There are not only the crown corporations but also the agencies that receive two-thirds of their funding from the federal government. This would also enable us to get access to these institutions and get a little more information.
Access to polls and third party contracts is almost impossible to get today. When it is possible, we end up with a few pages that definitely will have been censored with correction fluid. It used to be done that way; now we see blanks. You start to read a sentence and, all of a sudden, there is a blank; you continue reading and happen upon another blank. What could be hidden under this correction fluid? We have an Access to Information Act, but the access provided is very limited.
All that to say that this is a good bill. Naturally, there are things we would like to see changed a little. Nonetheless, we will certainly support this bill. I feel we must acknowledge the work done by the committee and its spokesperson.
The time has come for the government to open its books a little more, to tell taxpayers, who pay for the government's entire infrastructure, where their money is going. Taxpayers should no longer be provided with censored documents. Things should be made easier for them. It should not be perceived as an obstacle. Someone requesting information under the Access to Information Act should not feel like they have to climb a mountain or pay a small fortune to get it.
Access to information should be easier for people, and that is what Bill C-462 promotes. That is why we will support it, but with the concerns raised at committee stage.
Mr. Alan Tonks (York South—Weston, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, I rise at this time to comment on private member's Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts, introduced by the hon. member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot.
We are most fortunate in Canada to have the Access to Information Act. In its only judgment so far on the act, the Supreme Court of Canada clearly stated that access to information legislation is an integral part of a democratic country. We can be proud that Canada was among the first countries to enact access to information legislation.
The Access to Information Act does not just allow people to get information from the government; it gives citizens a statutory right to avail themselves of certain government documents and governmental proceedings. Having a properly functioning Access to Information Act is, in my opinion, the most eloquent statement a country can make about its belief in government transparency.
While the act provides a right to access information, the act also provides certain exceptions to this right. Such exceptions to providing access to information held by a government institution are limited and specific, and the decision to withhold government information is reviewable independent of government by the office of the information commissioner and, in certain cases, by the judiciary.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have made us more aware of our vulnerability and the need for a careful balancing of public interests on the one hand when deciding to release government information. At the same time, on the other hand, the tragedy has also made us more aware than ever that democracy and openness are fundamental values of the society in which we all want to live.
Indeed, the Access to Information Act is not perfect and reform of the way the act is administered and reform of the act itself is probably needed.
A number of things have changed since the act came into force in 1983. The virtual revolution in information technology has changed the way Canadians gather and the way Canadians share information on how we communicate with each other. For a great number of Canadians, the computer is an essential tool of their work today, much as the telephone was more than 20 years ago. Many of our constituents use e-mail to correspond with each other and with us. Our children and grandchildren are accustomed to researching essays on the Internet.
In a knowledge based society, information is a public resource and essential for collective learning. Government information is available through a variety of channels, including hard copy publications, brochures, videos, as well as through government websites.
Over this 21 year period of change, it is not surprising that the number of requests under the Access to Information Act has grown and so has their focus. More than 20,000 requests for government information have been received annually since fiscal year 2000-01, and the requests are now more focused, more detailed and more complex.
There have been four amendments to the act over the past 21 years but none of them constitute the comprehensive reform required to adequately respond to the current environment.
In 1992 the act was amended to ensure that individuals with sensory disabilities could receive requested documents in an alternate format. Later, in 1999, an amendment made it a criminal offence to intentionally obstruct the right to access information by destroying, altering, hiding or falsifying a record or directing anyone else to do so. I credit the hon. member for Brampton West—Mississauga for spearheading that legislative amendment.
A third amendment to the act in 2000 gave effect to the expression “aboriginal government” and included the Nisga'a government under that exemption provision.
Most recently, in December 2001, the act was amended by the Anti-terrorism Act to prohibit disclosure of information for the purpose of protecting national defence or national security.
Bill C-462 contains 37 sections and proposes a major overhaul of the Access to Information Act, including a name change. As well, Bill C-462 proposes to make consequential changes to a number of other statutes, principally the Privacy Act, the Library and Archives of Canada Act, the Parliament of Canada Act and the Canada Evidence Act.
My position, in the face of the bill's proposed amendments, is that there are certain concepts expressed in the Access to Information Act that should be handled with extreme care in the context of legislative reform.
The first concept relates to personal information. The residents of Canada are obliged to give the government all kinds of personal information about themselves. This is referred to as the collection of personal information.
The next important aspect of dealing with personal information is use. The government uses the personal information of Canadians in many ways. What I wish to focus on is disclosure.
Disclosure is probably one of the most controversial aspects of dealing with personal information. I think most people would agree with me that the government should take great care with its rules governing the disclosure of personal information. To do otherwise would shake Canadians' confidence in their government and make them unwilling to provide their personal information. For this reason I encourage the members of the House to give careful consideration to the appropriate circumstances under which the Access to Information Act should authorize the disclosure of personal information.
A second concept relates to information that our government receives in confidence from another government. Not surprisingly, when another government considers whether or not to share its confidential information with us, security of that information is paramount. I think it would be regrettably short-sighted of us not to be careful on this particular issue. We must strike the right balance between striving for increased government openness on the one hand and properly protecting confidential information on the other. If we do not do this, I am quite concerned that other governments will become increasingly reluctant to share their confidential information with us.
The third issue of importance is confidential commercial information. Businesses in Canada are obliged to give the government highly confidential commercial information and the Access to Information Act currently offers a good level of protection for this information. Businesses need to know that their competitors will not have access to their confidential information, and we must exercise caution when amending our current approach.
I would be remiss if I did not point out an interesting feature in the current bill, Bill C-462. It recommends considerably expanding the coverage of the act to include ministers and their exempt staff, parliamentary secretaries, parliamentary officers, crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries, as well as incorporated not for profit organizations that receive at least two-thirds of their funding through federal government appropriations.
As the House is aware, on February 10 of this year the President of the Treasury Board, the hon. member for Winnipeg South, announced a general review of crown corporations with a specific examination of extending the Access to Information Act to all crown corporations. In light of this, the clause in Bill C-462 proposing to make all crown corporations subject to the Access to Information Act is deserving of consideration.
My final comment is of a general nature. We should bear in mind that there is more than one solution for dealing with legislation that may be less suitable now to the needs of Canadians. I am entirely in favour of improving government openness. At the same time I think we should remember that balance must be found between openness on the one hand and releasing people's personal information or business confidential information in an unreasonable or careless fashion on the other.
The government is supportive of the general direction of the bill but maintains that there are some significant concerns, as I have tried to outline, that must be addressed before proceeding further with this reform.
Mr. Jean-Yves Roy (Matapédia—Matane, BQ)
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak on Bill C-462 introduced by my colleague from Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot. I think he was a journalist, if my memory serves me. I was too.
We have questions about the Access to Information Act, which under today's bill would become the Open Government Act. As a journalist, I have often tried in the past to obtain information under the existing legislation, and it was extremely complicated and difficult. One need only mention having been a journalist for the request to be denied.
I just listened to the speech given by my government colleague. He reminded us of the events of September 11. He said that, since September 11, we have realized how vulnerable we were and that the information provided was perhaps too specific; that perhaps we gave out too much information. Ultimately, that is what he is telling us.
This means that the government wants to maintain its bubble culture—not a glass bubble, unless it is an extremely dark glass bubble—to prevent people from having access to information. However, a government is a public institution. It is an institution funded and created by taxpayers and not the other way around.
This kind of culture seems to run counter to how things should normally work in a democracy. Normally, in a democracy, the citizens create a system and a government that is accountable to them.
As my colleague from Saint-Jean mentioned, certain aspects of national security, which in any case must be extremely well defined and clarified, can be excluded. There are also aspects relating to personal and corporate information. In the latter's case, this ensures that companies can avoid getting ripped off literally by their competitors. Otherwise, there is no valid reason for preventing people from having access to information that the government should provide.
I was reading the committee's report, which my colleague from Saint-Jean referred to. It should be noted that this is the final report, which was tabled in November 2001. SInce then, despite the many problems identified with the Access to Information Act, the government has not budged.
I understand why my colleague introduced a bill that is as detailed as it is important. Earlier, he said that agencies, for one, did not have real access to information and that crown corporations, government agencies with increasing authority, were included in this bill.
I want to give an example from the past few years. This government has used taxpayers' money to create a number of foundations. Obviously, we do not know how these foundations are managing these funds. What will we get? There will be an annual report that only a few people, such as specialized accountants, will be able to understand. Previously, we were unable to obtain any information.
Consider the example of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Obviously a number of foundations were created, including ones in health, and the government put hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars into these foundations. Consequently, this government was not accountable. No one was truly able to obtain access to information about how the funds allocated to these foundations were being managed and spent, in other words, how the funds had been used.
Since September 11, 2001, there has been a kind of almost panic at this level. We are seeing a tendency to restrict all information, manage things in secret and inform the fewest possible people about what is really going on.
The bigger the government, the more difficult it is for the public to understand how it operates and to obtain information. The bigger the government, the more it should seek to be transparent so as to be accessible and provide the public with real information.
In the report, I also read that my Bloc Quebecois colleagues, including the members for Saint-Jean and Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, had made recommendations with important components.
One of the recommendations was for anyone whose request for information had been denied to be provided more information about the reason why. In fact, these days, public servants make a lot of decisions about what people should be told and what not. It is very difficult to say who has the authority to decide what people should be told and what not when it concerns routine, normal and common information.
The documents we receive in response to access to information requests are literally impossible to read. All that remains are “ands” and commas or just about, as we have seen for ourselves. Such documents are very discouraging for individuals. They provide no information, so results have to be almost invented or guessed at. The meeting or gathering has be almost reconstructed in order to find out what happened and learn anything.
The other factor that seems important is requiring the federal institutions involved to be accountable to citizens. When we talk about being accountable, we mean knowing how many requests for access to information the government has received, how many of those it responded to and in what length of time and in what manner. This is very important. It is a type of quality control that is needed under the law. We need to verify whether the law has truly been enforced properly and whether the bureaucracy has truly responded to citizens.
Changes are proposed in the bill, specifically with respect to time frames. That is another thing. Time frames must be respected when there is a request for access to information. People should be able to obtain a response within the time frame set out by law, not six months later. Sometimes people have to keep returning to the charge. It is extremely frustrating for someone to make such a request and almost never get a response.
Earlier my colleague also talked about opinion polls. We have seen this recently. A poll was bought 10 times, I think, at a cost of $27,000 each time. If the Auditor General had not investigated we might never have known. We have just found out which departments purchased the polls.
How can these things happen? It happens because there is no transparency in the government. The culture in the federal government needs to change on this score. We need to get to the point where those who are elected and those who work within the bureaucracy understand that they are there to serve the public, not the reverse. When, in a democracy, people think that the public is there to serve them, then the democracy has a problem.
Since we heard our colleague speak about this earlier, I will close with a look at how the federal government uses the information provided to it. Every citizen has provided an enormous amount of information to governments at all levels—federal, provincial and municipal. In general, this information is shared with the senior levels. The registration of information about citizens begins at birth. September 11 was mentioned. Governments have given themselves more and more power to cross-check this information in order to get to know every citizen almost intimately, knowing almost everything about them, as soon as an individual is born.
This is extremely dangerous when a government has a non-transparent culture, because it may use this information for other purposes than those for which it was gathered. This was seen in the case of HRDC, when information was sent by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. Ordinary citizens were penalized as a result.
I will conclude by saying that the act must be amended. This is an excellent bill, despite the fact that it contains a few elements we disagree with. Nonetheless, I am pleased to have spoken on this bill.
The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.
Mr. John Bryden
Mr. Speaker, on a point of order, there seems to be consensus, as a matter of fact, unanimity, in the House that this is a piece of legislation that should go forward immediately. I would therefore like to move a motion to the effect that this go directly to committee now.
Does the hon. member for Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot have the consent of the House to propose the motion?
A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.