Mr. John Bryden (Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, CPC)
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin and summarize the contents of Bill C-462, so that people watching from outside will see that the proposals in the bill are for the most part very reasonable.
First, the bill would change the name of the act to the open government act.
Second, it would require government records that are more than 30 years old to be automatically opened, except when specifically exempted for reasons of national security, public safety or international obligation.
Third, it would establish the principle that records be provided without unreasonable barriers as to time and cost.
Fourth, it would provide protection of information relating to endangered species and threatened ecological or archeological sites.
Fifth, it would bring cabinet confidences under the act.
Sixth, it would protect information related to critical infrastructure.
Seventh, it would extend the act to crown corporations and agencies previously excluded and to all incorporated not for profit organizations that receive at least two-thirds of their funding from federal government sources.
Eighth, it would make ministers of the Crown, their exempt staff and officers of Parliament subject to the act.
Ninth, it would make travel and hospitality expenses of MPs and senators subject to the act.
Tenth, it would allow the disclosure of retained records pertaining to public health and safety, and the environment to be disclosed in the interests of public safety.
Eleventh, it would specify what cabinet records must be disclosed.
Twelfth, it would give the Prime Minister discretion to release the records of previous cabinets under previous administrations.
Finally, it would provide public access to government records pertaining to third party contracts and opinion polling.
I believe we would agree in the House that the majority of those suggested amendments are not controversial and would vastly improve the effect of the act. However, I would like to address some of the criticisms advanced by the member for London West.
She made three points expressing, I presume, the concern of the government. One was the allusion to section 24, which pertains to all kinds of clauses in various legislation that cite exemptions and protections from the Access to Information Act.
I think she made a very valid point that totally eliminating section 24 could have all kinds of unintended consequences. I say before the House right now that if the bill were to go to committee stage, I would be prepared at the outset to suspend that section of Bill C-462 which would eliminate section 24. I am afraid the committee would be bogged down for months, if not years, discussing the implications of that particular amendment. Right at the outset, let us put it aside now so that the bill can go forward quickly.
The other two points the member made, she expressed the concern that the CBC would be afraid that the confidences of its journalists would be affected by this legislation. I can assure her absolutely, that is a red herring from the CBC itself. The Access to Information Act, as presently constructed, provides all the protections needed for not only MPs' confidences, but also the confidences of journalists and the confidences of the operations of ordinary corporations. That is not a problem.
Finally, she expressed the concern about the provision that non-profit organizations receiving two-thirds of their funding from the federal government would be included in the act. She is quite right. The intention is to capture charities and it is to capture foundations that receive most of their money from the federal government.
I point out that the Foundation for Innovation and the Millennium Scholarship Endowment Fund, which are almost totally funded by the government, have been the subject of a lot of concern in the House because they are not suitably transparent. They are a means of the government to put money aside through a third party agency that is not accountable directly to the people and not as transparent as the government would be if it spent the money itself.
Yes, that is the intention. I would be prepared to defend it in committee. I think the member would find very broad support among Canadians. Wherever federal taxpayer money is spent in large sums, there should be the same regimes of transparency and accountability as exist when the federal government is spending the money directly.
Bill C-462 reflects an effort that goes back far beyond me. The actual origin of the access to information bill was the initiative of backbench MPs. This initiative of bringing transparency and accountability to government has always been an initiative of all members of the House, regardless of party. It has not been an initiative of government.
What we are dealing with here is the recognition by MPs, generally, that transparency and accountability is the heritage of Canadians, it is the right of Canadians. Because backbench MPs are not hooked up with government, as it were, they tend to be more sensitive to this.
I would propose that all backbench MPs in the House, at the very least, support Bill C-462 on principle because it is a principle, I believe, that is in the interests of all Canadians.
Subtopic: Open Government Act