February 24, 2004 (37th Parliament, 3rd Session)


Claude Bachand

Bloc Québécois

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.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Open Government Act
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