Access to Information

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, I have a question for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Canada has received yet another failing grade in the international arena. We already know how poorly we do for child care and poverty. The OECD and UNESCO have given us failing grades. We know how badly we are viewed on the environment as well when delegates walk out on Canada at international climate change meetings.

However, this new failing grade is about freedom of the press. This week, Reporters Without Borders released their annual ranking of 175 countries. They rate a country’s free press on three factors: the ability of journalists to protect their sources, ready access to information, and the existence of lawsuits that deter people from providing information. Canada was not first, second or third — not gold, silver or bronze. No, Canada was ranked nineteenth. What is even more significant, we fell six spots from 2008.

Freedom of the press, as my two colleagues on the other side know, is an essential part of our democracy. Yet this government does not seem to recognize this. When asked to supply information about government programs and policies, this government drags its feet, taking several weeks and even months to respond to access to information requests from journalists.

We know this government is quite savvy about photo ops and self-promotion, but when will it give people what they really want — timely information?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government and Minister of State (Seniors)): I saw that article and anticipated that I would get just such a question from the honourable senator. If he reads the article, the reasons for it are multiple. Many challenges are before the courts by certain members of the media; others are challenges to various human rights commissions by reporters such as Mark Steyn. There are many mitigating factors as well as access to information.

Honourable senators, the truth of the matter is that our government has opened up access to information and has included many more agencies and corporations, including the CBC. Of course, we would have added more had there not been an amendment to the bill. When I saw that article initially I said, “Here it comes again. We’re going to be blamed for something else that we didn’t do.” Frankly, when I read the article, I satisfied myself that the ranking was more a result of circumstances beyond any government’s control. Basically, it resulted because of certain actions that were taken in the courts. With regard to the sponsorship scandal, we have the Toronto Globe and Mail before the courts trying to protect their sources. I can expand on that if the honourable senator would like me to do so; it is an interesting story.

As far as the comment the Honourable Senator Munson made about countries walking out at the environmental conference, that is factually incorrect. Other countries did not walk out on Canada; the honourable senator knows that. He is supposed to be a good journalist; I am sure he knows the facts. However, if he does not, perhaps he is not such a good journalist. In any event, that did not happen.

An. Hon. Senator: You just cannot resist, can you?

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, that is quite personal. However, I will not get personal. I am too nice a guy to get personal like that. I am sure that Senator Duffy and Senator Wallin are sitting there, listening and saying, “Yes. What a wonderful answer given by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.”

On the subject of access to information, is the leader saying that she is satisfied that when a journalist applies and puts down notes that they are getting that information in a timely fashion?

Senator LeBreton: I am so sorry if I offended the honourable senator’s tender sensitivities. As the honourable senator knows, when the access to information requests are submitted there is always room for improvement.

Honourable senators, I want to put on the record again that our government expanded coverage to 70 more institutions. In April 2007, we expanded access to information to cover the Wheat Board; agents of Parliament, including the Auditor General’s office; and five foundations. In September 2007, seven additional Crown corporations were brought under the act, including the CBC and the wholly owned subsidiaries of Crown corporations. Canadians can now see how these institutions spend their dollars. Access to information requests are up 14 per cent, from under 25,000 in 2005 to almost 30,000 in 2007.

As Senator Munson knows, because he used to be on the other side, access to information requests are handled by the bureaucracy and not by ministers or their political staff. They are handled by the government in the sense that they are handled by the bureaucracy. These requests are handled by competent senior public service professionals. Of course, as is always the case, there is room for improvement.

Hon. Joan Fraser: May I observe, to use a phrase the leader sometimes uses, that Senator Munson needs no lessons in journalism from anyone now serving the Harper government.

I should like to cite an example that was raised yesterday by Senator Cordy about a journalist who sought information about a centrepiece of the government’s economic action plan, the stimulus spending. That journalist was told to go and check, individually, 6,000 separate entries on the government’s website, instead of having the government provide something that it obviously does have, which is a properly compiled list of those projects.

Does the Leader of the Government in the Senate think that constitutes open and transparent government?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I appreciate that comment; I take it as an editorial comment. However, I am sure Senator Munson does not have to hide behind her skirts.

An Hon. Senator: How much fun are we having!

Senator LeBreton: In any event, I am not aware of the story to which the honourable senator refers, and I do not know who said such a thing because this information is all readily available. It is all over the country; you have seen the various newspaper clippings.

Since the honourable senator talked about stimulus and how we are giving it all only to Conservative ridings, I will read the following story into the record.

An Hon. Senator: You talk about that.

Senator LeBreton: This story today bears the headline “Toronto MP Claims Harper Government Favours Tory Ridings, Smitherman Disagrees.” This is the deputy premier of Ontario.

An Hon. Senator: And a Liberal.

Senator LeBreton: The article states:

A Toronto MP claims that the federal government favours Conservative ridings, but Ontario’s deputy premier disagrees.

Gerard Kennedy charges that recreational facilities in Liberal and NDP sections of the province don’t get adequate funding.

Smitherman then says the following:

The RInC program was open to not-for-profits and municipalities, he explained.

Of course, he is talking about Ontario. He goes on to state:

So the fact that there are 450 municipalities, many of them small, meant that there were more requests in the mix from smaller communities.

I think that’s why you see it’s a little more distributed towards rural Ontario and by coincidence, that happens to be where Conservatives represent the ridings.

That is the Deputy Premier of Ontario, George Smitherman.

Hon. Francis Fox: Honourable senators, since the minister has indicated that the whole of the access to information administration is in the hands of the bureaucracy, would the government consider taking two actions? First, would the Prime Minister follow Mr. Obama’s lead and indicate through the bureaucracy, through the college of deputy ministers, that, henceforth, after a 30-day delay, the position of the government would be to go to access by default, therefore making access more accessible? Second, would the government, in order to help change and modify the practices of the bureaucracy, ensure that part of the performance evaluation of deputy ministers in the government be a function of their department’s performance in terms of making information readily available in response to access requests?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, these are all wonderful ideas that the other side thinks of now.

In fairness to Senator Fox, though, his is a serious suggestion, and I would be happy to pass his comments and suggestions on.

I do not think anyone takes pleasure at the length of time that some people have to wait for access to information. As the honourable senator knows because he was a minister, it does create a significant amount of work and pressure on the bureaucracy, especially with so many more agencies involved and the volume of requests increasing so rapidly.

Senator Fox has a valid request, and I would be happy to pass it along.