September 26, 2017

LIB

Dan Vandal

Liberal

Mr. Dan Vandal (Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, Lib.)

Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure to rise today to speak to this bill, a comprehensive set of amendments to the Access to Information Act.

It is always with great pleasure that I rise in the House on behalf of the constituents of Saint-Boniface—Saint-Vital to discuss important amendments to the Access to Information Act.

Bill C-58 would enact a number of the reforms called for on numerous occasions since the act first came into place some 34 years ago. I think we can all agree that the current act is out of touch with the expectations of our citizens in today's digital age. This is hardly surprising when we consider that the act has not been updated significantly since it received royal assent in 1983. That was a time when most government records were on paper. Today, the vast majority of government records are digital, and Canadians increasingly expect to be able to find information online instead of having to request it.

To appreciate the groundbreaking nature of Bill C-58's reforms, it is worth looking at recommendations that have been made over the years to improve the act. In 1987, 30 years ago, the first review of the act by a parliamentary committee identified inconsistencies in its administration across government and recommended clearer Treasury Board policy direction. The committee also made two noteworthy recommendations: first, that the act be extended to ministers' offices, administrative institutions supporting Parliament and the courts, and crown corporations; and second, that the Information Commissioner be granted order-making powers for the disclosure of records. In the end, the government adopted some administrative proposals, but neither of these two key recommendations. The bill before us today would finally put these two reforms into law, some three decades after they were first proposed.

In 1990, the Information Commissioner, academics, and parliamentarians requested additional improvements. Let me highlight two of interest. First, there was a recommendation to extend the act to all government bodies, and second was a recommendation to grant the Information Commissioner order-making powers for the disclosure of records. Neither of these recommendations was implemented. Instead, over the next decade the government made several targeted amendments to the act. For example, in 1992, it enabled requesters with sensory disabilities to obtain records in alternative formats. In 1999, the act was amended to make it a criminal offence to intentionally deny a right of access under the act by destroying, altering, hiding, or falsifying a record, or directing someone else to do so.

In 2001, it added more national security protections. Around that same time, the access to information review task force commissioned numerous research papers and consulted Canadians, civil society groups, and experts across Canada. The task force's 2002 report, “Access to information: making it work for Canadians”, made 140 recommendations for improving access to information at the federal level. These included extending the act to the House of Commons, Parliament, and the Senate; establishing broader access to government records, including those in ministers' offices and those produced for government by contractors; permitting institutions to not process frivolous and vexatious requests; granting the Information Commissioner order-making powers; providing more training and resources to federal institutions; and strengthening performance reporting. While these proposals were not acted upon at that time, I am pleased to report that the bill before us today addresses many of these important recommendations. I will highlight a few in just a moment.

Returning to the history of reform of the act, in 2006 the Federal Accountability Act expanded coverage of the Access to Information Act to officers of Parliament, crown corporations, and institutions created under federal statutes. This increased the number of institutions to which the act applied to about 240. The 2006 amendments also established a duty to assist, meaning an obligation on institutions to make every reasonable effort to assist requesters and to provide a timely and complete response to a request.

Finally, in 2009, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics undertook a review of the act. The committee consulted with civil society, media, and legal organizations, as well as provincial information and privacy commissioners. Its report made a number of suggestions, including granting the Information Commissioner the power to order institutions to search, retrieve, and reproduce records; granting the Information Commissioner a public education mandate; requiring a review of the act every five years; and extending the act to cover the general administration of Parliament and the courts. Once again, regrettably, these recommendations were not implemented at that time.

The bill before us today takes on the challenge of addressing issues that governments have been avoiding for over 30 years, and while there is legitimate debate about ensuring that we get these changes right, our government has the conviction to welcome debate and to listen.

Our bill would break new ground by giving the Information Commissioner the power to order government information to be released. That is very significant. For the first, the act would also include ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's Office, officers of Parliament, and institutions that support the courts, all through a legislated system of proactive publication.

At the same time as we are breaking new ground by providing the Information Commissioner the power to order that government information be released, and legislating a system of proactive publication across government, we are also developing a new plain-language guide that would provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions. We are investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient, allowing federal institutions that have the same minister to share their request processing services for greater efficiency, and supporting the new legislation with training across government to get common and consistent application of the changes we are introducing.

Another important change would give government institutions the ability to decline to act on overly broad or bad-faith requests that simply gum up the system. This would be subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner. If a department decides to decline to act on a request, the requester would have the right to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner, and the commissioner could use the new order-making power to resolve the issue. Finally, Bill C-58 would entrench a requirement that the Access to Information Act be reviewed every five years.

This is the first government to bring forward legislation to enact the important improvements that have been proposed at one time or another over the last 30 years. That is because we believe that access to information is an important pillar of a democratic system of government. It allows citizens to request records about the decisions, operations, administration, and performance of government, subject, of course, to legitimate and very rare exceptions. In short, it allows Canadians to know and understand what their government is doing, and when people have timely access to relevant information, they are better able to participate in the democratic process.

I am proud to be part of a government that has the courage to act on these principles, and I encourage my hon. colleagues to join me in supporting this bill, a bill that would dramatically improve the Access to Information Act and thus strengthen our democracy.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault

New Democratic Party

Mr. Pierre-Luc Dusseault (Sherbrooke, NDP)

Madam Speaker, it is my turn to direct a question to my Liberal colleague sitting on this side of the House.

My question primarily has to do with the Liberal Party's new excuse about access to information. One of the last points in my colleague's speech deals with it. He mentioned a new excuse that the government can use to decline requests for information if the requests are overly broad or made in bad faith. I wonder whether my colleague could provide the House with some clarification on the issue in light of an upcoming vote on this bill at second reading.

Could my colleague clarify what the government means by “bad faith” and “overly broad”? Does he have a definition that could add to the debate? That is one of the issues with the bill right now.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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LIB

Dan Vandal

Liberal

Mr. Dan Vandal

Madam Speaker, clearly, access to information requests to the federal, municipal or provincial government are sometimes simply not serious. Each level of government has a right to decline them. However, the requester always has the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner. That is usual practice in access to information laws at all levels of government. It is important that requesters have a right to appeal if their requests are denied.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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LIB

Kevin Lamoureux

Liberal

Mr. Kevin Lamoureux (Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, Lib.)

Madam Speaker, I appreciate the many fine words by my colleague across the way.

The proposed legislation we are talking about is important because we would ultimately see more accountability and transparency as a result. As members noted, it has been more than three decades since changes were made to the existing legislation.

Could my colleague provide some additional thoughts on why it is so important and long overdue that we modernize this legislation?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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LIB

Dan Vandal

Liberal

Mr. Dan Vandal

Madam Speaker, the hon. member is bang on. This act has not been significantly amended for more than 30 years. Thirty years ago governments were keeping records on paper. Thirty years ago was before the computer age. It is quite clear that although other governments have promised to make changes, none have delivered.

Among the proposed improvements to the act today, proactive disclosure would be implemented in more than 240 government departments, the Prime Minister's Office, cabinet ministers, institutions of Parliament, and the courts. It is clear in my mind that this is a significant enhancement and improvement in Canadians' access to information from the federal government.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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NDP

Murray Rankin

New Democratic Party

Mr. Murray Rankin (Victoria, NDP)

Madam Speaker, the member talked about the need to modernize the existing legislation. I wonder if he would agree with me that if the exceptions to the rule of disclosure swallow the rule of disclosure, then we ought to change those exceptions.

After 34 years of cabinet confidences being excluded entirely from the act, with many of the exceptions being very broad and never altered, would it not be timely to actually do something about those exceptions to the rule? However, instead, the current government simply added a new loophole to allow departments to refuse to process a request if they deem it to be overly broad. In other words, rather than subtracting exceptions, the Liberals added exceptions. Does that sound like a sensible reform to modernize this act?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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LIB

Dan Vandal

Liberal

Mr. Dan Vandal

Madam Speaker, I have worked in municipal government for 15 years, and the reality is that some of the access to information requests we received were not reasonable. If we were to act on every single one of them, it would simply not be in the best interest of government and not be good use of time by the administrators who are doing this. That said, it is important to note that there is an appeal process to the Information Commissioner on any request that gets denied. There is an avenue of appeal. If the commissioner decides that the denial is not reasonable, then the applicant would get the information requested.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Luc Berthold

Conservative

Mr. Luc Berthold (Mégantic—L'Érable, CPC)

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in turn to talk about this important bill that was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Liberals' election platform in 2015. Since the start of the debate, all kinds of things have been said about Bill C-58 that do not necessarily reflect reality. I feel that it would be in the interests of my Liberal colleagues to properly inform themselves about the content of the bill before them.

For example, we have just heard about the appeal process for requests for access to documents from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office. Unfortunately, with regards to certain kinds of information, people will no longer be able to appeal to the Information Commissioner. There is a little problem there, I feel.

It has also been mentioned, on a number of occasions, that the bill would give Canadians better access to information from ministers' offices. However, the ministers retain an enormous amount of power in determining what can and cannot be disclosed. It is already a little vexatious to say that ministers' offices do not want to waste their time replying to all kinds of information requests from Canadians. It is absolutely unbelievable to hear such things in this place. We are being told that Canadians ask too many questions and so decisions have to be made as to which requests are going to be processed and which are not. That is more or less what I am hearing from my colleague, and I must say I am a little surprised.

We have to take the time to study Bill C-58 properly. At the outset, it was supposed to be key among the Liberal Party's election commitments. Let me remind them of that commitment; it appeared in the chapter entitled, “Open and Transparent Government”:

We will ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

It is the promise that got the Liberals elected. It is not the first time that the Liberals have done this. It is not the first time that we have been told that something is going to happen during this government's term and that promises have not been kept. This is one example.

We all remember the promise to run small $10-billion deficits, supposedly in order to invest in Canadian infrastructure and stimulate the economy. We were told that we had to take advantage of low interest rates in order to invest. Two years later, the result is that $25 billion, not $10 billion, has been invested in infrastructure. Moreover, we are still waiting for a number of infrastructure announcements because it would seem that the money ended up having gone to various government programs, instead. In other words, they have been feeding the beast rather than investing in regional infrastructure, which would have stimulated the economy.

The Liberals are just riding this wave of economic recovery that has been sweeping over North America and that started under the previous government. That government knew how to manage the public purse in a reasonable manner, and the Liberals look good today as a result. However, it will not be the case in two years, ten years, or any number of years, when our children and grandchildren will have to pay off this huge deficit that the Liberals are going to leave us with. That is another unkept promise.

In addition, the promise to cut corporate taxes had been clearly set out in the Liberal platform, but we no longer hear about it. Then, there is the promise of electoral reform, one that the Prime Minister personally committed to fulfilling. I remember attending the throne speech for the first time as an MP, over in the Senate, and hearing words written by the Prime Minister's Office saying that the election that had just taken place would be the last to use the voting system that we have always known.

When the Liberals realized that fulfilling that promise would mean shooting themselves in the foot, and that it would hurt them more than the opposition parties, they backed off. This means that the Liberals were elected under false pretences. Promises made to Canadians must be kept. That is what Canadians voted for.

Unfortunately, we have yet another example today with Bill C-58. The Liberals were elected on false promises of transparency and openness. We actually see that Bill C-58 will instead better protect information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office.

Let us look at a concrete example of the type of information that the government may want to protect. We now have before us, in the House, a tax reform proposal that will affect each and every Canadian, small and medium-sized business, and farmer in Canada. They will all face tax increases, because the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister, who chose to protect themselves from those changes, have not, or may not have, studied the effects of the changes on farmers and small businesses. Perhaps they did not want to.

I have no way of knowing if they considered the impact. My sense is that they did not because, logically, nobody would do things like that without taking a close look at the impact. My point is that we will never know because Bill C-58 will not make the briefing notes from ministers' offices and the PMO available to us. We will not have access to them, so we will never know what the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food said to the Minister of Finance when the latter made up his mind to propose a tax reform last June.

Was the Minister of Finance made aware of the impact of his tax reform on agriculture? Did the Minister of Finance ask his Agriculture and Agri-Food colleague how his proposed changes would affect farm families across Canada?

Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to that because I do not have access to the Minister of Finance's briefing book. If I wanted, I could try getting access to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food's briefing book. I could ask him if he was consulted and if he commented on capital gains taxation for farmers' family members or if he offered up any proposals about taxation of dividends paid to family members and passive income.

Did the Minister of Agriculture himself consult? Will his briefing book reflect that, following the process, he attempted to influence the Minister of Finance's decision by pointing out to him the repercussions that these changes would have? What did the Minister of Finance take away from the consultations that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food may have had?

We are speaking in “maybes” and “ifs”. We are living in anticipation. For the past two weeks, all of my colleagues and I have been getting letters every day from our constituents, farmers, agricultural associations, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec. They are calling on us to ask the government why it would target them in such a way, and that is what we are doing. We have been asking the question every day for a week. We asked the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food a question in writing so that he may provide us with more information. He could decide not to give us that information under Bill C-58. That is the problem with Bill C-58.

Do the Minister of Agriculture and the Prime Minister have any reason not to provide that information? The information belongs to them, but they got elected on a promise to provide information. That is the problem. The Liberals asked Canadians to trust them and promised to give Canadians information. At the first opportunity to show Canadians that the government is open and transparent, it is being closed and opaque.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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NDP

Brigitte Sansoucy

New Democratic Party

Ms. Brigitte Sansoucy (Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, NDP)

Madam Speaker, it is fascinating to see how my colleague from Mégantic—L'Érable, who often likes to remind us that he was not part of the previous government, manages to talk about access to information while talking about all manner of things. He did still manage to give some concrete examples of how the people we represent, including my constituents in Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot and Canadians everywhere, are directly affected by this lack of access to information, and the fact that the Liberals have clearly broken a promise.

Essentially, I am asking my colleague whether it is important to make sure our constituents understand that the openness and transparency the Liberal government is trumpeting means nothing in the absence of concrete measures, when it confuses proactive disclosure and access to information, and when it does not give sufficient resources to the information and privacy commissioner. When I talk about insufficient resources, I do not know if my colleague understands what I am talking about.

The people we represent need this information to confirm that the fair and transparent government that the Liberals keep bragging about is not just empty rhetoric.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Luc Berthold

Conservative

Mr. Luc Berthold

Madam Speaker, I can tell the hon. member for Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot that I hear a lot of things about tax reform from constituents in her riding.

She is from an agricultural riding, and she knows very well all the impacts this reform will have on the farmers in her riding. Sadly, as it stands, Bill C-58 will not get us all the answers from the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food that would allow my colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot to respond to her constituents.

That is the problem right there. They make promises, they crow, they use big words like “proactive disclosure”. That may have a nice ring to it, but “proactive” means that they can decide what information to give. When we want information, it is called vexatious. It is true that it may be vexing for a government to have to respond to opposition requests for information, but these requests for information come to us from Canadians.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Ted Falk

Conservative

Mr. Ted Falk (Provencher, CPC)

Madam Speaker, I want to recognize the wonderful speech of my colleague from Mégantic—L'Érable. He touched on a lot of very good points.

I want to reflect on the presentation of the member for Saint Boniface—Saint Vital. He said that the government did not want to respond to access to information requests because it was not in the government's best interests—not Canadians' best interests, but the government's best interests. That is the problem with the Liberal government. The Liberals think they are above accountability. They keep ramming things through the House. They do not want to be accountable. They do not want to be responsible for their actions. Now they are trying to push this very repressive tax attack on small businesses and farmers.

Could my colleague comment on that a little more?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Luc Berthold

Conservative

Mr. Luc Berthold

Madam Speaker, the hon. member for Provencher explained it so well in his comment.

Indeed, it is unbelievable to say one thing and to do the complete opposite, and yet, that is exactly what my colleagues on the other side of the House have been doing since the start of the debate. They probably did not have access to the right briefing book because I think even the backbenchers on the government side do not have access to the briefing book that gives real examples of the effects of the changes proposed in Bill C-58.

Perhaps it is vexatious for cabinet members not to give information to members of the Liberal caucus.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Peter Kent

Conservative

Hon. Peter Kent (Thornhill, CPC)

Madam Speaker, I will begin by reminding colleagues in the House and all of those watching at home that the hallmark of the Liberal government is broken promises.

To the litany of broken Liberal promises on tax cuts and government spending, electoral reform, revenue-neutral carbon pricing, indigenous matters, restoration of home mail delivery, United Nations peacekeeping, and on open and transparent government, to all of those broken promises we now add the broken Liberal promise on reform to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Bill C-58 is a hefty document. It is 53 pages of amendments to the existing act, definition sections and subsections, terminological changes, and designated duties and exceptions. The President of the Treasury Board tabled a truly weighty bundle of bureaucratese, but it is as light as a feather in terms of undelivered promised content.

To be fair—we in the official opposition do not abuse the meaning of this word, as the Liberals so blatantly do when they recite their speaking points about tax fairness—Bill C-58 does give the Information Commissioner the power to order government departments to release information, but it prevents the commissioner from looking at documents if the government claims they contain cabinet confidences. That represents, in the view of all the experts, the deepest black hole in the ATI system.

When the ethics committee completed its study of this issue last year, chaired by the Conservative member for Red Deer—Lacombe, it made a number of unanimous recommendations in line with recommendations suggested by the Information Commissioner. The ethics committee—Liberal, Conservative, and NDP members—unanimously recommended that legitimate cabinet confidence should be protected. However, at the same time the committee said that much content that is too often shielded on cabinet confidence justifications should be accessible.

Recommendation 23 says:

That the mandatory exemption for Cabinet confidences would not apply to: purely factual or background information; information in a record of decision made by Cabinet or any of its committees on an appeal under an act; where consent is obtained to disclose the information; and information in a record that has been in existence for an appropriate period of time as determined by the government and that this period of time be less than the current 20 years.

All of that advice is ignored in this Liberal bill.

Bill C-58 also falls short on another important recommendation made by the ethics committee, and that involves the matter of a general public interest override. The committee's recommendation stated:

That in the first phase of the reform of the Access to Information Act, the Act be amended to include a general public interest override, applicable to all non-mandatory exemptions, with a requirement to consider the following, non-exhaustive list of factors: Open Government objectives; environmental, health or public safety implications; whether the information reveals human rights abuses or would safeguard the right to life, liberty or security of the person.

That recommendation is also ignored by the Liberals and is not included in Bill C-58.

The Liberals are making much of proactive disclosure provisions in the Access to Information Act provisions. These provisions will require the Senate, the House of Commons, parliamentary entities, ministers' offices, including the PMO, government institutions, and institutions that support superior courts to proactively disclose specific categories of information, such as mandate letters, travel expenses, contracts, documentation on the training of new ministers—and there has perhaps been a deficit in that area with the government—development notes for question period, and boilerplate backgrounders for appearances before parliamentary committees.

That is actually misleading, the so-called opening of ministerial offices to the Access to Information Act.

We remember that the Liberal campaign promise was to ensure that access to information applies to the Prime Minister's Office and the ministers' offices as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and its courts. The proactive disclosure provisions in Bill C-58 do not come anywhere close to fulfilling that promise.

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has dismissed the so-called proactive provisions as a bizarre sleight of hand, which seems intended to give the false impression of an election promise kept. Compounding the broken promise are the conditions to refuse requests when it comes to requests for information that the Liberals themselves may rule are frivolous or vexatious. Many jurisdictions have provisions to prevent frivolous or vexatious abuses of access to information laws, but that power resides with the Information Commission, not with a minister or department that is the subject of that request.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch offered a measured, if critical, assessment of Bill C-58 in saying that the bill proposes good amendments, by requiring a more proactive publication of some information, by 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 promised by the Liberals.

Stéphane Giroux, president of la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, offered the federation's assessment of Bill C-58 with droll irony. He said that the most interesting fact for them was to have access to ministers' office documents. However, he concludes it was a false alarm, too good to be true.

A former information commissioner, Robert Marleau, lamented the fact that under Bill C-58, there is no one in government departments to review what they choose not to publish. He said this is contrary to the principle of the act. It puts the commissioner completely out of the loop. If people requested briefing notes previously and parts had been blacked out, they had someone to appeal to. This would be no longer the case, and they cannot even ask in court. Monsieur Marleau concluded, “It is one step forward, two steps back”.

Members will be forgiven if they have lost track of the number of Liberal promises broken, not across the entire Liberal policy spectrum but here in Bill C-58 alone. They may have noticed recently that the Liberals are somewhat sensitive to discussion of the emptiness of their virtue signalling in policy pronouncements. I am sure that this is a phrase that was coined only in the past few years, but it could well have been custom designed for the current Liberal government. Virtue signalling has become a shorthand characterization for the spouting of superficial, platitudinous, supposedly high-minded, morally correct commitments with little intention of fulfilling or living up to these commitments. I am sure members will agree that characterization applies almost top to bottom with the Liberals' 2015 campaign promises. Much was promised, as I detailed in my opening remarks, with regard to tax cuts and government spending, electoral reform, revenue-neutral carbon pricing, indigenous matters, restoration of home mail delivery, United Nations peacekeeping, and open and transparent government; but precious little has been delivered. There have been so many promises blithely broken.

Bill C-58 is a perfect example of virtue signalling in the promises of great reform, transparency, and openness in Canadians' access to information. The reality is, as has been said so often in this debate on Bill C-58, one step forward and several steps back.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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LIB

Joyce Murray

Liberal

Ms. Joyce Murray (Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to the remarks of my colleague, who was a member of the previous government. That government actually gave political instructions to ministerial staff to block or delay responses to freedom of information requests that had already been accepted and fulfilled by the access to information secretariat staff. The moral high ground he seems to be taking in his speech is a little curious, given that.

I understand that he also has some measured comments about our bill. I would like to address the comments about frivolous and vexatious applications. First, it is important that our system works for everyone. Second, requests are increasing by 13% a year. Third, there are some requests that gum up the system and are not really intended to secure information.

As the member fairly pointed out, we know that the commissioner, the committee, eight provinces, and many countries have provisions for frivolous and vexatious requests. He criticized the fact that these decisions to accept or not could be made by the government. In reality, people who have their request denied on this basis will still be able to complain to the Information Commissioner, who has order-making powers.

Does the member think it is better to not do this and have an inefficient system, or is it better to actually remove some of these requests that gum up the system?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Peter Kent

Conservative

Hon. Peter Kent

Mr. Speaker, two years of Liberal government should put in the past the schoolyard practices of pointing elsewhere when criticism is presented to the litany of broken promises that it is accumulating.

With regard to frivolous and vexatious questions, I agree that there is often occasion for a good number of such frivolous and vexatious requests for information. I found that in my time in government as a minister. It does represent a continuing problem. The various information authorities across the country have pointed out that in fact Bill C-58 does not have that defined right of appeal to the Information Commissioner. The appeal is not formally implanted in this legislation, and it appears that the word of the minister or the individual department will be considered as final. I am sure this will be brought up in review at the one-year point, although I hope that in committee an amendment will be made to provide for a formalized authority for appeals directly.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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NDP

Murray Rankin

New Democratic Party

Mr. Murray Rankin (Victoria, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, my colleague referred to the bill as another example of broken Liberal promises.

Does he agree that it is also a bill that could be termed as a bill of missed opportunities? For example, in the frivolous and vexatious requests debate that just occurred, in the province of British Columbia, there is a very miniscule 1% type of number for those requests that are deemed frivolous and vexatious. Unlike in this bill, they go straight to the commissioner for a determination. Imagine letting the government decide whether it likes a particular request.

Would it not be better to have the commissioner make that decision and apply mediation to get rid of those totally illegitimate requests that so infrequently occur but still do from time to time? Would that not be an example of an opportunity missed in this bill?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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CPC

Peter Kent

Conservative

Hon. Peter Kent

Mr. Speaker, my hon. friend speaks to the matters of information in Bill C-58, the considerations included and not included, with the authority of his personal history. Yes, that is exactly the suggestion that has been made, not only by my hon. friend but by experts across the country that, in fact, the appeal process should be directly to the Information Commissioner who, with the authority of the position, would make a decision one way or the other.

It is true that the statistics do not show great continuing volume of frivolous and vexatious questions. However, I can say that there are times, as in our previous government, when certain interest groups will deluge certain ministries with what can only be considered frivolous and vexatious requests.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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LIB

Peter Schiefke

Liberal

Mr. Peter Schiefke (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Youth), Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the government to speak to our efforts to strengthen our access to information regime.

Our government recognizes the importance of a solid framework for access to information. We promised to provide a modern access to information regime because we are determined to preserve and strengthen the democratic principles of openness and transparency. We recognize that Canadians cannot meaningfully participate in democracy without having the information they need. In fact, we believe that the information that Canadians have paid for belongs to them. They absolutely have the right to have access to it.

Bill C-58, a detailed set of amendments to the Access to Information Act, was designed to give Canadians the openness and accountability they expect. Furthermore, it will enhance transparency, foster greater public participation in governance, and support the Government of Canada's commitment to evidence-based decision-making.

Canada's access to information legislation has not changed a great deal since 1983, but our world has changed a great deal since then. The proliferation of personal technology like smart phones has transformed many aspects of our lives. We recognize that technology in all its forms is changing how citizens interact with their government in powerful ways. This change is happening around the world and and certainly here in Canada.

Technology is empowering citizens to act on their expectations that a government be honest, open, and sincere in its efforts to serve the public interest. Canadians are demanding greater openness from their government. They are calling for greater participation in the government's decision-making process. They are seeking to make their government more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to its citizens. That is why, in 2016, the President of the Treasury Board issued the interim directive on the administration of the Access to Information Act. Under this directive, federal employees are required to waive all access to information fees, apart from the $5 application fee.

Wherever possible, they are also required to provide the information to requesters in formats that are modern and easy to use. This directive enshrines the principle of openness by default. Make no mistake, this is a crucial measure. Being open by default means optimizing the release of government data and information. The interim directive sends a clear message to all federal institutions. Citizens should not have to explain why they need information in the government's possession. On the contrary, our government said that it intends to publish as much information as possible, subject to certain necessary restrictions that we can all understand, such as protection of personal information, confidentiality, and national security.

Here are some examples of information that will be proactively disclosed: travel and hospitality expenses for ministers and their staff, as well as 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, of course, the briefing binders used for question period.

This is fundamental not only to the ability to participate in the democratic process, but also to hold the government to account. Today, with Bill C-58, we are going further. The legislation proposes to entrench in law for current and future governments an obligation to proactively publish a broad range of information to a predictable schedule and without the need for an access to information request.

One way to ensure the continued strength of the access to information regime is to undertake a review of the Access to Information Act every five years, another important feature in Bill C-58. Legislative reviews provide an important opportunity for stakeholders to have their say on access rights, and help us ensure that the regime continues to meet their needs.

In conclusion, open and transparent government is the way forward. Canadians have waited a long time to have their access to information regime modernized to meet their needs in the digital age. I encourage my hon. colleagues to support Bill C-58, thereby giving Canadians the kind of access to information regime they expect.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
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NDP

Brigitte Sansoucy

New Democratic Party

Ms. Brigitte Sansoucy (Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, our colleague from Vaudreuil—Soulanges shared some fine principles with us.

However, I would like him to explain how these fine principles will be put into action, because I am having difficulty understanding that. Most of the 32 recommendations made by the ethics committee following its study on access to information were disregarded, as were the 85 recommendations made by the Information Commissioner, who does not have enough resources to do her job. There is no way these words can be put into action when the government is confusing proactive disclosure with true access to information.

The government has told us what information will be shared, but the problem lies with the information that will not be shared. We do not know what will constitute a frivolous request. Why would a citizen be accused of being frivolous? How can a citizen be accused of requesting something too general? How will the government determine if a citizen's request is inadmissible?

It is not clear at all. I would like the member to provide some clarification on this.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
Permalink
LIB

Peter Schiefke

Liberal

Mr. Peter Schiefke

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for her question.

This is not just talk. In the speech I just gave, I mentioned some practical measures that will be taken to ensure that our government becomes increasingly transparent and accessible. We have been waiting for real changes like the ones set out in Bill C-58 since 1983, and I am proud to be part of a government that keeps its promises, a government that is more transparent and more accessible to people across the country.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Access to Information Act
Permalink

September 26, 2017