Ms. Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain, NDP): Mr. Speaker, normally I am pleased to debate issues in the House and to bring the concerns of Hamilton Mountain residents to bear on the important public policy matters that affect their everyday lives. Issues like jobs, pensions and health care are all issues that merit much greater attention from the government.
Today we are using up valuable House time on an issue that should never have had to come before us. We are calling on the government to release information that we should have had as a matter of right.
Let us just go back to the genesis of this issue. In November, the Standing Committee on Finance asked the government to release two things: the costs associated with its justice bills and the projections of corporate profits before taxes. In the past, governments have routinely released such information, and that is as it should be because access to information is essential for members of Parliament to carry out our jobs.
It is worth reminding Conservative members in the House that in our system of responsible government, the government must seek Parliament's authority to spend public funds. That means that Parliament has an obligation and a responsibility to scrutinize the government's books and to hold the government to account. The ability to do that is the very cornerstone of our democracy. However, instead of sharing that essential information with members of the House and with Canadians, the Conservatives are using every trick in the book to avoid accountability.
In response to the standing committee's request for information, the government sent back curt responses that such information constituted a “cabinet confidence”. That is completely absurd, and it is in contravention of the Access to Information and Privacy Act.
Let me remind members what that act says. Section 69(1)(b) states the cabinet confidence defence does not apply to “discussion papers the purpose of which is to present background explanations, analyses of problems or policy options to Council for consideration by Council in making decisions”. It goes on to say, “(i) if the decisions to which the discussion papers relate have been made public”.
Both in the case of corporate tax cuts and the costs of the government's crime agenda, the decisions are public. Laws were drafted to comply with these decisions, they were debated in the House and they were passed by this chamber. It is absurd to maintain that they are somehow still private. They could not be any more public. Therefore, the background documents with respect to their costing should be available to anyone with $5 and a form, let alone a branch of Parliament acting under due authority.
The Conservative government ran on a platform of greater transparency and accountability. That is how it promised to differentiate itself from the previous Martin government, when the Liberals were mired in the sponsorship scandal.
I want to remind members that it was only five years ago that the Prime Minister wrote an impassioned op-ed piece in the Montreal Gazette in defence of government transparency. Here is what he said:
Information is the lifeblood of a democracy...Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt governance can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.
Back then he was upset because he believed the Liberal government was intent on weakening the Access to Information Act, which is the law that gives Canadians the right to request federal documents.
Now, almost five years later, that same Access to Information Act, which the Prime Minister defended so vigorously is in shambles. Despite the fact that the act mandates a response within 30 days, Canadians seeking access to information regularly complain that many departments now take as long as a year to release files. When they finally do, records are often so heavily censored that they are unreadable and essentially useless. At one time, the act was a cornerstone to holding governments to account.
Records released under the law have exposed government wrongdoing and the waste of tax dollars.
It was an access request from the Ottawa Citizen that led to the resignation of Liberal defence minister Art Eggleton after it revealed in May 2002 that his office had awarded an untendered contract to his former girlfriend.
Access requests from the Globe and Mail helped uncover revelations that members of the Liberal Party were involved in illegal dealings involving federal sponsorship and advertising budgets, a scandal that led to the Gomery Commission in 2004.
The Canadian Alliance, later to morph into the Conservatives, was one of the most effective users of the law. Party researchers used it to obtain records that helped expose the so-called billion dollar boondoggle as well as other cases of poorly managed tax dollars.
However, that was then and this is now. Once in government, the Conservatives immediately clamped down on the release of information to the point where information commissioner Robert Marleau, head of the independent watchdog that oversees the law, complained in 2008 that the government had created a “fog over information”.
It is now at the point where Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has publicly said that MPs are losing our ability to do our constitutionally mandated jobs because the growing government secrecy means that MPs lack the information needed to cost new initiatives.
By any objective measure, government secrecy has reached unprecedented levels in Canada. Even a landmark ruling by the Speaker of the House has done little to ensure greater transparency by this Conservative government. Members will remember that seminal decision only too well, because it dealt with the release of documents pertaining to Afghan detainees. When the Speaker finally weighed in, he clearly upheld Parliament's right to have access to information.
Yet here we are again. Motions to release information duly passed by a standing committee of the House are being wilfully ignored by the government. The refusal of the Conservatives to release the information requested is, at its base, a fundamental attack on Parliament.
Lest anyone who is watching this debate on television today thinks that this is an isolated incident, let me be clear. Parliament is just one of many public institutions that has come under attack from the Conservative government. In fact, Jim Travers of the Toronto Star described the persistent government attack on Canada's institutions as vandalism. The independence of the regulators and senior civil servants has never been so brutalized.
The list is long. Linda Keen, the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, was fired by the government for doing her job. As Auditor General Sheila Fraser observed, that sacking had a “chilling effect” throughout the whole civil service. It now realizes that anyone who criticizes the Conservative government is putting his or her job on the line.
Here is a short list of those who have been told they will not be reappointed after challenging the government's world view: Paul Kennedy, head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission; Pat Stogran, Veterans Affairs Ombudsman; Peter Tinsley, chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission, who was investigating the torture of Afghan detainees; and Marty Cheliak, head of the Canadian firearms program. The head of Elections Canada, Philip Kingsley, was driven out of his role, and his successor, Marc Mayrand, has been subjected to constant attack, including a number of court cases against Elections Canada by the Conservative Party.
There have been others, too, who have not just been summarily dispatched from public service, but whose positions have been eliminated by the government, representing a loss to all Canadians. In that category are: Dr. Art Carty, science adviser to the Prime Minister; Karen Kraft Sloan, ambassador for environment and sustainable development; and Jack Anawak, ambassador for circumpolar affairs. Those important jobs are all gone.
Then, of course, there are those who find themselves attacked publicly for having the temerity to criticize the government. Foreign Affairs official Richard Colvin, Canada's chief statistician Munir Sheikh and Kevin Page are just three of the most prominent examples.
The Conservative government will go to any length to silence its critics, including shutting down the very place in which I am speaking today.
It was that prorogation of Parliament which suddenly made the public sit up and take notice. Silencing MPs by locking the doors of Parliament to suit the Conservatives' narrowly partisan agenda created a huge backlash by Canadians. They realized that the silencing of MPs meant their voices were no longer being heard in the single most important democratic institution in this country. The Prime Minister's obsession with secrecy and control was eroding their democratic freedoms. In the end, it is that public outrage that may well prove to be the government's downfall.
Canadians want transparency and accountability from the government and they deserve nothing less. That is why I will be proud to vote in support of the motion before us today.