moved that Bill , be read the third time and passed.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for this opportunity to speak on Bill , which would amend Canada's Access to Information Act.
As we developed these reforms, we were guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves.
We remain committed to that principle, which was introduced for the first time in the Access to Information Act in 1983.
Now 34 years later, our proposed reforms would advance the original intent of the act in a way that reflects Canada's technologies, policies, and legislation. This is not a one-off exercise. Rather, we have kicked off a progressive ongoing renewal of the ATI system, one that will protect Canadians' rights of access to government information well into the future. Our efforts began over a year ago.
In May 2016, I issued a directive suggesting openness by default in government.
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. Now, with the amendments proposed in Bill , we are taking the next step. These amendments would create a new part of the act relating to proactive disclosure, one that effectively puts into practice the idea of open by default. Proactive disclosure would apply to more than 240 departments, agencies, and crown corporations, including the 's Office, ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and over 1,100 judges of the superior courts.
We also added to the legislation the proactive publication of information that we know is of interest to Canadians and that provides greater transparency and accountability with respect to the use of public money.
This will include travel and hospitality expenses for ministers and their staffs and 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 of ministers, briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers, lists of briefing notes for the minister and deputy minister, and briefing binders prepared for question period and parliamentary committee appearances.
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 widespread and warranted criticism. In fact, demands on the system have grown massively in recent years. That is why we are developing a guide to provide requesters with clear explanations of exemptions and exclusions, investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient, allowing federal institutions with the same minister to share request processing services for greater efficiency, and increasing government training to get common and consistent interpretation of the application of ATI rules.
In addition, the proposed bill gives the Information Commissioner new powers, including the power to order the release of government records. This is an important advancement that was first recommended by a parliamentary committee studying the Access to Information Act back in 1987. Our government is acting on it and Bill would change the commissioner's role from an ombudsperson to an authority with the power to order the release of government records.
We are taking steps to help government institutions eliminate requests made in bad faith, which are detrimental to the system.
By tying up government resources, such vexatious, bad faith requests can interfere with an institution's ability to do its work and respond to other requests. Let me be clear. We have heard the concerns expressed about how we must safeguard against the abuse of this proposed measure. A large or broad request, or one that causes government discomfort, does not, of itself, represent bad faith on the part of the requester.
I would like to address the amendments made at committee. Our government believes in working with parliamentarians through the committee system for the good of all Canadians. I was happy to see that the committee passed over a dozen amendments, which serve to further strengthen and clarify our government's intent to strengthen and reform our access to information regime.
For example, one amendment removes the ability of departments to decline to act on a request simply because the request does not specify the subject matter, type of record, or time period. It gives the Office of the Information Commissioner the power to approve or reject upfront a department's request to decline to act on a request. It clarifies that a department can only decline to act based on the record already being available if it is the identical record.
These amendments address concerns raised by both the Information Commissioner and other stakeholders, including representatives of indigenous claims organizations. The amendments further underline the fact that we want to ensure that the system cannot be abused and cannot be used to decline to act on legitimate requests.
The committee also passed an amendment giving the Information Commissioner the power to publish the results of her investigations and to publish their orders. This is an important strengthening of the commissioner's powers.
The committee passed an amendment that imposes a 30-day deadline for the proactive disclosure of mandate letters.
This is just the first phase of our access to information modernization. In fact, Bill includes a mandatory review of the act every five years. The first review will begin no later than one year after this bill receives royal assent. What is more, it will require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act. This will help us understand and increase information that could be proactively disclosed.
After 34 years, Canada's Access to Information Act needs updating. This is going to be an ongoing work in progress as we have an evergreening, modernization and strengthening of the Access to Information Act. We look forward to continuing our work to help make government more open, transparent, and accountable.
Mr. Speaker, I listened to the minister speak, and as I sit in the House on a daily basis, as we all do, is it any wonder that we find it hard to believe that anything the government says it is going to do will actually come to fruition? We have seen broken promise after broken promise. If members do not believe me, just look at what some of those who are looking closely at Bill are saying. By ruling out the possibility to obtain information from ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, the government is breaking its campaign promise to establish a government open by default. Moreover, the possibility to refuse certain access to information requests on an undefined basis jeopardizes the transparency and the openness of this government. That was from Katie Gibbs, the executive director of Evidence for Democracy group. However, there are more, and I will refer to more as I get through my speech today on Bill .
I would be remiss if I did not go back a couple of hours, back to the future, and the egregious display of contempt for parliamentary democracy. It has been a practice in this place for many years that when opposition members ask questions directly and pointedly to the , as we did today, or to other ministers of the crown, that those answers are expected. They are expected on behalf of all Canadians. This is why we are elected to come to this place; it is to ask the type of hard questions that were asked today.
In the preamble to the movement of a motion to adjourn debate on Bill , I will remind the House that we are talking about openness and transparency, which is something the government runs around saying. The stands up in front of microphones, posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat that the government is more open and transparent than any other government in the history of Canada. I would suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.
I would again remind the House of what I said before I moved the motion to adjourn debate. I said to the Speaker that before I resumed my comments, I wanted to go back to question period and what I thought, quite frankly, was an egregious display of contempt for our parliamentary democracy. This minister was asked multiple times whether he had sold his shares in Morneau Shepell in advance of his tax reform announcement, and he failed to answer the question on multiple occasions.
Therefore, in the absence of the minister answering those questions on a bill that, quite frankly, he has influence over, I would call into question the ability of Canadians to have confidence in him conducting further business on the bill. It is confidence, and not just on this bill, but any bill. The was asked a minimum of 14 times today in question period whether in fact he had sold his shares in Morneau Shepell in advance of his tax reform policies being announced, and each time he skirted the question. He would not answer. He went on about the middle class and those working hard to join it. Well, right now, it is a matter of the middle class and those working hard to stay in it because of the policies of the .
We are expected to sit in the House and accept not just what the President of Treasury Board talks about in terms of openness and accountability, but there are multiple people, stakeholders, who have a vested interest in what the President of Treasury Board is promoting and proposing in terms of this access to information legislation, and they are being critical of it. They are being as critical as we are being on the , because he needs to answer the questions.
The government needs to force the to answer the questions as to whether in fact he had any vested interest or knowledge of the sale of those shares. It speaks to credibility, to transparency, to accountability, which the government is good at talking about, but when it comes to implementing or living by that, it does not.
What was funny about Bill and the motion we put forward was that every single person, save one, I believe the member from the Green Party, voted in support of adjourning the debate on that bill. They did that because they do not want to talk about it.
All we are asking is that the minister answer the questions that have been asked of him by those who represent Canadians in this House, every single one of us who are not members of the Liberal Party.
We are actually hearing about Liberal members who are questioning their confidence in the ability of the to conduct the business of the country. Why? It is because he has failed to answer the questions. He has answered, but in generalities. He goes back to the fetal position of saying that they are working hard for the middle class and those working hard to join it. However, he refuses to answer the questions.
If we are talking about openness and transparency, and this government is proposing Bill , why is the not being open and transparent with Canadians? We can speculate that perhaps he knows that Canadians will not be happy with the answers. They will not be happy with the villa in France and why he hid that from the Ethics Commissioner, that he had complete control over Morneau Shepell shares and shares in various corporations, or that perhaps he was the one who sold that $10 million worth of shares just ahead of making that announcement. Openness and transparency: what an absolute joke.
I also want to talk about some other individuals who have concerns about what the government is proposing in Bill . The bill proposes a good amendment, and I will give some credit here, by requiring 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 was promised by the Liberals.
We need more changes to have a government that is transparent and open by default. Again, the Liberals talk about openness and transparency, but they do not act in that way.
"The bill is a step backwards in allowing government officials to deny requests for information if they think the request is frivolous or made in bad faith. Public officials should not be given this power, as they will likely use it as a new loophole to deny the public information it has a right know.” Dale Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, said that.
Stephane Giroux, the president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec said, “The most interesting fact for us was to have access to documents from ministers' offices. False alarm. It was too good to be true.”
In spite of the fact that the is standing up and saying that all these changes have occurred within Bill , the reality is that there are still significant concerns. I think there is concern among Canadians. This past weekend, I had lots of events in my riding, and one of the things I kept hearing about is confidence in the to continue to do his job, given the circumstances and the besieged state he has been in over the last while. The fact that every single member of the Liberal caucus voted to adjourn debate on this issue calls into question not just Canadians' confidence in the but the Liberal backbenches' confidence in the finance minister.
The Hill Times today reported that there are concerns among Liberal backbenchers that this is going to affect them in 2019. Do members know the reason they gave for that concern? Many of them will have been here for one term of four years. They are concerned about their pensions. That is what it said in the paper.
How about being concerned about the process of democracy in this country and making sure that no one benefits from having holdings, in the case of the , that they have not brought forward and been transparent about?
Never mind pensions, we should be focused on what the is doing by not being transparent and accountable to Canadians and question whether some of the legislation he is putting forward, such as Bill , actually benefits him.
I would remind the House as well that it is not just a matter of benefiting him. What about the benefit to his family? What about his wife? What about his kids? What about his father? How many Morneau Shepell shareholders, or anyone directly or indirectly associated with that family, are benefiting as a result of the policies the is putting forward? We talk about being open and transparent, but the finance minister has been anything but, and we certainly saw that egregious display today in the House.
As parents, we teach our kids about the difference between right and wrong. We tell our kids what they cannot do and explain it to them. We tell them what they can do and explain the reasons why. We talk often to our kids about character. School systems, through the policies of education, speak about character. They speak about honesty and integrity, yet the is showing none of those character traits to Canadians with his actions.
We are dealing with a piece of legislation, Bill , that, quite frankly, is difficult to support for many reasons, the least of which is the government not showing any strong movement toward openness and transparency. It is a very top-down approach by the government.
The former information commissioner, from 2007 to 2008, said, “there's no one [in government departments] to review what they choose not to disclose, and I think that goes against the principle of the statute. They've taken the commissioner out of the loop. If you ask for these briefing notes...[and parts of them had been blacked out], you had someone to appeal to.”
This is no longer the case with Bill .
He went on, “We can't even go to a court. It's one step forward, two steps back.”
We have seen a lot of one step forward and two steps back with the government. My fear is that the openness and transparency the Liberals ran on are not there anymore. We have seen that the cannot even answer a simple question. He will not even answer a simple question. Quite frankly, after seeing this display we have been seeing over the course of the last several months to questions being asked, how can we have any faith? If the finance minister will not even answer a simple question, how can we expect the whole of government to be open, honest, and transparent?
I am saddened by what I see, quite frankly, as a new parliamentarian. I know the other side is going to say that there were circumstances in the past when similar issues happened. We are not talking about circumstances in the past. The Liberals were the same opposition that stood and talked about the egregiousness of the actions of previous governments. They ran to be different. They said that they were going to impose real change. We have seen nothing to suggest anything different. We are seeing a government that is more inward. We are seeing a government that is controlled from the top down. We are seeing a government where the 's Office runs everything. Not just on this issue but on multiple issues, anything but what they said has come true.
Conservatives are not going to support Bill . I certainly call into question the . I call into question his ability to manage the financial affairs of the country, given the circumstances we have seen over the course of the last several months.
Despite their campaign promises, the Liberals have failed to increase government openness and transparency with this bill. As I have said, it is no surprise. This is effectively a government that chooses to publish when it is accountable to Canadians. It is not being accountable all the time. It is going to pick and choose when it wants to be accountable to Canadians. In practice, what the Liberals have effectively done is give themselves the power to refuse to respond to access to information requests they find embarrassing. Under the principle of openness and transparency, should not everything be responded to?
I understand that there might be matters of national security that are not in the public interest, but this is something different from what they ran on, as far as openness and transparency goes. With the changes proposed by the Liberals, less information would be available to Canadians. Moreover, the Liberals would do nothing to address unacceptable delays, so we would continue to see that information punted down the field and would have unacceptable delays in when that information would be put forward to Canadians.
I spent some time talking about Bill , but in the context of openness and transparency, I cannot emphasize enough the egregious nature of the issue we have been dealing for the last couple of months with the . Again today there was zero accountability, zero transparency, and zero openness. It is a pattern that has evolved with the Liberal government over the course of the last two years. It should concern all of us. It certainly concerns stakeholders who have an interest in this. However, it is not just a concern to all of us who are here to represent Canadians. It is a concern to all Canadians, because it is the small stuff that leads to the big stuff. If we cannot get simple answers to simple questions in this place of openness and transparency, how can we expect to get that information from a government that proves, day after day, that it is not interested in openness? It is not interested in transparency and accountability, in spite of the fact that it ran on that very thing.
They said they were going to be different. The reality is, and we have seen it over the course of the last two years, that nothing could be further from the truth. With the display of the over the course of the last couple of months, and certainly today, there is not much faith in the ability of the government to be open, transparent, and accountable. That is why Bill is flawed. We continue to be concerned about the actions of the finance minister and how the Liberal government and these Liberal backbenchers can continue to endorse the display we are seeing here on a daily basis.
Madam Speaker, as always, I am deeply honoured to rise in the House and speak for the people of Timmins—James Bay. I will be speaking tonight to Bill and to express my deep concern about the government's attack on the access to information system.
The folks back home may not pay a lot of attention to access to information because it is the stuff of journalists, researchers and opposition politics. However, access to information is one of the fundamental principles of an accountable democracy. In order to hold government to account, we need to know who is involved when the decisions in the backroom are made. We need to have some manner of light shone into the dark rooms where the power brokers are to ensure a level of accountability. That is the role of the Access to Information Act.
At one point, Canada was well-respected for the Access to Information Act brought in a number of decades ago. However, year by year Canada has slipped in its level of credibility. We are going to be talking about some specific examples of how that plays out tonight.
We are in a situation now where we have a who won so much support across the country because the very first step he took in offering his vision as a new leader was on access to information and open government. His vision for Parliament would be the opposite of the Stephen Harper government, which was considered so controlling and secretive. People put their trust in the . I remember thinking this was really bold, a leader who was willing to make the changes necessary for access to information.
I have grown increasingly concerned that more and more our Parliament has become a sideshow. It has become a Potemkin democracy, where MPs get to play out in the House, but the real decisions are made to benefit those who are not accountable. When the makes a promise on access to information and then undermines it in such a cynical manner, Canadians have a right to know how this happens and how it affects them.
With respect to Bill , which is supposed to change the access to information laws in the country, the says that we should not worry because Canadians will now have access to the mandate letters for the ministers. Is that not already public? He also said that we should not worry because Canadians would now get to know the travel budgets of various ministers. That is already public.
However, what we do not have is the ability in this case for the Access to Information Commissioner to ensure that all documents are posted. One thing we have found with government is that certain documents are not all that helpful to it. Remember when the racked up all those thousands of dollars riding around Markham in a limousine? That was embarrassing to government and it did not want that information released. Therefore, if we allow government to release what it wants, it will not release what is embarrassing. However, we need accountability.
Therefore, I will talk about Bill in the context of a couple of specific cases so people will understand exactly what we are talking about. I am going to talk about the issue of St. Anne's residential school.
As the government is leading its attack to limit the ability of people to access information, I am dealing with the Access to Information Commissioner on the three-and-a-half-year obstruction by federal officials in the justice department to suppress and blackout who made key decisions regarding the justice department's response to the survivors of St. Anne's residential school. In telling the story, we begin to understand why it is so important to have an accountable system for access to information.
St. Anne's residential school was in the region I represent, the community of Fort Albany. If we look at the horrific history of the residential schools, the story of what was done to the children at St. Anne's year in and year out, generation upon generation, it stands among the most horrifying of stories in the country's history. It was a veritable concentration camp of torture and sexual abuse of children.
In 1992, the survivors of St. Anne's came together in Fort Albany to talk about their experience. For the first time, many of them began to talk about the levels of sexual abuse, rape, and forced abortions to which children were subjected.
Edmund Metatawabin, who is chief, brought this to the Ontario Provincial Police and demanded a major police investigation. To its credit, the Ontario Provincial Police, with Sergeant Delguidice in the Cochrane division, undertook a massive investigation of the crimes committed against those children. They identified over 180 perpetrators of rape, torture, and abuse of children. They gathered 1,000 witness statements of that abuse from the survivors and students who were there. They gathered 12,000 pages of police testimony and documentation, including subpoenaed records from the Catholic church in the diocese of Moosonee, to build a picture of what went on in that institution year in and year out.
In 2003, there was an effort with the survivors and the then federal government of Paul Martin, I believe, to try to find a solution. The survivors were shocked at the aggressiveness of the federal government to fight and deny every single case, no matter the evidence. At that time, all of the evidence the police had gathered in Ontario had led to a number of convictions in an Ontario court against the perpetrators of the abuse at St. Anne's, but let us face it: the big ones got away. The priests and bishops who were involved got away. Some of them were dead, some of the perpetrators could not be found, but a number of people were convicted in an Ontario court.
However, in 2004, the justice department wanted access to that trove of evidence to prepare the defence of the number one defendant, which was Canada. When it applied for access to the police documentation, it told the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that it would be unfair to Canada, which was in charge of this institution, in preparing its defence if it did not have all of the evidence. The key officials in the justice department were involved in the application to obtain those records, and they got the records, some 12,000 pages. They got the names of the perpetrators. They were preparing for the major civil litigation trials against Canada.
In 2007-08, the process for the Indian residential schools settlement agreement was set up as an alternative so that the federal government could escape these cases. The federal government agreed at that time to set up the independent assessment process, the IAP. The IAP was to be a non-confrontational process in which the survivors could tell their stories. That is how they told the survivors it would play out, but of course it did not play out like that at all for the survivors of St. Anne's. Therefore, the justice department wore two hats. The first hat was to obtain all of the evidence, prepared in so-called narratives, so that the adjudicators and claimant lawyers could use it to make it easier for the claimants. The justice department acted as the gatherer of evidence. The justice department's other hat was as lawyer for the defendant, Canada, and its number one goal was limiting the payouts.
In the case of St. Anne's residential school, the justice department had an obligation to prepare a list of all documentation, listing all the known crimes and sexual abuse that occurred in that institution, and it presented a document at the hearing stating that there was no known history of sexual abuse at the Fort Albany Indian residential school, St. Anne's. It said there was absolutely no documentation to show any student-on-student abuse at the Fort Albany institution of St. Anne's.
People told their stories, and their cases were thrown out because the justice department did not go there with a non-confrontational attitude. It went in loaded for bear and accused the survivors, who were victims of child rape, of not being able to prove their stories because they could not remember the day the priest raped them, that they could not remember little details. Yet the justice department already knew they were telling the truth because it had all of the evidence.
We had claimants, like claimant H-15019, whose case was thrown out, because the justice department argued there was no proof that a predatory pedophile priest was in St. Anne's Residential School when that child was in that building. That child, who grew into a man who asked for justice from the Government of Canada did not know that the justice department had a long list involving that pedophile priest. The department knew he had been in that building since 1938. From 1938 to 1974 he had free access to rape children, and the Justice Department of Canada lied about it in hearings, suppressed that evidence, and had that case thrown out. How could this have happened in 2015, 2016, and 2017 in Canada?
The greatest moment that I have seen since I have been here and the greatest moment in the history of this Parliament was when Prime Minister Harper stood up in the House and apologized. People in my region wept for days when they heard that apology. They never thought that justice would happen and after hearing the apology they thought it was possible.
People wept when the present gave a powerful speech at the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was listening to him. He said that Canada would make this right, that the obligation of the survivors to prove what they went through was over, that Canada would be there for them. That has not been the case with the survivors of St. Anne's Residential School. The justice department continues to take the brass knuckles approach to deny them basic levels of justice.
In 2013 I wrote to the and the at the time and I asked them who had made the decision to suppress the police evidence in testimony that had these cases thrown out. I asked them both what they were going to do to rectify this clear breach of legal duty. Those ministers said they knew about the evidence but that they were not accountable for presenting it, which was false.
In January 2014, the Ontario Superior Court ordered the previous government and the to turn over those documents to the independent assessment process to have those cases fairly adjudicated. The government refused. It continued to deny.
The survivors of St. Anne's Residential School had to go back to court in 2015, and this time the government was forced to turn over the documents. However, it had blacked out the names of the perpetrators and the witnesses to make the evidence functionally useless.
For what purpose in a nation like ours would the Government of Canada opt to protect pedophiles, rapists, and sadists by hiding their names? For what possible reason would justice department lawyers, the people who are charged with presenting the law for the people of Canada, go into hearings and challenge survivors who suffered horrific levels of abuse? For what possible reason would the Government of Canada decide to suppress this police evidence? I still have not figured out an answer to that, but it dogs me. I stay up at night trying to figure out what kind of person hired to represent Canada would do this.
In 2013, I applied a simple tool, a tool of all parliamentarians and of all Canadians, by making an access to information request regarding the political decisions that went into suppressing the police testimony and evidence that denied justice to the survivors of St. Anne's Residential School.
For the information of folks back home, when a government does not want to answer a question, it delays. We had a 300-day delay. We knew this was just an attempt by the department not to have to answer the question. The cases were closing down and the ability of survivors who had their cases thrown out to re-appeal the verdicts was coming to an end. It seemed obvious that the justice department would drag this out over three years, because it thought that the cases would be closed and all would be said and done. We waited 300 days, 600 days, then 900 days.
The new government came in and I thought it would change things. It had no reason to oppose survivors of St. Anne's. The new government took the position that it would not turn over any of the political documentation regarding the decision to suppress the police evidence. That was done by the new and the new .
Therefore, we approached the access to information commissioner, the tool that we use, to ask how is it possible that after three years of delay, they could deny and say they were not obligated to turn over this evidence. This documentation concerns who knew what in the minister's office. This is a question on a political issue that Canadians need answered.
The Information Commissioner and her office are one of the great institutions of our country. She understood the seriousness of this. It was not a vexatious request; it was about justice. She challenged the justice department. We were on the verge of being in court with the justice department to find out what was being said in those offices when they suppressed that police evidence. The justice department agreed to turn over four batches of information over a period of a year. The first batch of information was about 90% blacked out. The second batch of 3,000 pages we just received was entirely blacked out.
When the government says it wants the right to refuse vexatious requests, what it means by vexatious are the requests that would give it political grief. It wants to be able to turn those down.
The folks who survived St. Anne's Residential School, who were taken from their families, who had their identities stripped from them, who had their rights taken away from them, who were left in the hands of abusers and torturers, have a right to ask why Parliament failed them. They have a right to ask why the justice department of our country continues to deny and challenge them and obstruct their basic rights for redress. Part of those answers may lie in the courts, but part of those answers lie in the access to information request. We have a right to know who advised the politicians to do this.
I would like to say that the abuse of the children at St. Anne's has come to an end because of these beautiful apologies, but it has not. We now have, in the case of claimant H-15019 and claimant C14114, a case that was thrown out because she did not have any documentation. She was unable to prove that when she was assaulted in St. Anne's Residential School it was known by administration. Then, after her case was thrown out, she learned there were all these documents. She attempted to have her case reopened. The Government of Canada said she could not reopen her case because her case was adjudicated. We are talking about a child victim of rape. What possible reason would the Government of Canada have to suppress police testimony about child rape? What possible reason could it have to defy the Ontario Superior Court and black out the names of the perpetrators? For what possible reason would it black out all of the political documentation on what was said in the minister's office regarding this decision?
For what possible reason, right now, at this time, would they be in the hearing saying “Okay, we've been finally forced to hand over the police testimony, but it is inadmissible”. Why is it inadmissible? It is inadmissible because it has not been tested. What they are saying to the survivors is that it does not matter that we are having to present 12,000 pages of police documentation of the perpetrators, because the survivors have to find a witness to come in and be tested.
The trauma to the communities I represent is a direct highway from St. Anne's Residential School to the suicide crisis of our young people today. Talk to anyone in the community and they will say that trauma continues to kill children, and yet we have justice department lawyers saying that evidence cannot be used unless they bring forward a survivor to be re-challenged by the justice department.
I will close on this. We do have a survivor who is willing to come forward and verify the testimony. The justice department said she cannot be allowed to speak because she has already spoken. Can someone explain that to me? That is why we need access to information. It is to understand the perfidious nature of what is—
Madam Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise in the House, particularly at supper time.
I am very pleased to speak to Bill . It is quite a coincidence that we are talking about consistency, transparency, and access to information—in short, giving clear answers to clear questions—when we saw exactly the opposite of that today in question period. I will come back to that a bit later.
This bill objectively seeks to make government more transparent and to give Canadians better access to government information. That is the objective, but it is still far from reality. I would not say that I am in a conflict of interest because that is a sensitive topic these days. However, as a former journalist and a current MP, I find myself walking a very fine line between the legitimate access to information requests that Canadians should be able to make to the federal government and the executive's ability to govern in order to carry out the usual business of a government, a country, while maintaining some level of confidentiality when it comes to debates and relevant information.
Let us be clear about one thing: if everything is made public and if there is access to everything that is said, and if everyone's views are known, at some point there will no longer be any real internal debate by cabinet, which is necessary to govern a solid state like Canada. Therefore, there is a very fine line that needs to be drawn and this government clearly did that when it was in opposition. When the Liberals made an election promise, they drew that line; today, the line is there, whereas before it was here. This is a regressive bill.
I listened closely to the , who sponsored this bill. I hold the member in high regard and have great respect for him. He has been here for almost 21 years and, at another time, early on in his political career, he sat on the right side, with the Conservatives. He has the right to change his mind, as some have, but I just wanted to point that out, tongue in cheek. I will be a good sport. He made an objective statement that I will not challenge: this is the first time in 34 years that a government is overhauling access to information. Only that much is true. The overhaul is not going to provide more access to information. On the contrary, it will give more power to the executive, the ministers, the Prime Minister and his cabinet to restrict Canadians' access to information.
I will provide some examples. First, the Information Commissioner was rather scathing in her assessment of the first draft of this regressive bill and worse yet, she said that in her view, the sponsorship scandal, the legacy of the Chrétien and Martin governments—of which the current was a member—would not have been uncovered without the excellent journalistic work of the Daniel Leblancs of this world. It is quite a positive development for transparency, right? It is truly a step forward for openness. It is truly a fundamental element of freedom of the press. No, it is not.
We recognize that a dozen or so amendments were adopted, but we think that those amendments do not go far enough when it comes to the Liberal ambition and even less so when it comes to the practice of journalism. I acknowledge that what I am about to say may be subjective, but part of our work as MPs is to be subjective. It may be subjective, but I have 20 years' experience as a journalist under my belt. We believe that the proposed amendments do not go far enough. As a result of these amendments, in a case like the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien and Martin Liberal governments, of which the current was a member, it would still be difficult to get access to that information. It would not be impossible, but journalists' work would become even more difficult, and that is why we think this is a regressive bill.
In addition, it will be the government that chooses what can and cannot be disclosed from now on. It will be judge and jury. Of course it is in the government's interest to withhold certain information; that is only natural. I am not saying that is what it should do, but it could be a natural reaction for some government members. That is what I would call a step backwards.
The same is true when it comes to the proactive disclosure of certain documents. With this supposedly proactive approach, there is a risk that bureaucrats, policy advisers, and ministers will know which documents are going to be made public in a month or in six months. We can therefore expect a version A, which will be made public, and a version B that has the real information, which can be found in emails, for example, and might be a little more politically sensitive. The government might be a little less inclined to make that information public.
Of course, nothing is perfect in life, but we believe that the proactive disclosure of certain information falls short of what was said or aspired to in the Liberal Party's electoral platform, which is what people voted on two years ago.
Earlier, my NDP colleague mentioned certain amendments that the government flatly refused to consider. The amendments were substantive and in keeping with Liberal promises, but unfortunately, they were rejected. The same amendments had been suggested by the Information Commissioner, journalists, members of the media, and first nations.
The government says it cares so much about first nations and keeps talking about how they are its priority. However, as we have shown during a number of debates, including the one on the 's unfortunate statement about religious belief, the government talks about first nations only when doing so suits its purposes. The same goes for this bill.
Even though the government made a dozen or so amendments, we feel that this bill does not go far enough in terms of ensuring the clarity, openness, and transparency everyone expects of the government. It is also a watered-down version of the Liberal promise. In short, this is yet another in what is becoming a very long line of broken Liberal promises.
This government got itself elected on a promise of a small $10-billion deficit for three years and a subsequent return to a balanced budget. Now we are talking $20-billion deficits, and nobody has any idea when the budget will be balanced. The government said it would aggressively raise taxes on seniors. As a result—