Thank you, Mr. Chair. I am delighted to be here with you today and with your committee.
I am joined by Parliamentary Secretary Joyce Murray as well as my colleague Minister Gould, and as you mentioned, Jennifer Dawson from TBS.
I want to thank members of the committee for your work and your consideration of issues around Canada's access to information system.
As we developed these reforms, we were guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people we serve.
We remain committed to this principle, which the Access to Information Act first enshrined in law in 1983.
Now, 34 years later, our proposed reforms advance the original intent of that act in a way that better reflects today's technologies, policies, and legislation.
This is not a one-off exercise. Rather, we've kicked off a progressive, ongoing renewal of the ATI system, one that will protect Canada's right of access to government information well into the future.
Our efforts began over a year ago. In May 2016, I issued an Interim Directive that enshrined the idea of government being "open by default".
Open by default means having a culture across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course, unless there are specific reasons not to do so.
It's about allowing Canadians to better understand how government functions and to give them the information they need to contribute to a healthier democracy.
The Canadian government is being recognized by global partners for our efforts in this area. In March we were elected to the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership for the first time, and on September 21 Canada agreed to take on the role of lead government chair of the OGP in 2018-19.
The OGP is a multi-stakeholder organization that brings together 75 governments and hundreds of civil society organizations. I can tell you that as a government we are excited to take on this leadership role for Canada over the coming two years as co-chair.
The CEO of the Open Government Partnership, Sanjay Pradhan, called our country “a beacon of openness” last month in New York. Additionally, earlier this year, Canada was ranked number two in the Open Data Barometer survey, which is a global assessment of how governments are using open data for accountability, innovation, and social impact. The report commented on how political will in Canada has translated into strong policy foundations on openness and transparency.
A year ago we eliminated all fees for access to information requests, apart from the $5 filing fee, and directed the release of information in user-friendly formats whenever possible.
Now, with the amendments proposed in Bill , we're taking the next step.
These amendments would create a new part of the act relating to proactive disclosure, one that puts clearly into practice the idea of open by default.
Of course this does not absolve us of our responsibility to strengthen the request-based system. We know that the access to information system has been the subject of widespread and warranted criticism. That's why we're developing a guide to provide requesters with clear explanations for exemptions and exclusions; investing in tools and technology to make processing information requests more efficient; allowing federal institutions with the same minister to share request processing services for greater efficiency; and increasing uniform government training to get common and consistent interpretation and application of ATI rules.
Mr. Chair, we are also following the guidance of this committee.
We are moving to help government institutions weed out "bad faith" requests that put significant strain on the system.
By tying up government resources, vexatious requests can interfere with an institution's ability to do its work and to respond to other requests.
Let me be clear: we have heard the concerns expressed about how we must safeguard against abuse of this proposed measure. We need to get this right and recognize that, while this new tool is needed to significantly improve the system, everything, from sound policy to training and proper oversight, must be done to prevent its abuse.
Our proposed amendments also give the Information Commissioner new powers, including, for the first time, the power to order the release of government records. This is an important advancement, which was first recommended by a parliamentary committee studying the Access to Information Act in 1987. Our government is acting on it, and Bill would change the commissioner's role from an ombudsperson to an authority with the order-making power to order the release of government records.
We are also giving the Information Commissioner's office more financial resources to do its job.
And that's just the first phase of our access to information modernization.
Bill includes a mandatory review of the act every five years. The first review will begin no later than one year after the bill receives royal assent. What's more, we require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act.
Mr. Chair, after 34 years, Canada's access to information system needs updating. This is going to be an ongoing work in progress.
I'd now like to pass it over to my colleague, the Minister of Democratic Institutions. Merci.
Thank you very much, Minister Brison.
Mr. Chair, colleagues, committee members, thank you for inviting me to appear alongside my colleague, Minister Brison, to address Bill . I'd like to acknowledge that Allen Sutherland from Democratic Institutions is here.
I want to acknowledge the important work of the public service in putting this bill together.
The Government is taking measures to maintain the openness, the transparency and the accountability of our democracy. To this end, we have introduced Bill in order to increase voter turnout and to enhance the integrity of our electoral system.
We've also put forward Bill , which would make political fundraising more transparent.
As Minister of Democratic Institutions, I have also acted to help protect our electoral system from cyber-threats.
Earlier this year, I asked the Communications Security Establishment, or CSE, to undertake the very first assessment of threats to our democratic process. Since the release of the report, in June, the CSE has communicated with political parties and with provincial and territorial chief electoral officers to provide them with advice against cyberthreats.
Today, I am here with you to discuss Bill . This legislation includes long-overdue amendments to an access to information law that has not been updated since it passed almost 34 years ago. The amendments to the act being brought forward by my colleague, Minister Brison, would help to significantly update and improve how Canada's access to information laws function.
Right now, I would like to focus in particular on how Bill would impact three areas: the offices of the and his ministers, members of Parliament and senators, and the administrative institutions that support Parliament and parliamentarians.
The bill would require the Prime Minister’s Office and ministerial offices to proactively disclose a variety of documents, including mandate letters, transition handbooks, information packages for ministers and their deputies, as well as information regarding travel and accommodation costs for ministers and their exempt staff.
It would also require disclosure of contracts over $10,000.
Information prepared by departments for question period and parliamentary committee appearances would also be subject to the act.
As you know, some of this information is already proactively disclosed by ministerial cabinets. However, this practice is not consistent and is not set out in the law. The aim of this bill is to obtain uniform disclosure from all cabinets. It would require the public release of those documents for the first time.
Of course, exemptions and exclusions under the law would still apply in the case of requests concerning certain issues, such as personal and national security issues.
Bill also extends the act to senators and members of Parliament. For the first time, this disclosure will be formalized in law. Bill C-58 also applies to institutions that support Parliament. I am referring to organizations like the Library of Parliament, the parliamentary budget officer, and the Senate and Commons administrations.
We’re improving the openness of these offices while ensuring security laws and parliamentary privilege.
Bill will make it possible to achieve the necessary balance while implementing measures that will contribute to modernize the Access to Information Act. Canada’s democratic institutions will thus increase their transparency and accountability.
To conclude, Bill will significantly advance the availability and efficiency of the Access to Information Act as it is related to the office and ministers' offices, parliamentarians, as well as the institutions that support Parliament.
The reforms proposed in Bill are an important step in the ongoing review and modernization of the Access to Information Act, and I look forward to working with all members to enhance accountability.
With that, I welcome your questions. Merci.
Thank you very much for the question.
It should be stated that ministers' offices and the office will fall under the act with this legislation. For the first time, we are legislating the proactive disclosure. Even though this was a practice that began under Prime Minister Martin and continued, we're expanding what will be considered to be documents that will be required to be proactively disclosed.
One of the key things that will be disclosed are mandate letters, for example, and that's required by legislation. Prior to this government coming into power, mandate letters were never disclosed. In fact, they were extraordinarily secretive. Only the minister, and maybe the deputy minister and very few officials, had access to the contents of them.
This is an important step that enables parliamentarians and Canadians to hold governments to account. Furthermore, we're talking about briefing notes, transition binders, QP binders, and committee binders that Canadians will have access to. All of these things are some of the most requested items by Canadians. We took a look to see what the items are that Canadians are most interested in, how we can provide a more efficient system so it's more usable for the user and the person who is interested, and doing it in a way that's cost-effective as well.
Mr. Kent, Bill for the first time provides the commissioner with order-making power. The first time that was called for by a parliamentary committee was in 1987. We're the first ones to actually provide that. It was in 1987 that a parliamentary committee called for the application of the Access to Information Act to ministers' offices. We do, through proactive disclosure, and for the first time ever, we're even applying it beyond that, to the administrative offices supporting the courts and to Parliament.
Peter, we've known each other quite a while. Your party, the Conservatives, actually committed in its platform in 2006 to modernize the Access to Information Act. You had 10 years to do it, and when asked in the final days of your government why it wasn't done, said, “Well, we didn't get around to it.” We're doing this in the first two years of our government.
Beyond that, Peter, your government was the first government to be found in contempt of Parliament for not providing information to Parliament, the first government in the history of the Commonwealth—
You heard my question, though. Has it ever been misused? I think Minister Brison would be more comfortable answering it than perhaps you would be.
My suggestion is that, using, as Mr. Kent suggested and all the experts coming before us say, when a reporter is going after a question on something that's sensitive, one way governments in the past.... There are two ways. You can Post-it note it, as some previous Liberal governments did at a certain sponsorship time—you put a Post-it note on it and don't write it down, and you can take it off later. Another way is to provide advice to ministers whereby they are no longer subject to this.
I guess this becomes a question of whom to believe. We have the Information Commissioner who says that previous committees that sat around this table and looked at the act made recommendations, as did the commissioner. You ignored those recommendations in this new Bill .
I'm not sure it's really time to pop the champagne corks when the commissioner says that this bill would instead result in a regression of existing rights.
You made the argument earlier that already captured in this disclosure is a vast.... You couldn't put a number to it, but you said that in the case of many of the requests already, we're going to just disclose.
What government discloses is what they want to disclose, the things concerning which they're comfortable with their being out. The whole point of access to information is that there are times, as you both well know now, when there are things that are uncomfortable for the government to release.
Why not apply this act as you promised to do? I'm looking at your website: “We will make government information more accessible.” This is from the Liberal platform. You both promised this one. It's in your mandate letter, too, I believe, Scott.
First of all, there are genuinely bad faith requests, and I think we understand this. The commissioner understands this. This committee understands it.
We want to make sure that no government abuses the frivolous and vexatious clause of this, and we are open to suggestions as to how to strengthen it. Let's keep in mind that eight provinces and three territorial governments have similar clauses in their legislation, in their access to information acts, because this is an important issue.
These bad faith requests do gum up the system. This committee has in fact called for this type of approach as well. There is currently a process in this legislation whereby somebody who doesn't believe their request is in fact frivolous and vexatious can appeal to the commissioner. The commissioner has sought more of a front-end role in the process, and we are open to that. So, I'd be interested in the guidance of this committee.
First of all, by putting into this legislation a mandatory five-year review, it will ensure the Access to Information Act never becomes as out of date as it is today, 34 years after it was first introduced.
We believe that after one year of this bill receiving royal assent, we will have a better understanding of what some of the changes in Bill made to the act, some of the differences those changes have effected, and it will help inform future changes. We will have a better idea of some of the impacts of the changes, including what we intend on doing in terms of strengthening the technology, the resources, and the training.
We are committed as a government to a more efficient and responsive access to information regime, one that is consistent with open and transparent government. We will have a better idea after one year of this bill receiving royal assent as to what other changes we can make to further strengthen it. The Access to Information Act and its regime ought to be an evergreening process that our government and future governments on an ongoing basis look at to find ways to strengthen the access to information regime for the Government of Canada. I think we'll learn more. Also, technologies change, approaches change, and we learn from other governments. That's part of our role as a co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, that we are learning from and sharing practices with other countries as well.
First of all, we are still working with the system we inherited from the previous government. We hope that this legislation will help address some of the challenges.
There are issues around resources. We need to make sure that the commissioner's office is properly resourced, that the departments and agencies are resourced in terms of being able to fulfill requests, that they have the right technology and platforms, and that we provide more uniform training across government departments and agencies.
What we're proposing in this legislation will make a difference. I hope we see an improvement in terms of the responsiveness of departments and agencies to ATIP requests. We will be working to ensure that. We want to take very much a service focus to access to information and make it more responsive. Again, we believe we will know more as we see the impact of some of these reforms, and that information will help inform future changes.
There's a lot to be done, both in terms of the operations and the scope of the legislation, but we're committed to making it work better for Canadians.
Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for coming to testify before us.
I’m really happy that we're taking action. I see that you have worked really hard on this new bill so we can examine it as a committee.
I’d also like to remind you, as was mentioned earlier, that this was a promise made during the campaign. In my riding, during the by-election six months ago, questions were asked about it. The people with whom I spoke wanted us to take action. So, I’m happy to see that we’re making headway. Thank you for your work.
I’d like to understand the reasons why we had to wait this long to present the new statutory review mechanism of this legislation. Could you explain why?
Thank you very much, Ms. Fortier.
It’s not an easy file for a government; that’s why it took more than 30 years to modernize the Access to Information Act.
Our government is the first to give order-making powers to the Information Commissioner. This is significant progress. We’re the first to add ministerial offices and the Prime Minister’s Office to the act. Once again, this is progress. For the first time, the act applies to more than 240 federal agencies. That’s another positive development.
We’ll continue to raise the bar as far as openness and transparency are concerned. I hope that, in the future — especially with mandatory reviews every five years — we’ll continue to see progress, under this government and future ones.
In fact, it’s unacceptable that an act should not have been modernized in 34 years. That’s the reason why it was so important for us, as an opposition party and, later, as the government, to continue to make progress in order to better serve the population and to increase government’s openness and transparency.
First, on the frivolous and vexatious part of this legislation, this was called for by this committee, in fact, by the commissioner. It does reflect a reality that we do have bad faith requests that come up the system and don't serve Canadians well. We want to make sure this does not get abused. It's important to realize that eight provinces and three territories have similar clauses in their legislation.
There is a provision in the legislation where the commissioner has a role through an appeal process. If there are ways we can strengthen her role, we are open to that. I know she has, in her report, sought a strengthening of her role. This is something to which we are open as a government. I look forward to the committee's looking at that as one of the areas.
In terms of order-making power, if somebody seeking information is refused that information, they can appeal to the commissioner, and she can order that department to provide the information. The department has 30 days to either provide the information or to challenge her order, and ultimately, the decision is made by a judge.
Again, I would assert that a department or agency is not going to challenge an order of the Information Commissioner in a court unless they have some level of certainty as to their arguments and the legitimacy of their arguments. That would be something which I expect will not be done frivolously.
We'll bring the meeting back to order. We still have a quorum, so we'll keep going.
From the Privy Council Office, we have Allen Sutherland and Stéphanie Vig.
From the Department of Justice, we have Adair Crosby and Sarah Geh.
I would like to say to our members that there are no opening statements by the officials. We're going to go straight to questions.
The first question, for seven minutes, goes to Mr. Erskine-Smith.
When it comes to the question of order-making powers, the Information Commissioner has expressed some concern about a situation where a department neither follows through on the commitment to release the information within 30 days, nor goes to court to appeal. In that situation, the commissioner has said, there is a difficulty with enforcing the order.
She has asked for an easy certification process, presumably something like this: after the 30-day period has expired, one can easily, just over the counter with the registrar, certify the order as an order of the court.
Perhaps you could speak to that. Is that a good idea? Is it something we should consider, and if not, why not?
The chair is going to take some discretion and ask you a question, Ms. Naylor, if you're ready to answer. It is with regard to the firearms registry and the earlier copy that was requested by a certain Bill Clennett. It was concerns about what was in that information.
There was a copy of 120,000-plus pages of Canadians' information given to one individual because he simply requested it. It goes to what has been asked on both sides about who decides on what's redacted, who decides in your office who gets what. The concern is I've tried to obtain a copy of what was given to Mr. Clennett and was told I would not be able to get a copy of what he received. The nearest I could find is that the information was redacted, but he was able to obtain postal codes of firearms owners across this country. The concern is with the private information, even as a state actor, on that level, to know where everybody's personal property exists in different neighbourhoods around our country. I think it is alarming, to say the least, that one individual would obtain this information.
Getting back to the original question, who decides on what level of redaction, or who in your office decides what level of information is actually given out to the public?