Thank you, Mr. Chair, and honourable members.
I am pleased to reappear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to answer further questions on my private member's bill C-461.
Bill C-461, the CBC and public service disclosure and transparency act, attempts to bring greater transparency to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and to salary disclosure in the federal public service generally.
As you know, your committee meetings have to some extent been derailed and interrupted by motions and several unscheduled votes in the House of Commons. Accordingly, I am pleased that the committee has shown interest in this legislative proposal and scheduled extra meetings to properly assess and vet this important legislative initiative.
Mr. Chair, with your consent, I would like to briefly summarize the evidence that the committee has heard thus far, and then I will take any questions the members might have.
Members, what you have not heard as evidence is as telling and as interesting as what you have heard. For example, not a single witness has supported the government's dubious proposition that the benchmark for specific salary disclosure for federal public servants should be raised to $329,000. Both the National Citizens Coalition and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have testified that the proposed benchmark of DM-1 or $188,000 is too high and ought to be lowered to $100,000 to mirror Ontario's sunshine list.
Moreover, although the CBC and the journalist guilds oppose the provisions that allow the Information Commissioner to review access decisions of the CBC based on a prejudice or injury-based test, neither of them expressly supports the government's signalled intent to introduce an amendment providing for an exclusion for journalistic source documents.
The Information Commissioner meanwhile is firmly opposed to the prospect of another exclusion to replace the currently much-maligned exclusion in section 68.1 of the Access to Information Act. She seemed incredulous that the government would replace an exclusion subject to an exception with a discretionary exemption thereafter subject to an exclusion. Clearly this would constitute, to use the words of the Federal Court of Appeal, “not a model of clarity...[and a] recipe for controversy”, all of which Bill C-461 is designed to prevent.
Moreover, the Information Commissioner reiterated that journalistic source privilege has never been raised—not a single time—in a dispute between the CBC and someone seeking documents, and that journalistic source privilege, according to the Supreme Court of Canada in Regina v. National Post, is not absolute and must be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine its applicability.
Finally, and this is important, Mr. Chair, as personal information is exempt from disclosure pursuant to the Privacy Act, concerns that names of confidential sources will somehow be disclosed to the public through access requests are entirely unfounded.
We did, however, hear some interesting evidence that could prove helpful. I would ask the committee to consider amendments that will ultimately improve this legislation.
There has been some admittedly credible evidence that Bill C-461's attempt to protect the independence of the public broadcaster is inadequate and will lead to excessive disclosure. Perhaps. However I remain convinced that excluding documents merely relating to activities is much too broad and has led to such questionable results as CBC's refusal to release how many vehicles are contained in its vehicle fleet.
It has been suggested that freedom of expression could be added to independence to provide a greater comfort level. I would support that, provided the Information Commissioner is allowed to review contentious decisions to ensure the protections and exemptions are being applied appropriately.
As indicated, both the National Citizens Coalition and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have testified that the salary disclosure benchmark of $188,000 is too high and ought to be lowered to $100,000. I agree with their first submission but suggest that $160,000 is a more realistic benchmark. As members know, $160,000 is the approximate salary of a member of Parliament. Although any chosen benchmark will be arbitrary, I would submit that an MP's salary is as defendable as any other proposed benchmark would be, because Parliament would be requiring no greater disclosure from federal public servants than its own members are subject to.
A related issue, Mr. Chairman, is the use of the words “specific salary” in Bill C-461. It is uncertain whether the term “specific salary” includes the up to 39% performance variances, otherwise known as bonuses, that the top mandarins may be entitled to. It is certainly the intent of the bill that such bonuses be disclosed. Accordingly, the committee may wish to consider an amendment to clarify that all executive compensation, that is salary and bonuses, ought to be subject to access to information requests.
Finally, what hadn't occurred to me until I heard the Information Commissioner last Wednesday was that she believes that the transition provisions contained in the current version of Bill C-461 are inadequate, as rejected applications for disclosure might subsequently be resubmitted under the new, more transparent rules. The current wording of Bill C-461 suspends operation for 90 days to allow there to be a mechanism to deal with applications that are in the queue.
But she's quite right that if the rules change, rejected applications for access could simply be resubmitted. So she advised that it be made expressly clear that all under-review matters be adjudicated under the new rules to prevent resubmissions.
Mr. Chair, I am pleased with the totality of the evidence presented to this committee and the divergent opinions on what is and what is not appropriate access to information held by government. These are important matters and I did not expect the witnesses to be unanimous. However, debate and discussion is necessary as Canada attempts to modernize its clearly outdated access to information legislation.
I trust that upon reflection, members of this committee will reject proposed amendments that remove Bill C-461's attempts to achieve greater transparency, but will adopt and approve amendments that clarify and strengthen Canadians' rights of access to information held by their government.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I look forward to the questions by committee members.