Home Page News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Store Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising FAQ
Log In

Shining light on Justin Trudeau’s stand on transparency

By Ken Rubin      

Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau’s private member’s bill would do little to ensure that Parliamentarians and the public would be entitled to know such things as the estimated Canadian Iraq war costs.

It’s been more than 30 years since Pierre Trudeau’s government passed weak access to information legislation. Today, his son Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau has put forward as a pre-2015 election gamut, a private member’s bill, “A Transparency Act” (Bill C-613). First reading debate occurred in late November.
Bill C-613 offers up a few amendments to access legislation. But, as described below, those proposals hardly are sufficient game changers to drastically increase opening up government records and meetings.
One proposed change, via an amendment to the Parliament Act of Canada, aims to divide the House of Commons’ secretive Board of Internal Economy meetings into mandatory open and closed sessions. Closed BOIE sessions would continue for security, employment, staff relations and tenders discussions and such secret meetings could be open if all parties, at only their discretion, unanimously agree.
It’s unclear how this consent to open secret BOIE sessions would work in practice. Would it mean, for instance, that the media would be informed in time to be present? And would the Commons Board of Internal Economy’s public sessions be recorded verbatim and broadcast?
It’s not a step forward to keep all BOIE contract matters behind closed BOIE doors, including the payment of lawyers to defend MPs. And why should the BOIE’s discussions or exchanges with the Speaker’s Office, on such staff related matters as setting up procedures for handling cases of sexual assault, remain potentially off-limits to public access and reporting?
Trudeau’s proposed bill does not include covering Parliament under access legislation. Such extended coverage could, for instance, grant public access to the House Speaker’s records and to a parliamentary steering committee’s in-camera deliberations. No mention is made either of the touchy subject of some openness around party caucus meetings, which is allowed in other countries’ access legislation. As a start, last year, Trudeau did order his MPs to make their expenses public.
This bill states that government information should be “made openly” available and that exemptions to public access should be “rare” in addition to being limited and specific, and if there is “uncertainty,” the emphasis should be on releasing records.
In practice, the act’s many exemptions are widespread and these proposed wording changes, while well intentioned, are hardly sufficient to move the yardstick towards greater record releases. What’s required is: the elimination of many of the Access to Information Act’s exemptions and ending the exclusion of Cabinet, ministers’ office, and PMO records, broader coverage, wider open meeting, pro-active disclosure requirements, and stronger whistle blowing protection.
One useful amendment proposed would make machine-readable records that require data retrieval work accessible. Right now, there is official resistance and Federal Court decisions that weigh against such record creation. Trudeau rather awkwardly calls this greater record access coverage an opening “by default.”
The bill does not assign the information commissioner explicit duties to monitor or enforce the production of such machine-readable records. Nor did the bill assign explicit duties to the commissioner to ensure, such as in NDP Pat Martin’s defeated private member’s bill (Bill C-567), that significant government deliberations be done in writing and that there be a “duty to document.”
The Trudeau bill does offer one solution to delays by tying the payment of the $5 application fee to only those with replies sent within 30 days. However, refunding this fee may be cumbersome and not enough of a deterrent to prevent delays in government response times. It would be better to have no application fees and more effective to penalize those agencies responding late and to greatly restrict the length of the time extension officials can claim.
Central to his bill is a proposal to giving the Canada’s access to information commissioner binding orders on matters like fees, delays, and denials. But the bill’s wording only states that the commissioner “may” issue orders.
Again, possibly because of bad drafting, the sole discretion is placed in the commissioner’s hands to determine time lines for the government to carry out such orders while rightly providing the means via the courts to have such commissioner orders enforced. Currently, from personal experience, it can take the commissioner over five years to issue non-binding findings.
Bill C-613’s final amendment clause calls for a mandated immediate Parliamentary review of access legislation and thereafter at least every five years. This suggestion has been made before and may not drive drastic transparency changes. Statutory periodic reviews, while productive, do not guarantee improvements and can give conservative legislation drafters, officials, and special interest groups a regular platform to propose more secrecy provisions.
The Conservative Party response to Bill C-613 delivered in Parliament by Treasury Board parliamentary secretary and Conservative MP Dan Albas was negative. Albas indicated his party would oppose the bill and this means the bill stands little or no chance of getting beyond the first reading debate stage.
Albas stated in the November debate that the Trudeau bill his party opposes would result in more administrative costs and greater delays, including in its provision requiring “detailed explanations” every time an exemption is applied. Forgetting his own leader’s 2006 election pledge, Albas dismissed giving the information commissioner binding order powers.
No party leader is promising in this election year relief from our deadbeat access to information system and well-known secrecy antics.
Unfortunately, Trudeau’s bill would do little if anything to ensure that Parliamentarians and the public would get as a right data now being denied on such matters as the estimated Canadian Iraq war costs and the economic costs of tax evasion.
A party leader like Justin Trudeau must do more than move the secrecy yard line slightly. That’s especially the case if he aspires to be the next PM and wants to be and be seen as a champion advocate for transparency.
Ken Rubin can be reached at kenrubin.ca
The Hill Times

Sponsored Content

Supporting a Digital Public Sector

By Schneider Electric’s Secure Power Division - Canada

Politics This Morning

Get the latest news from The Hill Times

Politics This Morning

Your email has been added. An email has been sent to your address, please click the link inside of it to confirm your subscription.

As provinces enlist military’s support in managing COVID-19, experts say it’s pulling the Forces away from training efforts

News|By Palak Mangat
Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, says just because the forces are 'capable,' the CAF is not and should not be viewed as the 'optimal provider of emergency assistance.'

Feds’ climate bill a ‘significant achievement’—and it’s full of holes: experts

‘The biggest risk is that we’re going to backload the policies and the efforts that we’re going to need,’ says Michael Bernstein.

PMO’s Canada-U.S. relations team gearing up for transition to Biden administration

News|By Mike Lapointe
Brian Clow, executive director of issues management, parliamentary affairs and Canada-U.S. relations remains at the helm, and works closely with Elise Wagner, adviser for issues and Canada-U.S. relations within the PMO.

Trump’s unprecedented failure to concede expected to have ‘very little’ impact on Canada-U.S. relations, says Heyman

News|By Abbas Rana
'It's clear that everybody's already tilting in toward the next president,' said Mr. Heyman, who served as the U.S. envoy to Canada from 2014 to 2017.

‘Always a rolling target to bring about big change’: Fergus says he’s optimistic in feds’ anti-racism strategy progress, ‘but we’re not there yet’

News|By Mike Lapointe
But NDP MP Matthew Green says 'there just seems to be ongoing reluctance for this government to go beyond the aesthetics of big ticket announcements.'

‘Massive overhaul’ of privacy law leaves political parties off the hook

The bill leaves unanswered questions, including why the government wants consumer data, and how much businesses will be able to do with that data without consumers' permission, says John Lawford.

As COVID-19 runs ‘around unchecked,’ Trudeau urges renewed adherence to public health measures

News|By Beatrice Paez
Canada could be on track to hit upwards of 60,000 new infections in December, unless individuals modify their behaviour and restrictions are tightened.

Feds could receive 6 million vaccine doses by March 2021, but details around distribution in works

News|By Palak Mangat
The possibility of Canada receiving six million vaccine doses by the end of March 2021 comes with a 'big if,' says Iain Stewart, the newly named president of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

No system in place to verify if mail-in ballots counted in official tally, says Elections Canada

Elections Canada is exploring the idea of installing secure drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots.
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.