moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am proud today to discuss Bill .
This legislation, which I introduced on June 19, is built on a foundation of work by many people through consultations: parliamentarians, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, important stakeholders, and, of course, Canadian citizens. All have strong views, sometimes conflicting, as to what we ought to do to modernize this 34-year-old act.
I would like to thank each of them for their careful consideration of the issues involved in updating our access to information regime.
The Liberal Party has spent over a decade defending and strengthening the principles of openness and transparency, both in government and in opposition. In fact, I remember when I served in the Right Hon. Paul Martin's cabinet. That was the first time a prime minister required the proactive disclosure of ministers' expenses. In fact, Mr. Speaker, you were a colleague in that same cabinet.
Later, in opposition, under the leadership of the current , our Liberal caucus was the first to proactively disclose parliamentarians' expenses. Now we are bringing this ongoing effort toward openness and transparency to government.
On day one, our made the ministers' mandate letters public, for the first time ever. This week, when I was in New York at the UN General Assembly, the CEO of the global organization Open Government Partnership told me that making public ministerial mandate letters is a real game changer that is going to raise the bar globally in terms of other countries.
Ministers are no longer just accountable to the for their mandates. Today, having our mandate letters public means that we are more accountable to Parliament, and of course, are more accountable to Canadian citizens.
That was just the beginning. Within our first two days of government we unmuzzled government scientists and restored the mandatory long-form census. All these measures are consistent with our drive toward openness and transparency and providing higher-quality information to Canadians.
Our actions are being recognized by global organizations. In March we were elected to the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership for the first time. This week we agreed to take on the role of co-chair of the OGP. This is the world's largest multilateral organization dedicated to open, transparent, and accountable government.
As we developed this first set of legislative reforms of the Access to Information Act, we have continued to be guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves. If anything, it is truer today than ever before.
The Access to Information Act, in 1983, first enshrined in law the following principles: that citizens have a right to government information, that transparency makes government more accountable and responsive to the needs of citizens, and that access to information allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and hold their government to account.
The amendments we are proposing to the act will strengthen its original purpose in a way that reflects today's technologies, policies, and legislation. Now more than ever, open government is good government. We want to work with parliamentarians, independent officers of Parliament, and stakeholders to ensure that this first major Access to Information Act reform in three decades reflects that intention.
A lot has changed since the ATI Act first came into force. Thirty-four years ago, government information was paper-based and stored in file cabinets.
Since then, information technology and our communications infrastructure have been revolutionized and personalized.
Over the same period, the volume of information collected and held by government has grown, and the Internet has made it easier for the government to make large amounts of information widely available.
The Access to Information Act played an important part in bringing about a change in public expectations. It was in fact ground-breaking.
Since the act became law, in fact, more than 750,000 information requests have been processed. That is 85 requests every working day for more than three decades. Since 1983, the number of requests has grown by an average of 13% annually. In fact, 2015-16 saw more than 75,000 requests. I would like us to consider that number: 75,000 information requests in one year. That represents almost 10% of the overall number of information requests processed since 1983, so demand for information is actually growing.
Clearly, there is a rising demand for government information and government transparency. That demand has strained government, and it has frustrated Canadians who are accessing information.
We have heard the complaints about government delays in responding to requests or about denied requests. We believe that the changes we are making will help address some of these issues. However, in 2015-16, for example, 64% of all completed information requests were answered within the initial statutory time limit of 30 days. That number jumps to 86% if we consider the requests closed within an extension period provided for within the act. More than nine million pages were processed in 2015-16, and more than 80% of the records were disclosed either in full or in part.
In some cases, exemptions were invoked for valid reasons, including the privacy of personal information, national security, and the ability of the public service to give full and frank advice to government.
Nonetheless, to say that reforming the 1983 act has been a long time coming would certainly be an understatement.
That is why we are modernizing the act today. This is not just a one-off exercise that might have to wait another 34 years for an update. We are making it law that there will be regular reviews of the act. We began these efforts just over a year ago. In May 2016, we issued an interim directive that enshrined the principle of open by default. This refers to a culture shift across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course unless there are specific reasons not to do so.
This culture of openness helps Canadians engage with their government on policies, programs, and services.
We believe that good public policy comes out of conversations and consultations with Canadians and that it needs to be two-way communication. Even in the last few months since introducing this legislation, we have continued to engage the commissioners of information and privacy, along with many other experts on this subject. We paid close attention to the concerns raised, and I look forward to pursuing that conversation with this Parliament and with parliamentarians here today and in the coming weeks.
“Open by default” involves providing more information to the general public, engaging citizens in identifying issues and problems, and helping to develop solutions around them.
The interim directive we issued in May 2016 also eliminated all fees for access to information requests, apart from the standard $5 fee, and directed the release of information in more user-friendly and shareable digital formats whenever possible. Now is the time to take more steps on this path of open government.
The legislative package we have introduced proposes amendments that would further improve Canadians’ access to government information.
To begin with, the amendments would create a new part of the act relating to proactive disclosure.
Proactive publication puts into practice the principle of “open by default”.
With modern technologies making it easier to share information in real time, we are looking at new ways to meet Canadians' expectations by sharing government information more quickly and automatically while relieving some of the pressure from our demand-based system.
This approach would build on current best practices, and apply consistent requirements for the publication of information across the government.
It would apply to more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations. It would include the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges of the superior courts.
We would be putting in law the proactive publication of the travel and hospitality expenses of ministers and their staff as well as of senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000 and all contracts issued by members of Parliament 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 ministers and deputy ministers, including the titles of the notes and their tracking numbers; and the parliamentary binder used for question period and committee appearances. We developed this list by examining some of the most sought after documents in access to information requests.
We expect, in fact, that this approach would guide us over time in terms of expanding proactive disclosure. In other words, if there are certain categories of information that are frequently being requested through the demand-based system, that would be a signal to our government and to future governments that we ought to consider proactively disclosing those categories as we move forward.
This will lead to better public understanding of government decision-making, fostering more participation and public trust in government. We also understand that proactive publication does not absolve us of our responsibility to strengthen the request-based system.
That is why we are also developing a new plain-language guide that will help provide requesters with clear explanations for any exemptions and exclusions. We will be investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient. We will be allowing federal institutions that have the same minister to share request-processing services to achieve greater efficiency.
Because one of the most common complaints we have heard has been directed at the consistency of how the act is applied across government institutions, we will invest in better government training to get a common and consistent interpretation and application of ATI rules across the government.
We are also following the guidance of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
We are moving to help government institutions weed out what are genuinely bad-faith requests that put significant strain on the system, slowing responses for everyone else. Repetitive, vexatious requests can gum up access to information processes while providing little new information, and as such, can do a disservice to all Canadians.
Federal institutions spent more than $64 million in 2015-16 to cover the direct cost of administering the act, and this government wants those resources spent efficiently and effectively. Our intent is to ensure that no government, ours or any future government, can abuse this provision. Let me be clear. A large or broad request, or one that causes the government discomfort, does not of itself represent bad faith on the part of a requester.
We need to get this right. We recognize that while this tool is needed to significantly improve the system, everything from sound policy to proper oversight must be done to prevent its abuse. I have faith that this House and this Parliament and the work that will be done at the committee can help us achieve that objective.
We are not stopping there. The proposed amendments would also give the Information Commissioner new powers.
These include the ability to order the release of government records. This was a power long sought by successive Information Commissioners. We are also giving her office more financial resources to do its job.
This is a significant step forward.
We will change the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority, with the legislative power to order government institutions to release records. These are significant reforms to our ATI system, but there will always be more we can do to strengthen the trust between citizens and their government.
That is why the reforms being proposed are only the first phase of our modernization of access to information.
In fact, the amendments legislate a review of the act every five years so that the law never becomes as outdated as it is today. The first review would begin within one year of this bill's receiving royal assent. In addition, through policy, we will require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act. This is important because the trend analysis that we conduct on an ongoing basis will help us understand and increase the kinds of information that should be made more easily available, including through proactive disclosure. This analysis would also inform the five-year reviews and future changes to strengthen the act.
After 34 years, we are the first government to significantly revitalize Canada's access to information law and system. It is the most comprehensive access to information reform in a generation. As I said, these reforms are only the first phase. It is a work in progress to strengthen access to information and openness and transparency in Canada, not just for our government but for future governments. With the support of the House, we can continue to work together to modernize our access to information law and system and to make governments today and in the future more open, transparent, and accountable to Canadians.
Mr. Speaker, listening to the speak, I think we should be breaking out the champagne for this once-in-a-lifetime change to the access to information law that will achieve everything. I heard him say that it is early in the day. I am sure he will make some time in the lobby behind us for other government members. However, I have bad news for them. The supposed openness and transparency law that the Liberals have introduced, where they faked themselves into thinking they have accomplished something, falls far short of what they promised during the election campaign. Also, according to the experts, it falls far short of what should have been achieved over this 30-year gap between when the ATIP law was introduced and the amendments they are proposing to make.
What is interesting is that we rise in the House in question period to ask questions that we never get answers to. The Liberals could have provided full answers then. We have Order Paper questions asking for simple definitions that should be textbook, yet they fail to provide the answers for these Order Paper questions. These are privileges that each member of this House enjoys, and the government should be providing complete answers to those Order Paper questions. Therefore, it is no wonder that this access to information amendment it is proposing will fall far short of what should be achieved.
Many times I have heard the member for ask what the definition of “middle class” is and what the impact of the carbon tax would be. He has tried to get that information through the access to information laws. However, we never get that information from the government. What the Liberals are proposing today will never fix that. What is needed is a cultural change. I call this system that they are proposing the Potemkin ATIP system. It has all the window dressings, the image that is needed, but none of the changes they have promised to make will be in the guts of it.
I do have a Yiddish proverb, because I think it speaks volumes to what the government is proposing to do. It is, “The luck of an ignoramus is this: He doesn't know what he doesn't know.” I am not speaking with respect to the , I am speaking of the government in general.
I will quote from the access to information law experts from the Centre for Law and Democracy, which noted a couple of disturbing elements in this bill.
It stated that a large majority of the proactive publication obligations are already being implemented in practice by these bodies. While it is some progress to formalize these commitments, this is hardly groundbreaking. I agree.
It goes on to state, and this is an important point, that the bill “fails to address the serious problem of delays in responding to requests. It does nothing to address the broad regime of exceptions....” That was my first question for the .
It goes on to note that the bill “would also remove the obligation on public authorities to publish about the classes of records it holds, which is designed to facilitate the making of requests for access to information” in the first place. Therefore, that will be removed.
When I came here as a rookie member of this House, one of the very first things I did was to learn and understand how each department worked and the areas in which it specialized. I wanted to understand how to better keep the minister accountable. To do so, I looked for the type of information and the type of records the department was keeping. That was so I could better understand what types of records I could request through an access to information request if I did not get an answer to an Order Paper question or an answer in question period.
The Centre for Law and Democracy notes that section will be removed, which takes me back to my Yiddish proverb. If we do not know that a document exists, then how could we ever ask for it? It is interesting that the government is removing that one section. It is not just me saying that, but so is the Centre for Law and Democracy, which is the expert on this. It does analyses of all access to information laws in every jurisdiction in Canada, and it rates them. It is those experts who are saying that it falls short.
Who else is saying that it falls short? Robert Marleau, the former information commissioner from 2007 to 2008, stated, “there's no one [in government departments] to review what they choose not to [publish]”. This is contrary to the principles of the act. They put the commissioner out of the loop. If we requested briefing notes and parts of them had been blacked out, you had someone to appeal to. This is no longer the case. You cannot even ask the court. It is a step forward, two steps back.
Let us see what the Liberals say they have done. We have heard about mandate letters now being released to the public. It does not help if one does not follow the mandate letter and fulfill what is in it. It is just a letter, a piece of paper. It does not help us to understand anything. Also, I have news. The Alberta government has been releasing mandate letters for well over a decade. Therefore, it is not as if this is groundbreaking and setting some type of new frontier regarding access to information. Alberta has been doing it for years. I remember when the member for and the member for were in the provincial government, and they had mandate letters that were published. The difference is that they followed through with the contents of their mandate letters and were held accountable by the premier of Alberta for the contents. Here, they are not held accountable.
The other thing they say they will be doing is documentation on the training of new ministers, titles and reference numbers of briefing notes, development notes for question period, backgrounders for appearances before parliamentary committees, travel and hospitality expenditures, and contracts of more than $10,000. Other governments have been doing some of these things for a long time now, through freedom of information laws that are provincially based. These are not new frontiers. These are very basic documents.
Some of them are here. However, if they remove from the law the very basis of what type of records the department has to keep, how am I supposed to know that a record exists in the first place? It is like chasing a needle in a haystack a lot of times.
I have experienced this first-hand when doing access to information requests to the health department where I have been stalled out for lengthy periods of time. Sometimes I stumble upon new documents that I did not know even existed before. Then I do another access to information, and my staff and I continue in this manner. Many of the changes being proposed here will not end any of that.
It is hardly historic in terms of changes. There is an RTI rating, which is the methodology that assesses each access to information law to determine its score. The score is based on 150. On the RTI rating, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada will go from 90 to 92 points. That is a two-point increase. One would think after two years that the government could have cobbled together an amendment to the access to information law that would live up to the promises it made during the last election, because it has broken them here. It could do much better than a two-point increase in its score on access to information laws.
It is not as if Canada will be rising greatly. It is not as if the government did not know how to increase its score. It is not as if it did not have a comparator that it could look at, such as Serbia, which supposedly has a much better rate than we do.
Many experts in the field have said that there are issues, and I note in the law there are interesting oddities and amendments. One of them, and we have heard this before, is with regard to frivolous or vexatious claims for access to information requests. A department would be able to say that they cannot do that.
According to Policy Options, a well-respected think tank, the power to prevent such abuse is included in many ATI laws. However, that power should rest with the Information Commissioner, not the department that is subject to the request. If the department can determine what is frivolous and vexatious, then it can block any type of request it feels is frivolous and vexatious. It could up to the individual civil servant who receives the request.
Bill also includes a five-year review. The first five-year review would take place only a year after the legislation comes into force. Given the glacial pace of how legislation makes its way through the House and then to the Senate and then bounces back from the Senate, because the government does not really know what it is doing there, I do not think we would have a review of it before 2019, before the next election.
My other concern is that it does not have a sunset clause. Even the Bank Act has a sunset clause. It is set every five years. It forces the parliamentary committee to review the legislation through a mandatory review. It knows that it will sunset unless it provides feedback on its contents. I like the idea of mandatory reviews and sunset clauses in legislation, because it forces us, as parliamentarians, to review legislation on a consistent basis. When I worked as a staff member in the provincial legislature in Alberta, it was one of the things I kept pushing for in regulation and statutes with the minister I had the privilege of working for. I pushed that every single piece of legislation, regulation, should have that included, to mandatorily force members to review the legislation to make sure it still made sense, that the amendments that had been proposed in the last five years, and the improvements, were actually worth carrying on and being included in the final legislation.
I have a page from the Liberal policy platform from the last election. The Liberals promised many things on access to information, some of which they achieve here, and some which they absolutely do not. They said they would expand the powers and role of the Information Commissioner. They have done some of that. They also said that government data and information should be open by default, and that formats should be modern and easy to use. I have no problems with that. That is a great idea.
It is interesting to note that the previous President of the Treasury Board and the previous government started an open data, open government website, where people could download data on Excel spreadsheets. I know this, because we used them in the office that I worked in before. We downloaded bits of data, and used it to supplement Statistics Canada data that we were purchasing as well.
In this policy platform, the government talks about ensuring that the system continues to serve Canadians while it undertakes a full legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. I have been to many parliamentary committees where we get a cursory review.
In fact, on the small business tax change, the biggest tax change in a generation, the Liberals on the committee forced it through after we heard only six hours of testimony from witnesses. That was all the time allowed. The Carter commission took six years. If that is the standard the Liberals are going to go by, then I have worries about the mandatory five-year review. I have to wonder if in three or four years will we get six hours to review the legislation. Will the committee be stuffed with members from the Liberal side who will simply say that the committee will be given three hours every five years to figure it out and then they will be done with it? The Liberals have not lived up to the real change, the open and transparent government that they promised.
I will keep referring to the Centre for Law and Democracy, because it has produced a lot of information on the shortcomings and some of the improvements that it sees. There are a lot of shortcomings.
The centre also says that the bill fails to address the serious procedural problems, namely the highly discretionary power of public authorities to extend the initial 30-day limit for responses to requests. I have been the victim of this. I was told that I had asked for too many documents, or they were too difficult to get or too complicated. They tried to get me to pare down my request. That is when I knew I should keep pushing forward and get all of the documentation I was requesting.
With respect to the 30-day time limit for responding to requests, power has been applied with disturbing regularity they say, often to create very lengthy delays in responding to requests. On one access to information request, I was told it would take two years to respond. I reminded them that by then I may no longer be a member of the House and therefore the information they provide may be of limited use to me, which would be a shame.
There are a number of options for reducing official discretion in this area, for example, by requiring officials to obtain prior permission from the Information Commissioner for delays beyond the set period of 60 days. In fact, many access to information laws say that the government must respond within the 60-day time limit. That would be a vast improvement. No courts would be involved, and there would be no need to go to another body to get a document that has been lawfully requested. The documents would simply be released within 60 days.
There are hundreds of thousands of public servants who work for the federal government. Why can they not do a request within 60 days when a reasonable request for documents is made? Why should I, as a member of Parliament, need to go to a court to obtain them? I am not going to get questions answered in the House in question period or through an Order Paper question. My only recourse is to get documentation through access to information.
The commissioner would acquire new order-making powers, but they would be largely crippled and counter-productive. Ken Rubin, the CFE senior fellow who provided a critique on Ryerson University's website on Bill , said it is counter-productive and largely crippled “because no amendments were put forward to change the numerous broad exemptions in the Access to Information Act that cut off access to [these] government records.”
If there are a bunch of exemptions and rules that can be used to not release documents for national security reasons, documents pertaining to cabinet confidences, which is perfectly legitimate, are things like third-party proprietary corporate information at all times really proprietary? It might be better to shed some light on the procurement process so that parliamentarians could better understand what is going on.
We have seen delay after delay, and huge costs associated with the government's failed procurement process. Maybe it is time to shine some light on the problem. The government did not do that in this legislation. It just did the trimmings on the edge, the Potemkin village that I talked about.
The exemptions still exist, and the exemptions are the core of the access to information law. The government has left them as they are so then it could always find an excuse not to release information, to black out information, and to not provide it under the exemptions.
I think the majority of Canadians interested in access to information were looking for the exemptions to be tweaked. The Liberals could have amended, diluted, or removed some of them to make it much easier to access this information.
Another point that Ken Rubin makes is that the has put forward other legislation that makes certain records off limits to the commissioner and the courts for review or their ability to order releases of information. One is the National Security and Intelligence Committee for Parliamentarians, again, on national security grounds. However, that can become overbroad and used as an excuse. We see this in some countries overseas, which use national security to limit access to all types of information, for all types of reasons. It is a blanket catch-all. I hope it does not become that way. However, for national security, I can see legitimate reasons for the government to deny access to information, such as because it would put Canadians at risk or it would put the national security of the country at risk.
The omnibus budget bill, Bill , contains a section devoted to setting up the Canada infrastructure bank. This was a big point of contention in the last session. Section 28 gives the government the power to decide unilaterally what is privileged information, commercial, infrastructure, financial, and political transactions, with no independent review. It is an already controversial enough bill. With these provisions, we can see the government saying that this is a wonderful, new, once-in-a-generation, open and transparent access to information law. However, section 28 limits access to information on the Canada infrastructure bank.
The Liberals are putting exceptions in other bills, but not in the main bill, which should be of great concern to parliamentarians. If the exemptions are not put into the main ATI Act but are put into other legislation, then the government cannot claim to be open and transparent. I do not think anyone would claim that.
Another point Mr. Rubin makes is:
|| ...one amendment in Bill C-58 also directly increases secrecy by expanding and broadening the legal definition of what is able to be exempt under solicitor-client relations.
The Liberals have put some wording around it so the Information Commissioner could have access to it, but they still broadened and expanded it, and Mr. Rubin details that.
Mr. Rubin also makes this point, overall, on Bill , which supposedly would meet the government's promises made in the last election. He says:
|| It is a stopgap, government-controlled, limited administrative information system not subject to appeal to the information commissioner or the courts, containing a few sanitized offerings the government wants to provide.
I am a big believer in access to information laws. When I worked in the Alberta provincial government, the government there released information. Yes, it took a long time to meet every single requirement. Yes, there were administrative problems. Yes, not everybody was satisfied with the level of customer service they received from the FOIP office there. However, a lot of times it released information eventually and it embarrassed the government to no end. I was in a minister's office at the time, and sometimes it embarrassed our office. However, at least we knew people were getting the same information that we had. The briefing binders were perfectly available to people, and they could ask for the content of them. The only portions blacked out were portions that civil servants determined should not be released. We played absolutely no role in that.
I am sure members on the opposite side, and hopefully all members, will agree that access to information laws are part of our democratic process. People should have a right to get information. I totally agree with that. We cannot fight for the little guy, we cannot fight for the middle class, and then tell them they cannot know things that the government is doing or how it has came to a decision.
However, I will not be able to support the bill, because it does not meet with what the government said it would do during the last election. The Liberals fall far short of the majestic, historic promises they made. This is why I believe members on this side of the House should all oppose the bill. I look forward to continued debate on this.