Bill C-58 Access to Information and Privacy Act

Madam Speaker, is an honour to rise today to speak to Bill C-58, the long-awaited amendments to the Access to Information and the Privacy Act.

As we have heard from many Liberal members, this is the first time the act has been substantially amended since its initial debut. As has been said by many of us in the environmental law community, Canada does not so much have freedom of information legislation as it has freedom from information legislation.

We had hoped for far more openness, given the promise that was in the Liberal platform. I will just repeat it as a way of context-setting for my presentation:

We will ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

To give Liberals their due, let me cover some of the things that I think represent improvements in openness under the new government, and then focus more substantively on the failures and gaps in this legislation.

We do have, on the Treasury Board website, the heralding of access to information that is open by default. I think that is a stretch, but it certainly is a positive step. I want to emphasize that.

This Prime Minister is the first that I know of in our history to have made the mandate letters to ministers public letters. That has already had an impact on other governments. When Premier John Horgan became premier in my home province of British Columbia recently and formed his cabinet, the mandate letters became public. I think that is the first time that has happened at a provincial level, but once it happens federally and once the Prime Minister does it, it was “Where are the mandate letters?”

I am pleased to see in this legislation that mandate letters of a Prime Minister to members of his or her cabinet will, going forward, be legislated requirements for openness. That is a very good thing. It is a good thing to know that briefing packages of ministers will be proactively revealed, that question period binders will be made public, as well as hospitality expenses, contracts over $10,000, and so on. Those will be proactively disclosed, including expenses from ministers’ offices and senators.

There will be a lot more transparency around things that I am going to describe as routine, expenses that are predictable, contracts that are large, and briefing documents that are predictable. It is also important to note that this will apply to other agencies and institutions within the Government of Canada.

Unfortunately, this is not what was promised. What was promised was that access to information legislation would apply to a Prime Minister’s Office and to a ministerial office so that, for instance, when an issue arose, a member of the public or the media could ask how that happened and do an access request. That will not be permitted under this legislation. We will not see the opportunity that we thought was going to transpire in this legislation.

Certainly lots of knowledgeable members of what might be called the architecture of privacy and information in this country made recommendations. For instance, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault recommended that it be up to access to information officials and officers to determine whether emails and memos in and out of the PMO or a minister’s office were political or parliamentary in nature, in which case it would be recommended they remain confidential, or would pertain to running a department, in which case they would be accessible through access to information. That recommendation has not made it into this legislation. Perhaps the Liberals are open to seeing amendments to Bill C-58 that would allow the legislation to meet the earlier promise.

I am going to quote from an article by Stephen Maher at iPolitics. He is certainly one of Canada’s leading investigative journalists. He certainly has a lot of experience with access to information. He used it very effectively to investigate the robocall scandal, among other things. What he wrote was:

The proactive disclosure of some ministerial documents may be a step backward, because the decisions about what to release and what to redact will not be reviewable by the information commissioner.

In a sense, what looks like a step forward is actually a step backward. Was it an unintentional step backward? We will have to find out at committee how open the Liberals are to amendments on this bill.

One of the things I found very concerning is found at proposed section 6.1, which is that the head of a government institution can, on his or her own initiative, decide to ignore an access to information request for a number of reasons.

Many of those reasons are reasonable. If the request does not meet the requirements set out in the act, for instance, or if the person has already been given access to the record and may access the record by other means, or if the request is for a large number of records and necessitates such a large search that it would unreasonably interfere with the operations of government, it would be reasonable to refuse the request.

However, this one is outrageous: proposed subsection 6.1(1)(d) states that the head of a government institution may on his or her own initiative, and not reviewably, refuse to accept an access to information request if “the request is vexatious”. That is a subjective term. If an institution decides that someone’s interest in, for instance, toxic chemicals in their watershed is something the department does not want to share with the public, the institution just has to say it is a vexatious request.

“Vexatious” is far too subjective and far too restrictive a term to be allowed in government legislation. It certainly is a shock to find it in legislation that is supposed to take us to the promise of open and accessible government.

In other areas, those who are knowledgeable are saying that this legislation is not as good as what other provincial governments have already accepted in terms of openness. The information commissioners in the Government of British Columbia and the Government of Alberta have more robust powers than the federal Information Commissioner will have even after this legislation is passed. That is a surprise, because from the Liberal promises during the election campaign, I would have thought that this new access to information legislation would set a new high-water mark to which other jurisdictions could aspire. Unfortunately, the government has fallen short of existing powers that provincial governments already have for their information commissioners.

I am again going to quote someone who is an expert in this area. Vincent Gogolek, who is the executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said, “That’s what we have here in British Columbia, and responsible government hasn’t collapsed here.” The Government of British Columbia has been living with a far more robust freedom of information regime, which has not been extended into our federal law with respect to the access to information that we certainly expected to come forward from the government.

How much of this is reviewable by information commissioners? That is an important point. There have been discussions, admittedly, in committee, and recommendations were made that there needs to be some screen to deal with requests that might be seen as vexatious. However, the screen was not supposed to be a subjective unilateral decision by the head of the agency in whose control the information resides. The decision as to whether the information is releasable or not needs to reside with the Information Commissioner or members of that agency. It is up to those officials to decide whether it is vexatious or not.

That failure in this legislation is substantial. I sincerely hope that when the bill gets to committee, the Liberals will be open to amendments. If this legislation stays as it is, there is no question that it will be considered a broken promise, because as much as there have been steps toward greater openness compared to the previous administration, this legislation falls far short of the Liberals’ election promises and compares unfavourably to regimes already found in other provinces.

The model here is a weak model that can be found in other provinces. We find it in Newfoundland and Labrador. We do not find it in British Columbia and Alberta. Exemptions throughout the bill are far too broad. Access to cabinet documents is certainly not something we will see. There are questions as to who would redact information and whether the redactions are acceptable. These will also fall to the agency itself and not, as I understand it, be reviewable by the Information Commissioner.

There have been a lot of concerns on the opposition benches. I wanted to give balance in my presentation today because it occurred to me that in the debate on Bill C-58, the Canadian public watching this debate might be baffled by the assertions being made by Liberal members that this legislation does apply to ministers’ offices and to the PMO, while those on the opposition benches think it would not.

Proactive disclosure of some things, like briefing documents, spending, contracts, and so on, is a good thing, but here is the rub: giving that control solely to the agency itself and not allowing it to be reviewable may actually be a step backward, in that it would increase the discretion of those who control information to deny information.