Now that a court has ordered the CBC to relinquish internal files, the Conservative-dominated House of Commons ethics committee is moving to redraft a provision that would force the public broadcaster to reveal more information to the public.
Tory MPs on the committee want to clarify part of the Access to Information Act – Section 68.1 – that had allowed the CBC to argue it could withhold certain internal documents from the Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault.
Ms. Legault has twice taken the CBC to court over this matter.
This week, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that sided with the watchdog, saying she had the right to vet CBC documents and decide if they should be released under the Access to Information Act. It is not clear yet whether the CBC will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Tory MPs on the ethics committee were happy with the decision as they had also pushed the CBC to release the documents to the commissioner.
“I think it’s incumbent upon the committee to make recommendations to the government,” Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister and driving force on the committee’s probe of CBC, told The Globe Thursday. “I think that the committee will make recommendations to the government on a better defined section 68.1 of the Access to Information Act.”
That section allows the CBC to exclude documents it believes need to be protected because the information “relates to its journalistic, creative or programming activities.”
Mr. Del Mastro says that section is not clear and needs to be redrafted “so that it provides the kind of transparency and accountability I believe Canadians expect of the public broadcaster.” He expects the committee report to be tabled in the Commons before the House breaks at Christmas.
Mr. Del Mastro has drawn much fire from the opposition for his aggressive stand against the public broadcaster. The Tories are suspicious of the CBC, believing the broadcaster has a left-leaning bias. And Conservatives have raised a lot of money for their party on the backs of this suspicion.
But the Peterborough Tory denies this is as simple as putting a target on the CBC.
“Access to Information requests are levied against government departments all the time and nobody feels that is an attack on those departments,” he said. “Those are not attacks. Those are requests that are seeking transparency.”
Mr. Del Mastro noted that every Canadian contributes $34 a year to the CBC and uses the example that a family of four contributes the equivalent of a week’s groceries. Given that, he believes, it’s “incumbent” on the broadcaster to be more open about how it spends taxpayer dollars.
As a result of the court ruling, Mr. Del Mastro said he abandoned his demands Thursday morning that the committee look at documents that were subject to the court case. The opposition claimed this as a victory, arguing the Tory MP had bowed to pressure from the Liberals.
“Our actions caused the Conservatives to finally back down from their shameful abuse of the committee process to interfere in a matter before the Federal Court of Canada and seek documents that are subject to a court case,” Liberal spokesman Daniel Lauzon said in an email to the media. “The Conservatives have now agreed to return documents to the CBC, without viewing them, and allow the Information Commissioner to do her work.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Del Mastro said. “There is no back down in acknowledging victory. ... We sought to find out if in fact that CBC's application of section 68.1 was so broad that they in fact were simply dismissing requests on their face as witnesses had suggested and in fact through their own subsequent public disclosures as well as yesterday's ruling its clear that these allegations were absolutely true.”
He said the question for the Liberals is this: “Why don't they feel that Canadians deserve transparency and accountability from the CBC?”