1992 Legislative Session: 1st Session, 35th Parliament
THURSDAY, JUNE 18, 1992
Volume 4, Number 20
[ Page 2737 ]
The House met at 10:05 a.m.
D. Schreck: Hon. Speaker, in the gallery today is Sheila Reynolds, one of my constituents and good supporters from North Vancouver. Will the House please join me in making her welcome.
C. Serwa: Joining us shortly will be a group of 70 grade 7 students from Glenrosa Elementary School in the great constituency of Okanagan West. They're here with their teacher, Mr. Cooksley, and a group of parents. Would the House please make this group welcome.
J. Dalton: On behalf of the member for Fort Langley-Aldergrove, I would like to acknowledge the presence this morning of 50 students from Wix-Brown Elementary School in Langley. They've been on a camping tour to Goldstream Park. They're in Victoria today and are touring the Legislature. They're accompanied by their teachers, Mr. Church and Ms. Friedenstab, and several adults. Would the House please make them all welcome.
Hon. C. Gabelmann: I call second reading of Bill 50.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND
PROTECTION OF PRIVACY ACT
Hon. C. Gabelmann: Since we introduced this bill four weeks ago and invited responses and suggestions from members of this House, interest groups and the general public, we have seen a tremendous amount of interest. Not only have we received many responses from within British Columbia but we have also had feedback from interested people across Canada and even overseas.
When I introduced this bill, I acknowledged that nothing is perfect and that we were open to suggestions for improvement so that we could end up with the best such legislation in Canada. I also promised consultation, and we have consulted. Among others, we have met with the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Bar Association and a coalition of media companies represented by a Vancouver law firm. We've received briefs and letters from the news directors' association, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and many other groups.
As a result of the tremendous amount of input we received, I asked Prof. Murray Rankin to examine all of the material and make recommendations to me as to how we could improve the legislation. Professor Rankin, as members know, is one of Canada's leading experts on this kind of legislation and has the added advantage of being neither a politician, a bureaucrat nor part of any special interest group. Accordingly, I knew that he could assess the various proposals from an independent perspective. Yesterday I received Professor Rankin's report, in which he took the many suggestions received and fashioned them into 50 recommended amendments to the legislation. I have accepted all of Professor Rankin's recommendations and in committee stage will introduce the 50 proposed amendments. The amendments will not change the intent or direction of the bill, which I will speak to today. They will, I believe, clarify and thus strengthen the rights set out in the bill and will fine-tune the balance between privacy and freedom of information.
In discussing this bill I think it's important to recognize the significant link between the two parts: freedom of information and protection of privacy. It's important because it's essential to balance the competing rights: the public's right to know and the individual's right to have his or her privacy safeguarded. I believe the bill achieves that balance. As I suggested during first reading, the philosophy underlying the freedom-of-information provisions is that government is the public's business and the public has a right, with certain necessary exceptions, to have ready access to information in the hands of government or government agencies.
The policy which has prevailed for years in British Columbia has been that a citizen has been required to justify requests for information, and the government or its agencies has been free to decide whether or not to provide the information requested. This bill reverses the equation by providing that the onus will be on the government to justify any decision to refuse to release information requested, and any such refusals are subject to the scrutiny of the independent commissioner whose position is established by the bill.
What this bill seeks to do is empower citizens so that they can fully exercise their democratic rights. The reality is that if government has information which is denied to citizens, it becomes extremely difficult to make informed judgments about government policy or to endeavour to influence public policy. Therefore the bill requires government to actively assist people seeking government information and requires that requests are responded to within 30 days.
As with all such acts, this bill provides for exceptions. Those included are at least as restricted or more restricted than in comparable legislation elsewhere. I want to comment briefly on some of the key exceptions.
The most significant exception concerns release of information that would violate the privacy of another individual. As I have emphasized, this bill endeavours to strike a balance between access to information and protection of privacy. As such, this exception is, in my view, essential.
The second exception covers information pertaining to active police investigations. Again, I believe the exception is necessary. I am sure none of us would want to have information released that would compromise such investigations or help wrongdoers to escape justice.
The third exception covers the trade secrets of a private business, and I think its purpose is self-evident.
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The fourth exception covers release of information that would cause economic harm to the province or a provincial body. A good example is where the government or a government agency is negotiating the purchase of real property, land or buildings. Clearly, release of information in this regard could cost the taxpayers substantially.
The final area of exception relates to business before cabinet. Traditionally, governments have maintained secrecy with respect to any such information. This bill limits the government's right to cabinet secrecy by providing that factual material presented to cabinet or developed by ministries will be accessible once the decision has been implemented.
Of course, for such legislation to have any real value it must have teeth. By establishing the office of commissioner appointed by and responsible to the Legislature, with the power to order release of information where it cannot legitimately be withheld and to find fault with any failure of government in its duty to assist applicants, the bill ensures that the legislation will be enforced. Clearly, the office of the commissioner is expected to function in a similar fashion to the office of the ombudsman, and I believe hon. members will agree that the independence of the ombudsman's office has enabled it to serve British Columbians well.
Needless to say, there is a vast amount of work to be done in training and in records management to enable all branches of government to meet their responsibilities under the legislation. For that reason the legislation is scheduled to come into effect in 18 months' time.
Turning to the protection-of-privacy provisions, I am sure we would all agree that the amount of personal information concerning any of us that is held in assorted computers is scary. That is why this bill imposes very strict limitations on the collection of information and the authorized use of such information by the government or government agencies. The bill provides that no personal information can be collected unless that information is necessary as part of an established government program or is required for law enforcement reasons or is specifically authorized by law. Personal information about individuals can be collected only with their permission, unless authorized by the Legislature or the commissioner.
Personal information collected by government is held in trust for its specific purpose and cannot be used for other reasons without permission, except for legitimate law enforcement activities or where public health and safety may be endangered. The bill also places an onus on government to keep such information secure and to retain it for one year after its last use so that the individual concerned has reasonable access to his or her file.
I believe these provisions represent a significant step ahead in providing privacy protection for British Columbians, at least as far as their provincial government and its agencies are concerned. I know that some media companies are not enthusiastic about the degree of personal privacy protection, but I believe that is where the public interest lies. As I said in my opening remarks, it is essential to strike the right balance between freedom of information and protection of personal privacy. I believe this bill achieves that balance, and I have no hesitation in urging hon. members to give it their support. At the same time, I will be listening with an open mind to the debate and will welcome any further suggestions for improving the bill.
Hon. Speaker, I move second reading.
A. Warnke: It is indeed an honour to rise on this particular bill, Bill 50, dealing with freedom of information and the protection of privacy. The title is most appropriate, because it is one thing to enhance freedom of information -- and I suppose another term here is access to information -- but the protection of privacy is also extremely important. I think the remarks of the Attorney General are most appropriate. It is difficult for any government to embark on legislation in which there is that balance between the two. One of the last remarks that the Attorney General presented is one that we should take note of -- that personal information gathered on each individual in society is "scary," as he puts it, and quite ominous. I will deal with some aspects of that later on.
Naturally the government can claim credit for introducing the Freedom of Information Act, but we on this side, especially in the Liberal Party, have long advocated a freedom-of-information act. Indeed the leader of our party, long before the election of last year, had advocated that this is the direction we want to go. So naturally any introduction of a freedom-of-information bill is most appropriate.
Bill 50 is to be proclaimed in October of 1993. I appreciate the Attorney General's remarks that it takes some time to train personnel so that they do the appropriate job later on. But at the same time, I just want to mention and caution that I hope it is not a duration which advantages no one. Nonetheless, the purpose of Bill 50 is to make the government and other public bodies more accountable to the public, and at the same time, protect the privacy of individuals about whom personal information is collected, held and used by the government.
Obviously Bill 50 is easily seen as an improvement over a non-existent one. British Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada -- in North America, for that matter -- which does not have a freedom-of-information act. So by introducing a freedom-of-information bill, obviously this may be seen as some sort of an improvement. But while it is easily seen as some sort of an improvement, the way it is defined -- just because there did not exist some older legislation, or perhaps there is an improvement on older legislation, when we talk about other bills, and so forth -- does not necessarily mean that the bill should automatically be embraced as a whole.
To be fair, in introducing his remarks about this bill, the Attorney General did acknowledge that this is not perfect legislation. I guess it would be very difficult for us on this side to suggest that we expected perfect legislation. But the kind of legislation that is necessary cannot be procrastinated on forever in the quest of bringing forth perfect legislation.
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That it is the best legislation in Canada is an aspiration. That it is the best legislation in Canada is yet to be determined. We simply do not know that. It is legislation that is simply an improvement over what had existed in the past. Certainly it is premature to suggest that this is the best legislation in Canada, or the best legislation in North America. The bill obviously deserves closer examination. Therefore I reserve, on behalf of my colleagues in the opposition, any enthusiastic support for this bill. We are suggesting that this is perhaps an improvement; and in principle naturally we would support any sort of legislation that moves in this direction, because we have long advocated it as well.
At the same time, there have been a variety of receptions to this bill -- some quite negative. The Attorney General was honest in at least admitting that there are certain sections of the media that have some reservations about this bill. There has also been some enthusiastic support for this bill. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association extended its support for this bill. Members opposite actually recognize the Vancouver Sun as the bible of British Columbia politics -- unless, of course, we decide to quote it; then all of a sudden the Vancouver Sun is less than desirable. The editorial in the Vancouver Sun also endorsed this particular legislation; yet when we take a look at that editorial, "there are still flaws," says the Vancouver Sun. There are still some flaws in this legislation, so it is not perfect legislation.
At the same time, I do not think it is our role to say that we should castigate this government simply because it is not perfect legislation. It isn't. We acknowledge that. We recognize that any time legislation is introduced on a subject for the first time, it's going to have imperfections. All we are doing is reserving judgment as to its application. We do believe that it is a step in the right direction.
Where are the problems in this particular bill? Once again, it would be up to the Attorney General, the ministry and the government to reflect on how this bill could be improved. One area of reservation is the extensive list of exemptions. This freedom-of-information bill means that government information will be accessible with the exception of an entire list of information that is inaccessible, where the public cannot obtain government information. This list of exemptions is not just a small list; it is extensive and covers a variety of areas: law enforcement, intergovernmental relations, financial or economic interests of the public body -- in addition to the private body, for reasons that the Attorney General mentioned -- and even such things as heritage sites.
We talk about the media's role in all of this, and why the media has expressed some concern. We're not talking about the media's ability to engage in peeping-tommery, or whatever it's called these days -- the paparazzi and all that sort of stuff. I don't think most of us have sympathy for that part of the media.
It's not simply trying to protect an individual. I think all members here believe that we have to protect the individual. As everyone should know by now, I'm a strong believer in protecting the interests of the individual wherever possible. The caution and prudence needed to protect the individual may warrant an extensive list of exemptions. I'm willing to listen to the Attorney General's concluding remarks on that.
Certainly the peeping-tommery of the press from time to time, the unnecessary invasion of privacy, is something that has to be checked. But this is not what the responsible part of the media of this province is saying. They're not saying that they want the freedom to access every aspect of every individual's behaviour in this province. Quite the contrary, hon. Speaker, and I think it is worth a comment here. From time to time politicians and public officials do get paranoid about the press. I haven't had the opportunity to get paranoid yet, so perhaps this will be the last time -- who knows? -- that I can speak this way.
I have a view of the press that is perhaps different from that of a lot of politicians in North America in a general sense, who seem to be paranoid about the press. I believe it is quite necessary that if you don't like the stories they print about you -- there have been a few stories written about me that I haven't appreciated -- in the last analysis, you can throw the newspaper away. I think that's a very healthy habit to get into, lest you, as a politician, get concerned as to what the press is saying about you.
Many years ago when I was a small boy collecting stamps, there was one particular stamp -- among many, of course -- that attracted my attention. It was one of Joseph Pulitzer -- perhaps stamp collectors know the stamp I'm referring to -- where, in addition to the picture of Pulitzer, was the sentence: "The republic and the press will rise or fall together." It's a very simple statement, but it is a very profound statement, because if the press does abuse its privileges -- I for one believe that the press should be extended certain privileges in a democratic society -- it can have quite an impact on the state of democracy and freedom. So the press has to take its responsibilities and its privileges very seriously. But the reverse is also true. If the state abuses its privileges, the press is one critical component of maintaining democracy and freedom. That simple phrase tells us a lot about how democracies rise and fall together by our attitudes toward the press and to the extent to which we become paranoid about the press.
The more paranoid politicians become.... I would suggest we are on the verge of seeing the state abuse its own particular privileges. That's a most appropriate statement in the context of the twentieth anniversary of the Watergate event. The Watergate event is something that we must always keep in our minds, regardless of what we think of ourselves from time to time, and the highest regard we hold for each other and our colleagues, and so forth. Nonetheless, I also reflect on statements by those of the Federalist Papers, statements by other leading political philosophers of the last two centuries, and how from time to time abuse of politicians can occur and the best way to check that.
For this reason my tendency is to have considerable sympathy for the media on these matters, and therefore I think some of the arguments that the media have put forward warrant our attention. The media in particular, from their perspective, raise certain concerns. Here's one quote: they are unimpressed with this particular
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bill, because it is "riddled with loopholes that could allow the government to maintain many of its secrets."
The government has placed limits on automatic access so that if a government appointment is made -- let's say someone to head a special commission -- could the media obtain information on an individual who has political ties and investigate those ties? Under the new legislation, this information is given only when there is permission for the release of the information and it is granted. That kind of information has to be granted. It's an interesting collision course. The government on one hand argues that it is protecting the interests of the public, and the media, on the other hand, also suggests and argues that it is protecting the interests of the public.
Other members of the media.... I am sure the Attorney General knows the information quite well from one argument presented by a media lawyer, Mr.Roger McConchie. He raises some interesting concerns, and I think it's worth noting here that the new information commissioner has sufficient power to override any refusals to release information.
I quite agree with the Attorney General that the quality of individuals who have been recruited for, let's say, the office of ombudsman and perhaps other similar commissions -- commission heads and so forth -- has been very good. They are excellent people who serve their province extremely well. But the fact is that if the legislation remains intact, what the media is concerned about here, which is worth our consideration, is: at some future point how do we know that a particular kind of individual -- because we can think of other examples in the rest of Canada and in North America -- won't abuse the release of information or, not so blatantly perhaps, abuse an aspect of the functioning of their office?
Another argument that has been raised is that even information regarding revelation of the existence of serious environmental, health and safety hazards to the public is vulnerable in this particular legislation. I know that on this point the government disagrees very strongly, because they have stated so. Indeed, one individual the Attorney General has mentioned -- Mr.Murray Rankin -- certainly does not share this point of view. It's an interesting dilemma for me, because I share the Attorney General's view that Mr.Murray Rankin is certainly one of the most respected individuals who knows this area. Therefore when I hear respectable people on one hand make an argument and a person like Murray Rankin make an argument to the contrary, it makes it very difficult to say which side of the argument you fall on. It suggests to me at the outset that it will take some time to make an assessment of the impact of this legislation.
There is another argument presented by Roger McConchie. He's made a very convincing argument that even in the case of sexual abuse in a day care centre, why should that be allowed to remain secret? It will remain secret through the loose interpretation of this bill. This actually is linked to another argument that has been presented. Some of the language in the legislation is somewhat loose, and the argument has been put forward by many people that what is needed here is a tightening up of the language in this bill.
We do not want to go into the various principles specifically, because we will do that at committee stage. But one example of that is: "The head of a public body may refuse to disclose information to an applicant if the disclosure could...interfere with a law enforcement matter." I emphasize "could" and "matter." "Could" is one of those verbs that allow for a variety of interpretations and therefore makes this particular clause extremely vulnerable. Indeed, how does one define a law enforcement matter? A law enforcement matter takes into its realm a whole host of actions and activities of the police. Common sense can see that.
Obviously, in the quest for information, a member of the press -- or anyone else for that matter -- should not interfere with the law enforcement process. One should not do that, but that's not what we're talking about here. It says "law enforcement matter," which could include process, but it can involve other aspects of police activity as well. The argument by one journalist was that in the age of the free flow of information, there are these blanket exclusions. What happens if someone reports a murder in a particular city block? The police could actually refuse to inform the public by refusing to inform the press of what happened. So there are these incidents.
It is easy to condemn the media. I have my own complaints about the media and their quest for human interest stories. All of us at one time or another can think of at least one so-called human interest story that has really bothered us, where they've chased after and bothered an individual, and they've caught a moment when the individual is obviously in extreme discomfort to the point of crying and so forth. These are the kinds of stories that really bother us from time to time.
But this is not what we're talking about; we're talking about the access to information and the extent to which that should be enhanced. If we make it difficult for the press to chase down every aspect of an individual's behaviour and habits, to the ultimate degree, that's another story. We don't really have much sympathy for that. But I think we do have sympathy for maintaining some sort of balance for the media and the public. In his remarks towards the tail end there, the Attorney General talked about a balance between the media and the public. But it is a little bit more than that as well. We want to ensure that the media has access to information and is in a position to acquire that information and reveal it in the public interest. We do not want to thwart anything here in that particular part of our society's ability to acquire information.
At the same time I think it is necessary to always keep in mind privacy of the individual. Individuals have a tremendous amount of data on them. This is especially so in our technologically advanced information society. One can say that the gradual acquisition of information on individuals -- everything from social insurance numbers, which, initially, I would concede were introduced by the federal government.... It qualified itself that, no, it would not be used as a number to identify individuals, that it would not be a number used extensively in our society as a way of
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identifying individuals. Yet that's exactly what has happened, though not necessarily to the fault of the particular government that introduced the social insurance number. But this is what happens. When a particular kind of legislation is introduced, it has certain what I would call latent effects that manifest themselves later on. Indeed, in the age of data-matching, in the computer age and so forth, we have to be very sensitive about the protection of information on individuals. Wherever it's possible to protect sensitive information on individuals, I believe that we should enhance it.
At the same time there is such a thing as information on governments. On that information, I tend to be of the opposite view. Naturally, there are situations in government in which the revelation of material is not appropriate. Releasing of cabinet documents from yesterday -- I'd like to rummage through them, but maybe they wouldn't make any sense. Obviously, for reasons apparent to everyone, that kind of information cannot be easily accessed. Indeed, the direction that the Attorney General has introduced here in this legislation, of some reasonable amount of time where certain kinds of sensitive documents can be released -- over a period of time perhaps and also by shortening the duration of time which we're most used to as to when those documents could be released, and so forth -- is actually commendable, and it is something that probably we would have embarked on as well if we were in the position of forging such a bill.
Therefore what I have done today in responding to the introduction of this particular bill, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, is point out that this is an improvement and that we applaud it. There is no doubt about it: were we in a position to bring forth this kind of legislation -- and we would have, if we had been allowed to do so -- this is the direction that we certainly wanted to go. We are practical, in that we understand that when a government brings in this kind of legislation -- it is necessary to bring it in as soon as possible -- there are going to be imperfections.
The procedure by which the legislation is introduced by trying to get in touch with as many groups as possible, who have an interest in this area and who can be impacted by this legislation, is necessary too. On the surface this seems to have been done. Aside from the reservations, I'm very pleased to speak on this bill, and I will await what my colleagues from this side and from the other side will say on it, and especially the summary remarks of the Attorney General.
The Speaker: The hon. member for Fort Langley-Aldergrove asks leave to make an introduction.
G. Farrell-Collins: I'm a little rusty. I've been away for a while. It's my pleasure to greet two elementary school classes from the Wix-Brown Elementary School in Langley, who are visiting in the House today. There are about 50 students from grades 3 to 5, who managed to raise the money for their trip here today through bake sales, car washes and recycling initiatives. They're also visiting Goldstream Park, west of Victoria. They are accompanied by their teachers, Mr.Church and Ms. Friedenstab, as well as many parents. I ask the House to please join me in making them welcome.
J. Weisgerber: The questions that this bill raises are outlined in the title. In fact, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act seems to outline the difficult balance that exists between the right of society generally to know the business of government and to understand the basis on which decisions are made, and to understand the background behind those decisions. I don't think anyone would want to argue against that.
I think that the difficulty that most people would find themselves faced with, and certainly the difficulty that we found ourselves faced with, is the balance between the basic and intrinsic right of individuals to protection of information that they are obligated to give to government, or which they decide voluntarily to give to government. Either through proposals, investigations by agencies, the RCMP, police forces or others, individuals quite often make a conscious decision to give information, understanding that it will be protected, that they will not, at some point down the way, be identified as the individuals who provided that information to government. As we erode that protection of privacy or put it to risk, we are in danger of making people more reluctant to have an exchange with government. People will perhaps be a little less willing to bring their ideas to government for fear it would give someone a competitive advantage. People might be a little more reluctant to come forward with information for fear that they might be identified and suffer consequences as a result. It seems to me that this is another step in the ongoing struggle between those two conflicting interests, each of which, by itself, is a laudable initiative.
As I said, it's certainly very difficult to argue that the public shouldn't have the right to information. The media is the natural conduit for that information between government and the public generally. On the one hand, you have the media sources concerned about the blockage of certain bits of information; at the other end of the scale, you have organizations and groups that are interested in protecting the privacy of the individual concerned that the bill goes too far. That's not uncommon in the kinds of issues that we as parliamentarians are faced with -- striking the balance.
I appreciate the actions of the Attorney General to date on this bill: the fact that the legislation has been tabled for a month and that there has been some opportunity for various groups to put their point of view forward. I don't think there has yet been enough opportunity for those various groups to develop and make their arguments and perhaps recommend change.
I note that the bill isn't intended to be proclaimed for 18 months. I would like to suggest to the Attorney General that as we conclude second reading debate, if there appears to be a fairly general consensus on the
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intent of the bill, the decision to debate this fairly massive piece of legislation clause-by-clause in committee -- some 80 sections, which are very technical and critical, each and every one, to those competing interests of the need, the importance and the right of people to know what's going on in government balanced with the right of the individual to the protection of their privacy.... I would then encourage the Attorney General to leave third reading of this legislation until another time -- perhaps a fall session, if there turns out to be one -- in order to give the various groups an opportunity to expand on their arguments and consider the legislation in more detail.
I will say again, as I have several times, that I believe legislation like this gets better given the amount of time that it's open to consideration, consultation and amendment. I don't believe that legislation improves by being put through quickly. I'm not suggesting that this is being rushed through, but bills like this would not be damaged by being allowed to sit -- in the form of a white paper, a green paper or however you want to consider a piece of legislation that has been introduced, read a first and second time and then left for consideration.
We can certainly debate the 80 sections one by one and try to determine how the competing interests are best served in each of those sections and whether each section does, to the best of its ability, protect those two interests. We on this side would be willing, if it's the wish of the government, to go ahead and do it. But my preference would be to leave this and to consider it. I believe that the government can start to put the mechanism in place that would ensure the delivery of what is anticipated in the bill. Surely small changes by the way of regulation and instruction could be conveyed to the various agencies and still achieve the October 1993 target date for the implementation of this legislation.
I'm not going to try and deal with the specific problems that I see here. We are still examining the bill, researching and talking to interest groups. We would welcome all the time available to expand on it.
I think it is inevitable in this democracy of ours that government will be increasingly open. I have no argument with that basic tenet. For the Social Credit Party particularly, the concerns of the individual are at least as important as the general right to know. It's with that philosophy that we look at this bill and encourage the government to give the interest groups, the people who are genuinely affected, every opportunity to examine the bill, make recommendations and propose amendments.
With that, hon. Speaker, I will take my place. I look forward to some time between second reading and committee stage of the legislation.
D. Mitchell: I too would like to speak to second reading of Bill 50, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. It's a very important piece of legislation. I would like to commend the hon. Attorney General for bringing it forward in this session. It's a massive bill.
The process by which the bill has come to the House has been an interesting one. I know it's taken a lot of effort. The Attorney General referred to the efforts of many people who were involved in this, including Prof. Murray Rankin, who help spearhead a lot of the thrust. I too would like to commend Professor Rankin for the efforts that he put into this legislation. He has obviously become one of the foremost experts in Canada on access to information, in addition to some other areas of expertise that he has in the area of law. Some tremendous effort has gone into this bill.
It's important to recognize that this bill is, in large part, based on a similar bill introduced by the previous administration. It was not a perfect bill; it had some flaws. But the spirit of it was certainly one that we can all support, just as this bill is not a perfect bill, yet the spirit of it is something that we can and do want to support.
The bill really gets into some important philosophical paradoxes, which are inherent in the title and in the objectives of the bill. They strike at the heart of private versus public interests. They strike at the heart of individual versus collective rights. Access to information is something that we want to see in a truly modern, democratic society. We want to have access to information that government controls in an information age. The saying goes that information is power. Information is power, and all citizens should be empowered and have equal access to information. We would argue that protection of privacy is also a fundamental right in a modern, democratic state. Balancing those interests is never easy.
This bill is a massive piece of legislation. The process by which it has come here has had some flaws, but it's been a good process. I commend the Attorney General for the manner in which he's brought it to the House. It's been on the order paper. The bill was tabled and introduced in the House at first reading some time ago. We've had a chance to look at it. It's had some exposure to the public. The process that preceded that goes back some significant period of time.
Even yet, the hon. Attorney General, in his remarks today on second reading, indicated that he will be introducing in committee stage some 50 amendments -- some 50 amendments to this bill just since it was introduced in the House. I think that says something. It says that not only is the bill not a perfect bill, it's going to be amended. It's going to be amended as a result of comments from the general community, from the media, from other interest groups. How can we deal with this bill, recognizing that there are some 50 amendments coming forward in committee stage? The Attorney General has assured us that those numerous amendments will not change the fundamental principle of the bill, and that's what we're debating here in second reading. But 50 significant amendments. We don't know what they are yet because they haven't been tabled in the House, so we obviously can't speak to them.
Hon. C. Gabelmann: Many are technical.
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D. Mitchell: The hon. Attorney General indicates that many of those amendments will be technical, and I'm sure that's the case. But, hon. Speaker, the fact that this process has gone this far and there are still numerous technical amendments coming forward suggests that perhaps the leader of the third party has made a good suggestion. Perhaps there is no reason to rush to committee stage and third reading of this bill, given the fact that the bill provides for a period of 18 months before it will be proclaimed into law.
I would hope that the government would respect the spirit of this bill even before it is proclaimed. I would hope that even now the government might be living up to the spirit of the law, in terms of access to information as well as protection of privacy -- even prior to its proclamation. I would like the Attorney General to address that when he closes debate on second reading.
Perhaps there is no reason why we should rush into committee stage, rush into dealing with these numerous amendments. Perhaps the bill should receive yet further exposure to the public -- further input. It wouldn't hurt. It's not going to prevent the bill from being proclaimed. Who knows, hon. Speaker, it may allow us to adjourn for the summer with a little more haste if we didn't have to deal with it, so that we can come back in the fall, if there is going to be a fall sitting of this Legislature, and deal with it at that time. That may be a very prudent, very practical suggestion from the leader of the third party. I would like to agree with that suggestion and commend it to the hon. Attorney General.
I would like to speak to a couple of key points before I take my seat. One of the significant improvements in this bill over the measure that was brought in by the previous administration is reflected in the independence of the commissioner who will be administering this act. The commissioner, under Bill 50, will be an officer of this Legislature. I think that's an important improvement. Rather than being an officer of the government, an officer of the executive reporting to a cabinet minister, the privacy commissioner who will administer this act when it comes into force will be an officer of this Legislature -- much in the way the ombudsman and auditor general are -- and will be appointed by this Legislature. I think that's an important improvement.
I have the good fortune to currently be serving on the committee to appoint the new ombudsman in British Columbia. That process, while it's not complete, has been very instructive. I can say, from some direct experience now, that if the commissioner who will be administering this act is going to be appointed by an all-party committee requiring unanimous support of the Legislative Assembly, then I think it's a definite improvement over the measure brought in by the previous administration, and it's one reason why I'm inclined to want to support this bill. I think it's heading in the right direction: having a legislative officer accountable to all members of this House, on a non-partisan basis, administering this act. I think that's a good move, and it's one that we can support.
[E. Barnes in the chair.]
I would like to raise one concern I have about the bill. I said that I would hope that the government would live up to the spirit of the act even prior to its proclamation. But there's a concern I have about the discrepancy between the message delivered by this bill and the messenger. That's not any reflection on the hon. Attorney General, I can assure you, but the hon. Attorney General is a member of a government that in its early days in office has not exactly lived up to the spirit of freedom of information. In fact, when we as members of this Legislature have requested information from the government on numerous occasions in this House, in Committee of Supply reviewing spending estimates of the government, we certainly haven't seen an overly enthusiastic approach to providing information to members of the opposition. Hon. Speaker, I'm concerned about that. How can the Attorney General expect us to have confidence that the government is going to live up to the spirit of this legislation, when we've had numerous written questions on the order paper for more than three months that remain unanswered? It's not an issue I wish to get into in any detail, but it's an example of why there has to be some serious questioning of the intent of the messenger -- not the message, which is a good one, and which we can support in principle. This government has not seen fit to answer questions on the order paper of this House that have been there for more than three months. They are simple questions; they could be answered easily.
Deputy Speaker: Hon. member, I must remind you that we are on second reading of Bill 50. Any matters to do with question period or questions on the order paper, I think we would all agree, are most inappropriate.
D. Mitchell: Thank you, hon. Speaker. The Attorney General has indicated that I have made my point, and that it's registered with him, so I won't elaborate any further on that. But I did want to use that as an example, because we are talking about freedom of information and access to information. It's a fundamental right of all members of this House and of the general public. That's what this bill is speaking to. The message is a good one; we want the messenger to be more credible, and we want the Attorney General to take that message to the other members of the executive council.
The bill is far from perfect, as I've indicated. but no legislation can achieve perfection. We hope that the government would strive for it, but no legislation can achieve that. The spirit of the bill is good, and we support it in principle. We are concerned about the process, which has been a very difficult one, but it's a difficult piece of legislation. The government deserves to be commended for bringing it forward in the way it has.
Hon. Speaker, before I take my seat I'd like to urge the hon. Attorney General to address, in his closing remarks on second reading, whether there is a need to hurry forward with committee stage and third reading of this bill, or whether letting this bill have further exposure and letting it rest until a fall sitting of this House might have some merit. We can support the bill;
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there is no problem there. The proclamation isn't going to take place for some 18 months, in any event. It's a suggestion made by the leader of the third party, which I think is prudent and practical. The whole principle of this bill addresses some fundamental rights that we as citizens in a modern democratic society all aspire to and believe in. We want to support this legislation. Let's get the process right, hon. Speaker.
M. Lord: Hon. Speaker, I rise to ask leave to make an introduction.
M. Lord: Hon. Speaker, it's my pleasure today to welcome about 30 grade 7 students from Maple Elementary School in my riding. Maple Elementary School is well known in our part of British Columbia for their athletic achievements. Although they are not a large school, they recently placed second in their district track meet. Accompanying the students is their teacher, Mr. Cousins, as well as Mr. Arberry, Ms. Bianchi, Ms.Jennings and Ms. Laverdure. Would the House please join me in making them welcome.
Hon. C. Gabelmann: Hon. Speaker, may I also ask leave to add some words of introduction?
Hon. C. Gabelmann: Prior to the redistribution last year, these kids were in my riding. I know Doug has been down on many trips before. I live in the Maple Elementary School catchment area, and many of the kids up here are my neighbours. I just want to add my special welcome to them this morning.
B. Jones: Mr. Speaker, I'm very pleased to rise today and speak to Bill 50, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. In fact, I'm more than pleased. I'm very proud that we have this issue before us today, which has been dear to my heart for a long, long time. I'm very proud that the government has delivered on a promise it made during the election campaign. I'm very proud that the piece of legislation we have before us is landmark legislation.
Many members of my generation, I think, developed their political beliefs during the sixties. If you remember that golden era, it was one that challenged authority and challenged institutions and demanded openness and demanded accountability. In fact, when I was first elected I had a chance to chair the Burnaby School Board in 1976. The first thing I did was bring in a 14-point program that demanded openness and accountability. I brought in a question period, limited the things that could be dealt with in-camera on that board, and opened the board and the board office and the schools to the public.
So it's an issue that grew out of that period in the sixties. I think the United States was the first major government to adopt freedom-of-information legislation in 1966, and the history of this bill goes back many, many years in this chamber as well. I mentioned before that Alec Macdonald in 1972 was the first one to bring in a private member's bill on this issue, and he was followed by Scott Wallace and Garde Gardom and Gordon Gibson and Eileen Dailly, and for the last five years by me, having the honour to carry on that fine tradition of pushing governments to bring in this kind of legislation that we see before us today.
It's kind of ironic that the media and the opposition would be critical of this kind of legislation, because it's really for the people; it's for the opposition; it's for the media to have improved access to information held by government. But it does achieve that fine balance of protection of individual privacy as well as opening up government information to the public. I am amazed that members opposite would act as a mouthpiece for the media owners, as represented by Ladner Downs, who really, in the balance of things, see protection of individual privacy as being subordinate to the right of the public to know. And that's legitimate. That's their interest. That's how they see the world, and that is not how I hope members opposite and members on this side see things. People do have civil liberties, people do have a right to protection, and that's what this legislation has achieved. This legislation has achieved that fine balance.
This was not an easy piece of legislation to bring in. I think you can imagine that the bureaucracy was not enamoured of this legislation. This legislation is going to make life very difficult for members of the executive council, for cabinet ministers, for our ministries, for all the public bodies that are going to be affected. This is not something that is going to make life easier for anybody except the public, the opposition and the media. It's not going to help government. It's going to fetter government's ability to do what they did in the past behind closed doors. This is a bill for the opposition, for the public, for the media.
It's going to be very expensive. In terms of information management systems this province is 20 years behind the times, and it's going to be a very expensive proposition in the next 18 months to get the ministries up to speed and in a position where they're able to respond to requests for information from the public.
In the election we promised open and balanced government, and what we have before us in Bill 50 is the perfect example of that: the most open and the most balanced legislation of its kind in Canada. I suggested at the outset that this was landmark legislation. I'd like to give you a couple of reasons why I believe that is the case. This legislation gets at the very foundations of our democratic system, at the heart of it. Some people describe freedom of information as the cornerstone of our democracy. Let me read you a quote by the president of Czechoslovakia, who is experiencing difficulty in his country at this time. On January 1, 1990, he said: "The best governments in the world -- the best parliament, the best president -- cannot achieve much on their own. It would also be wrong to expect a remedy only from them. Freedom and democracy include participation and are, therefore, the responsibility of us all."
Mr. Speaker, because we as individual citizens have a responsibility to make our government work, this
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legislation is so important, and it is landmark legislation. One of the great frustrations in our society is that people feel a lack of responsibility, because they feel a lack of control over their lives. They delegate responsibility to legislators, governments, courts and other authorities. So we elect people and send them to chambers like this to represent us. We set up governments, the opposition and the media as checks and balances to this process. In the past those checks and balances have operated with one hand tied behind their back, because they didn't have one of the most important tools to make them effective in doing their job: providing a check and balance to the power of government.
We all know that information is power in this place and in other organizations. I'm sure members have operated in situations where some people like to keep information to themselves. That gives them additional power over others they're relating to. That's what this legislation opens up. It creates a level playing-field for government, the opposition and the media. Except in those very narrow areas where it's absolutely essential that information be withheld, it will be a public right for everybody to know about the information that the government holds in their interest. It is public information.
Another reason why I say it's landmark legislation is that it's going to require a profound change in the approach, attitude and operation of government and the people who work there. The very first thing that a public servant does when hired is take an oath of secrecy. For many years that has been the modus operandi of public servants working for the government, and their ability to keep things secret divorced them. They operated in a veil of secrecy. Many times they operated with a siege mentality: the public was out there, and they had to protect certain things on the part of government. That attitude has been ingrained for many years. Tens of thousands of people who work on behalf of the public still have those values and attitudes.
With this legislation, those individuals are going to have to take a 180-degree turn. From now on what used to be "their" information is now the public's information. They will have to respond quickly in facilitating that public right to know, and they will have to assist people in making sure that that information is available. That's a profound change. That attitude change is not going to come about quickly.
One of the members opposite suggested that the government begin now, in the spirit of the legislation. That's exactly what the government has been doing. The documents that have been released in the last six months are the kinds that have always been withheld before. Many examples of openness exist already on the part of this government. What we see is a mammoth undertaking over the next 18 months, a mammoth expenditure, a mammoth change.
I mentioned before that the number of documents would fill these entire buildings 15 times over. Those documents are going to have to be accessible to the public. But it's going to help government too. The left hand of government may finally know what the right hand of government is doing. It is going to be helpful, but it is going to be cumbersome. It is going to be a profound change. It is going to be expensive.
I say it's landmark legislation, too, because I see it as the beginning of a healing process in terms of public mistrust of their representatives, governments and politicians. This government wants to leave a legacy of honesty and integrity that says we have worked to restore the confidence of the public in their politicians and government that we can all, on both sides of this chamber, be very proud of.
This is the first part of that legacy of reform, but it involves what we call our good-government package. It speaks to freedom of information, conflict of interest, parliamentary reform and electoral reform. All of those issues are key to advancing our democracy and enhancing the trust of the public in what we do on their behalf. That's the legacy that this government wants to lead. It's a proud legacy.
When I sat over there in the last parliament, there was a gentlemen who sat over here for Surrey-White Rock. His name was Bill Reid. At virtually everything the government did Bill Reid would pound on his desk, and he would say "good government" and "that's leadership." This is one time....
C. Serwa: Nobody does it anymore.
B. Jones: Because, hon. member, we don't abuse that saying. This is one time that members on this side can shout "good government!" and "that's leadership." I'm very proud that this piece of legislation is before us today, because it moves us from the most closed jurisdiction in Canada to the most open jurisdiction in Canada. I'm very proud of that.
I did sit over there for the last five years, and I watched a government self-destruct. We had a Premier who thought charisma was more important than substance. That Premier did run on a platform of open government, except that his view of open government was to make himself available in media scrums. That government paid the price of their secrecy, because week after week in this chamber we saw scandal after scandal.
We saw the Gran air scandal, with the unavailability of flight logs. We saw the unavailability of information on privatization, the Expo land deal, the government's loan portfolio, the report of the medical ethics committee, the sectoral analysis of the free trade agreement, pulp mill compliance records, the Coquihalla, the Knight Street pub, the aerial wolf kill, the David Poole golden handshake, PCB storage sites, the safety of the heliskiing industry, and on and on. In every one of those instances, the government created scandal partly because they denied information. Under this legislation, the information on every one of those issues would be completely open to the public.
All those scandals could have been avoided, or at least partly avoided, had the government adopted what the ombudsman suggested in, I think, his 1989 report: that nothing is so disarming of controversy as openness. Openness reduces the scandal that government faces. When situations have occurred in this government,
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there has been no hiding. The government has acted promptly in dealing with issues before it. Nothing is so disarming of controversy as openness.
One of the joys of political life is the many people that you get to know and work with along the way. My involvement over the last few years in freedom of information is no exception. I'd just like to mention a few of those individuals.
I met a young man a couple of years ago by the name of Darrell Evans, who was interested in information rights legislation. He had been a protégé of Tom Riley, who had worked for Jed Baldwin, a Conservative Member of Parliament who fought for freedom of information at the federal level for 20 years and was considered the father of freedom of information. In 1990 Darrell Evans got a grant from the Law Society to create the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, a very broad-based body. They even had Walter Block from the Fraser Institute on their board of directors. The working group was academics, lawyers and librarians, and they worked for two years to produce a report called Information Rights for British Columbia, which at that time was the definitive statement on this kind of legislation in Canada. They performed a very valuable service by helping this government prepare for the legislation that's before us today. Darrell Evans and that association deserve a great deal of thanks and credit for their altruistically wanting to help our democracy. It's been a joy to meet people like that.
In preparing for this legislation in the last few months, I've had the opportunity to work with some members of the public service. It was a pleasure to do that and to appreciate their skills, expertise, knowledge and the kinds of abilities that they bring to assist the public and the government. I'd like to mention a couple of those, particularly Rob Botterell, who is the head of the freedom of information and privacy branch of Government Services, and his staff of Catherine Hunt, Chris Norman and Fiona Gow, and Claire Reilly from the Attorney General's ministry. The Attorney General mentioned Murray Rankin. All these people worked extremely hard to produce the legislation that we have before us today. I'd also like to thank the Attorney General.
Some members opposite have suggested that we delay passing this legislation in this session. I was a very strong proponent that we not do that. It's considered that only a virgin government will bring in this legislation which is hard on government. This legislation makes life difficult for government.
Last December I was very worried that we were not going to bring this legislation in in this session. It was being dealt with in two ministries. The Attorney General very quickly put together a group of individuals, set up committees and established a process that involved the key stakeholders in the government: senior staff from every ministry and cabinet and caucus members. He set up a process where everybody felt that they had a piece of the action and were involved in producing the legislation that's before us. It was the initiative of the Attorney General that set those wheels in motion.
In the latter part of this process, it was the initiative of the Attorney General that made sure that the people in the community who were concerned about this legislation had a full and open hearing. I'm very pleased, because I consider the Attorney General part of the old school. I think people that have been here in this chamber with W.A.C. Bennett carry some of those values and attitudes, and I am so pleased that the Attorney General is a true believer in openness. So we pushed at every step of the way to make sure that at this time we could say with pride: "This is the most open legislation of its kind in Canada."
But don't take my word for it. What does the Ottawa Citizen, that Southam newspaper from our country's capital, say about this legislation? It says:
"All Canadians who are interested in how they are governed should hope the B.C. example is copied. In other jurisdictions, bureaucrats and cabinet ministers are slamming shut government filing cabinets and furtively stuffing documents under the carpet.
"The B.C. freedom-of-information law, though, bravely breaks new ground. It narrowly restricts the kinds of records officials can keep secret. It specifies a broad range of information that must be released on demand. More important, the bill requires bureaucrats and ministers denying access to prove it is in the public interest to do so, and it provides fines of up to $5,000 for officials who don't disclose what they should."
The reaction, perhaps not by some media owners but by the media in general, has been extremely positive to this legislation. The Civil Liberties Association, the bar association, the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and other interested groups, including the Vancouver Sun, which said that if nothing else is done in this session but this bill, then this session will have been worthwhile....
When this legislation is proclaimed, the public will have the right to know enshrined in legislation forever in this province. It will guarantee them meaningful participation. They will be able to evaluate the tremendous wisdom that this government shows in setting public policy. This government and future governments will be accountable in a way they never have been before in this province, because information that government holds will be open to public scrutiny.
This legislation is a profound expression of the government's belief in openness, in the public's right to know, and a profound expression of our belief in the health of our democratic system. This parliament will go down in history as the one that advanced and restored faith in our democratic system. I've very pleased and proud that this showpiece bill is before the House at this time and is going to be passed in this session.
K. Jones: The hon. member for Burnaby North is to be commended for his tenaciousness and his longstanding efforts to create in the province of British Columbia, along with the many Liberal members that he mentioned earlier who have stood and tried to bring forward legislation along this line.... The Gordon Gibsons, the Garde Gardoms and on before that have fought for freedom of information and public access
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and the right to those, including the privacy protections that are being brought forward. These are very important for all of us.
It's very important that the public have access to their records. These are not government records; they are the people's records. They're not a minister's records; they are the records paid for and provided for the people of the province. I think we must keep that first and foremost in our minds at all times.
After giving him that accolade, I'd like to bring the member back to the facts of life here. The member for Burnaby North said that the bill was for the opposition and the media, and he claims that we should not be questioning it. We're not fooled by that direction that he's trying to imply. This government cannot condescend and claim that this is for the opposition and media at all. This legislation is enhancing the openness of government in order to reveal government information that is in the public interest. It is providing access to that information that is made by this government and any future governments. We really have to keep those in perspective. When we in the opposition bring forward points, we are bringing them forward to make the legislation better, to recognize the concerns and needs of the people. And the media are people of British Columbia; they're the citizens of British Columbia. The fact that they have a lawyer preparing the details of this is to their credit. They have done a lot of research, and they deserve the recognition. I think the Attorney General has already held several conferences with them. I think many of these amendments that are coming forward are a result of those conferences and those submissions. Therefore it should not be considered a detriment when we bring forward those positions on behalf of the people of British Columbia, because not only are the media interested in those, but the average Canadian and average British Columbian are also interested in many of those issues.
I remember the member for Burnaby North also describing a former member of the House, Bill Reid, whose riding I represent a portion of, saying that in his cheerleading of his government's positions on things he was outstanding and distinctive in that he was very enthusiastic and supportive of the government's legislation being brought forward. I would suggest today that the present government has the support so enthusiastically provided by the member for Nelson-Creston. That's been very evident from time to time throughout this session. He's very similar; I guess you might call him the Bill Reid of the present NDP government.
Mr. Speaker, I'd like to dwell on one specific point that is of concern. Although this bill is a great direction that we're going, it doesn't quite go far enough. It says it includes public bodies, but in its detailing it doesn't include public bodies that are very important to the elements of the local people in our province. It doesn't include our school boards; it doesn't include municipalities, health boards or hospital boards. These are areas that should be included in this. Perhaps the minister may want to amend it when he is reconsidering and making all these amendments. We're talking about this one, which is representing all of the provincial government bodies, as taking 18 months to implementation. There are real needs in the local areas that also need to be addressed. Those records need to be opened up now, not 18 months after this is implemented to start a new program and maybe wait another 18 or 24 months before that can be implemented. We need to start.
It has been recognized by the Association of Vancouver Island Municipalities, for instance, where they addressed the issue of freedom of information. They brought in a guest speaker from London, who gave a very informative presentation on how that municipality has been able to bring forward some of the first freedom-of-information legislation many years ago. That was the first in Canada, I believe. In Saanich we had leadership at the municipal level, again, with freedom of information.
We need freedom-of-information legislation from this government that will cover all of these public bodies that are responsible through this Legislature and are represented as entities of this Legislature, literally through their financial or legislative being. We need to make sure that those are provisioned for today.
[The Speaker in the chair.]
I'd also like us to look at aspects of the limitations that are put on the collection of personal data, in that the collection of data is modified. I believe it will be necessary to be modified, such that the proper provisioning of vital statistics, marriages and records like that are all going to be included. I'm not really clear that it has been taken into consideration in the privacy restrictions on this. I will bring it up in the specific sections of committee, but I wanted to say to the minister that perhaps he'd like to look at that while he's doing all his other amendments. Hopefully there will be a little time for us to be able to review these amendments before they become a matter of discussion in committee. There are a lot of items coming forward, and perhaps we should have an opportunity to review those amendments with some degree of public input.
C. Serwa: I think it's a pleasure to rise and speak on second reading of the philosophy and principles of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. I can well imagine the challenge, and the hon. member for Burnaby North was speaking about it, on those who were participants in putting this together. They are very paradoxical requirements: freedom of information and protection of privacy. Two issues in absolute conflict. I can well imagine the challenge that had to be addressed to strive to accommodate a reasonable balance with respect to the freedom of information.
I too, as our party leader indicated, am well aware of the importance of restricting access to private information. The government, because the government is certainly the people's business, acquires a great deal of very private and very personal information in a wide variety of subjects -- it may be something to do with adoption, it may be something to do with any other area -- but a great deal of specific information. So I have some legitimate concerns about the potential for the invasion of privacy. There are many in society who could seize on this opportunity. When we talk about the
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philosophy and principles of this particular bill, like its title, there are many conflicting positions and perspectives. It's very difficult to speak in opposition to the philosophy and principles in this particular bill, and be able to express specific concerns about what happens with the invasion of privacy.
I note, for example, that the government is concerned with the invasion of privacy. The government has listed the exceptions to the freedom of information; most relate to government or to the business of public bodies. They have expressed their concern for public bodies; whereas, from my perspective, the greatest demand for access to information is with respect to the actions of various levels of public organizations, be they provincial governments, federal governments or municipal governments. That's really my perspective. I would like to know what type of information the government utilizes.
The government has drafted a bill which, at the outset, appears very palatable and, as the hon. member has signified, has been welcomed. I understand that. But I note, too, that government has specifically exempted the ombudsman from having any access to challenging decisions of government as to why they will not release certain information. It seems to me that if we're looking at open and honest government, then the cards should really be on the table face up. The reality, if we're playing poker -- and much of government business is a form of playing poker.... I don't know what sort of game it is if we put the cards on the table all face up with the numbers showing.
C. Evans: Democracy.
C. Serwa: Well, that's grand. I believe in democracy. But I also remember reading a writing of Plato many years ago. Plato was expounding on the republic and the benefits of the republic, as opposed to democracy and the fragile nature of democracy. At that time Plato signified that it was his impression that democracy would disintegrate into chaos. That is our concern. The balance here, and the challenge of the balance, is to strive to provide adequate information which the public should have access to without providing the type of chaos that Plato was concerned about.
"Information is power," the hon. member for Burnaby North said. I suppose it is. What happens if you lose the focus of power? Do we learn a great deal more with access to more information? It only seems to me -- perhaps from my perspective, but I think as well throughout society's perspective -- that we suffer from information overload at the present time.
There is a great deal of conflicting scientific information by world-class experts who take different and opposed positions. I can offer several examples. The member mentioned PCBs, a family of about 250 related chemicals that were developed in the late 1800s. They had many useful purposes, but someone determined that they had some carcinogenic properties, some more or less depending on the chemical. All of a sudden, because of that type of perspective, there was mass hysteria.
We have the technology to get rid of those chemicals through high temperature disintegration, but because of this fear -- which is an emotional thing that has nothing to do with science and knowledge -- we're reluctant to do that. We are storing two and a half million pounds of PCBs in various areas throughout British Columbia because we're paranoid of high-temperature destruction.
I'm trying to point out that information isn't necessarily power; information can be confusing. The right decisions are not reached, because we throw the emotional element into it.
I have no difficulty with public access to information with respect to the operations and the affairs of government. But I have never seen a government of the day go to this length to produce a bill, with 80 sections and six major parts, just to get rid of the 15-minute question period that occurs in this Legislature. I say that truly in jest, because I'm certain that we're going to continue to have the 15-minute question period. The fact remains that there are many questions with respect to access to information and what we can do with it.
I stated that it is paradoxical. The demands are conflicting, and we're striving to reach a balance. To the hon. Attorney General, to the hon. member for Burnaby North and to others who participated in the drafting of this legislation, it's very clear that it is not perfect, and that everything evolves and grows. I'm very pleased to see reference in the legislation that it is to be reviewed after a period of four years. I think that is very wise.
It is a very complex bill with 80 separate sections. As the demand grows, the member indicated that there will be a substantial cost to reorganization of the records, and the retrieval system to get the records is nothing short of incredible. I understand we have warehouses and warehouses full of government records that will now be open and available to the public. It's not that they're of such urgent importance, that they're confidential. If the interest is there, the accessibility should be there, and the retrieval system and the technology to facilitate it have only recently been developed. Doing it manually would be exceedingly difficult, and I think it's going to be a difficult challenge in any event.
There are concerns, as I stated, with some of the exceptions: the elimination of the role of the ombudsman to represent the public will of the people with respect to government decisions. Will this simply be a convenient first place to strive to get information that is readily obtainable or accessible from any other group or public agency?
I note that the Crown intends to make this legislation expand those that are required to comply with this to include all sorts of other local government bodies, colleges, universities and self-governing professions. That's going to be very interesting. Right now we have a very high-profile issue with medical doctors, and if we had access to the minutes of their meetings, statements and the reasons, they would have a great deal of difficulty with that. However, it appears to be the aim of the government to open that up. I suggest there's going to be a substantial challenge to opening up self-
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governing professions to the degree that this Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act enables.
I have a number of questions with respect to this, and I suppose they relate to the aspect of our absolute thirst and wish as people.... I guess that inherent in us is a thirst for freedom, and yet of all the commodities that we strive to attain, it's probably the one that we're least able to utilize in a wise and responsible manner. When we emphasize freedoms and rights, sometimes we fail to remember that they're accompanied by responsibilities. I think that in achieving freedom of information we have to be mindful that we have to pick up our responsibilities.
There was certainly a substantial amount of discussion in the chamber with respect to the wishes of the media for expanded coverage. A member in the official opposition said that this bill doesn't go far enough. Well, I wonder about that. There are many individuals and corporations in the media business who are indeed most responsible, but there also are many who are really not all that responsible. The reality is that the media business is simply that: a business. If you can create or get hold of an issue that gives you the opportunity to get more readers, listeners or viewers, you in fact encourage more commercial time with advertisements, because really that public attention is what you want. So the commodity that is used to gain this public attention -- whether it's controversial, personal or whatever -- may or may not be fair or legitimate to the individuals involved.
One of the best newspapers I think I've ever read is one that is virtually unheard of. But on the other hand.... What is the tabloid in the markets? The National Enquirer, I think it is, and that's the type of thing that attracts a great readership. My concern is that when you expand it to satisfy media requirements, you are not accepting our responsibility for the protection of privacy. So there are some concerns there. The member for Burnaby North asked a number of questions and felt that the self-destruct mode -- as I think he put it -- of our former administration would have been mitigated had this information.... Whether it was or wouldn't be is a cause for speculation.
But I have some questions with respect to the philosophy and principles of the bill. Will the bill allow us access to the names of those individuals sitting on the NDP provincial council, for example? I'd really like to know that. They are very dominant and influential in this government. Will the bill give us access to the entity papers that were prepared by each ministry and used as a basis for that now infamous Peat Marwick manifesto? That wasn't available to us. Will the bill give us access to the names of all applicants for appointments to boards, commissions and agencies to ensure that the appointment process is indeed truly non-partisan, as it is purported to be, as hopefully it will become? It hasn't been to date. Government has to lead by example, not necessarily by legislation. Legislation should formulate public opinion, a public desire and a public wish to move in a certain direction. We certainly can't impose a great deal of legislation on the public without the will and support of the people.
There's any number of questions that can be asked -- and in fact will be asked -- with respect to this. When we go through the bill section by section, we can then scrutinize it. I think there will be a splendid opportunity for the section-by-section scrutiny. Overall, I think the question is out there: will this be beneficial? It appears to be a double-edged sword. Can we handle the freedom and access to information in a responsible manner? Those are questions that history will answer. On the whole, we certainly support the principles involved in this particular bill and again compliment -- I won't say commend, but I certainly compliment -- those who accepted a most challenging task.
Hon. C. Gabelmann: I want to thank all members who participated in this debate. It's the kind of subject that in normal times would take much longer and that deserves a longer debate. I would like to have had the debate earlier in the session in order to have it in a more relaxed way so that more members could have participated; but we were committed, properly I think, to delay this debate until the end of the session so that there would be time enough to have full consultation.
I want to say thanks to a number of people, particularly public servants in the Ministry of Government Services, who were, in effect, seconded to me to help develop this legislation. They have done outstanding work. The member for Burnaby North has identified them, and I want to add my words of thanks as well; in addition, of course, to Dr. Murray Rankin, who as always has been energetic, forceful, inspired and, in fact, brilliant. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him in this process to date, a process which is not yet complete.
Even though we've only had a month or so since the introduction of the bill, the consultation has been exhaustive. I've spent more time personally on this piece of legislation and on this subject than on any other single issue I've dealt with in the seven months since coming to office. It has not been difficult, but it has been a very time-consuming process. The issues involved are exceedingly complex and require very careful consideration. I think we've done that by way of the involvement of many people, and a number of members from the government caucus as well. I extend my personal thanks to them for their long hours and involvement.
My only regret in this whole process is that I'm introducing the bill and not the member for Burnaby North. This bill really is a legacy of the member for Burnaby North. In my mind, I think of it as his bill. I wish he had been the individual who could have carried this legislation through the House. He deserves an immense amount of credit.
As I listened to the debate, members of the Social Credit caucus expressed concerns on the privacy side, which seem to balance the concerns I hear from media owners. I want to say that we share the concerns expressed about the privacy side. In fact, although it sounds contradictory, we have strengthened privacy provisions considerably in this legislation. It seems contradictory to say that we're more open and at the same time say that we have strengthened privacy
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provisions, but we have done just that. I think the bill should be measured on that criterion. I think it will stand up well.
The member for Okanagan West talked about the ombudsman being, in effect, cut out of the process. The commissioner is equal to the ombudsman. In effect, the commissioner has powers and authority that are in some ways in excess of the powers and authority that the ombudsman has. The commissioner is an officer of this House and is selected by this House in exactly the same way as the ombudsman or ombudswoman is. As a result of that, it wouldn't make sense to give the ombudsman powers over the commissioner. They are equal. In fact, in respect of this legislation, I think the commissioner has more authority and power than the ombudsman would actually have. It's for that reason that that provision is included.
As I said across the floor to the opposition House Leader, most of the amendments are housekeeping. Some of them deal with significant issues that were raised by a variety of people, in particular the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, who gave us very constructive comments. We have listened, I think, to all of their concerns and have in fact dealt with, if not all, certainly most of their propositions. We have not agreed with all of the propositions put forward to us by the media owners' lawyer, Mr. McConchie, although we have accepted some of their concerns. They drew a number of issues to our attention which were valid. History, as the member says, will be the judge of whether we've made the right choices in this area. We think we have.
We hope to go to committee stage on Monday, but the legislative drafting for the amendments is still underway. It won't be ready until Monday. The legislative drafting is to be based on the response I received from Murray Rankin and his letter to me, which includes all of the suggested changes and is available to all members now. If you haven't already got them, they're certainly available through my office. So members will have between now and Monday to review what are, in effect, the amendments that will be presented on Monday. You'll have plenty of opportunity between now and Monday to review the substance of the amendments.
A couple of members, in particular the leader of the third party, asked that we delay committee stage until a later time. It's our view that we need the legislation passed in order to develop policies that will attach to the legislation, to develop the procedures that we'll need to put in place and also the very important training that's going to have to take place in every government ministry. It's going to be a difficult and time-consuming process. Without the legislation in place, we're really unable to do the policy and procedures manuals and all of the training that we require. I will make this undertaking however: if, in the course of public discussion and comments by members of the House or members of the public between now and next spring's legislative session, concerns are raised that are legitimate and require amendment, I will be prepared to bring in legislative amendments to this act at the next session, next year, in advance of the proclamation, which we expect will be in October 1993. I hope any concerns about the rushing of this through the House will be allayed by my commitment to have a constant review of this legislation, so that if we have really missed something and all of us have missed something or we've done something wrong, we can in fact address that legislatively next spring.
The member for Surrey-Cloverdale raised the question of other public bodies: why couldn't school boards and municipal councils and other public bodies be included in the legislation? I think I indicated in first reading that it's our intention to go through a consultative process with other bodies, so that legislation that would cover them would be tailored to their particular needs and concerns. To simply extend coverage to all of those other public bodies at this point, without the kind of consultation that I think is necessary, would in fact do them a disservice and would do the public a disservice. In the weeks to come we intend to begin a consultative process with municipalities and school boards and other public bodies with a view to try to bring forward legislation next year which will cover them.
I'll just conclude with these few comments. I understand that the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, which I think is the lead group in this province on this issue and really should be commended, as the member for Burnaby North indicated.... I understand that their reaction to our proposed amendments is one of support, and they think we now will have a very good bill. I'll let them speak to the public as they wish to. I don't mean to be speaking for them, but it was always a concern of mine to be sure that we were able to meet the legitimate concerns that that organization has had in this legislation. Based on information that I have received through my office, I understand that organization feels very comfortable about the direction of the proposed amendments, and in fact thinks we now have a very good bill.
I am looking forward to the clause-by-clause debate on the amendments, hopefully on Monday. With that, once again I would move second reading.
Bill 50, Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Hon. C. Gabelmann: I move the House do now adjourn.
The House adjourned at 12:06 p.m.
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