News

‘It’s obviously a farce,’ MPs to grill feds on broken promise to open up PMO, cabinet ministers’ offices to access act

Legislation on an arms trade treaty and oceans protection will also be debated in the House.

NDP House Leader Murray Rankin, Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, and Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen lead their caucuses into battle in the House this week on bills about access to information, ocean protection, and an arms trade treaty.The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia and file photographs

PUBLISHED :Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 12:00 AM

Opposition MPs will grill the government over its Access to Information Reform Bill on Monday and Tuesday in the House, after the government pulled the plug on its 2015 election campaign promise to cover the Prime Minister’s Office and all cabinet ministers’ offices under the updated act. 

“It’s obviously a farce,” said NDP House Leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) “and a long way from the bill that [Mr. Trudeau] introduced himself in access to information, you may remember, when he was in opposition. It’s a long way from the mandate letters, it’s a long way from all the electoral promises that they made.”

Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, currently at second reading, would allow government institutions the right to ignore an access to information request—through which members of the public, media, or business world can ask for copies of government documents and information—for various reasons, including because it is “vexatious or made in bad faith.”

It would also clarify the federal information commissioner’s powers to obtain and examine confidential documents, require reviews of the access to information act every five years, and create clauses “providing for the proactive publication” of documents by institutions that are exempt from the Access to Information Act, including the House of Commons, Senate, ministers’ offices, and more.

  

It would not fulfill the Liberals’ 2015 election campaign promise to open up those institutions to access to information requests, something federal information commissioner Suzanne Legault called for in 2013 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) himself proposed in a 2014 private member’s bill, which was defeated at second reading.

Mr. Rankin helped draft B.C’s access to information law during his time as a law professor before he entered Parliament.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.) said the Conservatives would also be taking issue with the government’s failure to keep its promise to open up ministers’ offices.

“We’re going to have a lot of people interested in debating it,” she said.

  

Opening ministers’ offices to access requests could compromise the ability of public servants to give frank advice to ministers, at least in writing, for fear it would be picked apart publicly upon disclosure, former clerk of the Privy Council Office Mel Cappe told The Hill Times earlier this year.

A spokesperson for Ms. Legault, who will be leaving her post in December, said she was not prepared to comment on Bill C-58.

Ms. Legault reported in 2014 that some staffers in the previous Conservative government had systematically interfered with access to information requests, pressuring bureaucrats to prevent the release of sensitive information.

The act currently allows government institutions to black out information in documents for a broad range of reasons, and nearly all institutions make use of those exclusions, often liberally.

  

The number of access to information requests made to government institutions has risen steadily in recent years, in some cases straining the government’s ability to respond to them all in a reasonable amount of time.

It became clear when the act was introduced in June that the government would not keep its promise to open up ministers’ offices and those other institutions to access requests; instead, the bill included a clause “providing for the proactive publication of information or materials” from those institutions.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.), the bill’s sponsor, defended the decision at the time by talking up “proactive disclosure”—requirements for the government to disclose mandate letters, ministers’ briefing packages, travel and hospitality expenses, for ministers and exempt staff, contracts over $10,000, Question Period binders, and some other items—as a means of fulfilling the Liberals’ promise to make government information “open by default,” a line included in the mandate letter for every minister.

Parliamentarians in both Chambers and from different parties complained in March that they were still having trouble getting information they had requested from government institutions.

Mr. Brison is in charge of the government’s access to information reform, and has taken several steps to improve the access system, including eliminating fees for access requests beyond an initial $5 filing fee, and ordering that documents be produced in more user-friendly formats. Through C-58, he would also fulfill promises to give the federal information commissioner the power to order that documents be turned over to her office for review, and would legislate the requirement that a review of the act be undertaken within one year of the act being passed, and every five years afterwards, as promised.

Outside the Chamber, the House Heritage Committee will continue its hearings on Islamophobia in Canada, as mandated by the Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s (Mississauga-Erin Mills, Ont.) controversial Motion 103 this past spring. The House Health Committee, meanwhile, will take a break from its intensive study on marijuana legalization, after the majority Liberals voted down an opposition motion to spend another two days hearing from witnesses for the study.

Government bills on an arms trade treaty and ocean protection are also up for debate this week.

The Liberals made a campaign promise in 2015 to join the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in 2014, and has now been ratified by 89 countries. The previous Conservative government had declined to join on, citing concerns over how it could affect gun owners.

 The treaty is intended to “prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms,” and requires signatories to maintain a “national control system” to track the international trade in ammunition and gun parts.
The government’s bill to ratify the treaty changes the rule around how countries can be added to Canada’s Automatic Firearms Country Control List—a list of 39 countries that exporters are allowed to ship weapons to—to specify that the federal cabinet has the discretion to approve of a new country being added to the list, instead of requiring an “intergovernmental arrangement” between the two countries. It also requires annual reports on arms exports.
Mr. Rankin said the bill was “weak”, and would not block arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which is on the control list, and has been accused of using imported arms in human rights violations. He said the NDP would seek significant changes to the bill.

No opposition days yet

On Wednesday, the House will debate at second reading Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act. The bill outlines new powers and responsibilities for the Fisheries and Oceans minister—currently Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.)—related to establishing marine protected areas, environmental protections for sensitive ocean ecosystems in specific areas.

Mr. Rankin said the NDP supports the bill, but is concerned that it gives too much discretionary power to the minister, including over when to ban oil and gas work in a protected area.

“One is concerned when we make laws not just what this minister would do, but future ministers as well,” he said.

On Thursday, the House will debate at second reading Bill C-47, An Act to amend the Export and Import Permits Act and the Criminal Code, which would allow Canada to join the UN Arms Trade Treaty.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, will continue to take issue with the fact that they have not yet been allotted an opposition day by the government, and won’t be this week, said Ms. Bergen, who said it showed the government was “running scared.”

The Conservatives have used Question Period and any other opportunity to attack the Liberals on Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s (Toronto Centre, Ont.) tax reforms.

Mr. Rankin said there will be seven opposition days between now and the end of December, with five—the first, third, fourth, sixth, and seventh—allotted to the Conservatives, and the remaining two to the NDP. He speculated that the first day would likely come the first week of October, before the Thanksgiving break.

House Health Committee gets off the pot

The House Heritage Committee will be a hot ticket for wonks, politicos, and journalists around the Hill this week, as it continues its study of “systematic racism and religious discrimination,” the product of Ms. Khalid’s Motion 103 that was passed by the House in March, over opposition from the Conservative caucus to a clause that asked the government to condemn Islamophobia, without specifically naming other religions as targets of discrimination.

On Monday afternoon the committee will hear from Ayesha Chaudhry, the Canada Research Chair in Religion, Law and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia, as well as associations representing the Southeast Asian, African-Canadian, South-Asian, and black legal communities.  

The House Health Committee, meanwhile, has finished hearing witnesses for its study of the government’s cannabis legalization bill, C-45, after the Liberal majority on the committee voted down a motion from NDP MP Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway, B.C.) to take two more days to hear from youth, licensed producers, and “ordinary Canadians.”

The committee pulled long hours meeting the week before Parliament returned, and on Tuesday Sept. 19, hearing from more than 100 witnesses as part of its study of C-45. The government has pledged to have the bill passed into law by July 1, 2018.

Mr. Davies told the Georgia Straight last week he believed the Liberal MPs blocked his motion for two more days of witness testimony as part of an effort tominimize exposure and comment and criticism of this bill.” He has previously said on several occasions the NDP also wishes to have the legislation passed by July 1.

He speculated last June, when the early week of study was proposed by Liberal MP John Oliver (Oakville, Ont.), that the urgency to tackle C-45 had to do with the Senate’s new propensity for amending bills, lengthening the legislative process.

Mr. Oliver, who had reassured Mr. Davies during that June meeting that the early September meetings would not preclude holding more once Parliament returned, told The Hill Times last week that the Liberals on the committee voted down the extra days because police and lower levels of government had indicated they needed to see a finished version of the legislation as soon as possible in order to plan for the legalization of cannabis. He said he did not think it would have been appropriate for underaged youth to testify to the committee about an illegal drug.

However, the government is taking into account the independence of the Senate, and aiming to allow more time for bills to pass through both Chambers, according to the government House leader’s office.

Mr. Rankin, who is not a member of the Health Committee, said he believed it would start clause-by-clause examination of the marijuana bill in the first week of October. The NDP has several amendments it will propose to the bill, he said.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Correction: This story has been changed to include details about some of the information that the government will be required to make public through the proactive disclosure clauses of Bill C-58, if it is passed. 

Status of government bills

House of Commons

  • S-2, Strengthening Motor Vehicle Safety for Canadians Act (committee)
  • S-5, An Act to amend the Tobacco Act and the Non-smokers’ Health Act (second reading)
  • C-5, An Act to Repeal Division 20 of Part 3 of the Economic Action Plan 2015 Act, No. 1 (second reading)
  • C-12, An Act to Amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act (second reading)
  • C-17, An Act to amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act (committee)
  • C-21, An Act to amend the Customs Act (second reading)
  • C-24, An Act to amend the Salaries Act and the Financial Administration Act (committee)
  • C-27, An Act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985 (second reading)
  • C-28, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (victim surcharge) (second reading)
  • C-32, An Act related to the repeal of section 159 of the Criminal Code (second reading)
  • C-33, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (second reading)
  • C-34, An Act to amend the Public Service Labour Relations Act (second reading)
  • C-38, An Act to amend an Act to amend the Criminal Code (exploitation and trafficking in persons) (second reading)
  • C-39, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (unconstitutional provisions) (second reading)
  • C-42, Veterans Well-being Act (second reading)
  • C-43, An Act respecting a payment to be made out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund to support a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy (second reading)
  • C-45, Cannabis Act (committee)
  • C-46, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (offences relating to conveyances) (committee)
  • C-47, An Act to amend the Export and Import Permits Act and the Criminal Code (amendments permitting the accession to the Arms Trade Treaty) (second reading)
  • C-48, Oil Tanker Moratorium Act (second reading)
  • C-49, Transportation Modernization Act (committee)
  • C-50, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (political financing) (committee)
  • C-51, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Department of Justice Act (committee)
  • C-52, An Act to amend Chapter 6 of the Statutes of Canada, 2012 (second reading)
  • C-55, An Act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act (second reading)
  • C-56, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and the Abolition of Early Parole Act (second reading)
  • C-57, An Act to amend the Federal Sustainable Development Act (second reading)
  • C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act (second reading)
  • C-59, An Act respecting national security matters (second reading)

Senate

  • C-23, Preclearance Act (second reading)
  • C-25, An Act to amend the Canada Business Corporations Act, Canada Cooperatives Act, Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act, and Competition Act (second reading)
  • C-36, An Act to amend the Statistics Act (second reading)
  • S-3, An Act to amend the Indian Act (elimination of sex-based inequities in registration) (considerations of amendments made by the House of Commons)