Grit Senator attacks Liberals' nuclear bill, calls it 'very biased'

Reposted with permission from the Hill Times

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Monday, May 20, 2002

By Bill Curry
The Hill Times

A government bill to set up a $550-million agency designed to develop Canada's long-term nuclear waste policy is coming under fire by a Liberal-dominated Senate committee because the body won't be subject to the Access to Information Act or the Auditor General's Office.

"We're having quite a bit of trouble with that bill," declared Alberta Liberal Senator Nick Taylor, who chairs the Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee currently studying C-27, the Nuclear Fuel Waste Bill.

"It sounds like the first draft was put together by the president of Ontario Hydro, or something like that," he told The Hill Times. "The act is very, very biased towards secrecy and is very airy-fairy as far as what to do in the future."

The bill sets up a Waste Management Organization that will be paid for and run by nuclear power producers. Ontario Power Generation will put in $500-million of the total $550-million budget. Within three years of Parliament's passing of C-27, the organization will have to have studied and recommended a long-term plan for storing nuclear waste. It will be studying three options: burrying it deep in the Canadian Shield; keeping it in on-site water storage; or building a central storage facility either above or below ground.

Sen. Taylor said such an important body should be subject to the Access to Information Act and to audits by the Auditor General's Office, but the bill doesn't allow for that. Sen. Taylor said because of those concerns, as well as concerns that the bill is loosely written and lacking in proper checks on those who will run it; the committee is concidering four options.

"One is a complete rejection," he said. "The second is an amendment and send it back [to the House]. The third way is to talk to the minister about amending it and the other is to pass it, but with a scorching letter like back in 2001 on the Innovation [Foundation] about taking money out without telling Parliament."

Sen. Taylor led the Alberta Liberal Party from 1974 to 1988 and is scheduled to retire from the Senate in November. He made headlines last month when he said donations to the Liberal Party and leadership candidates by the powerful oil lobby is behind the government's move to back down from the Kyoto agreement on climate change.

But Sen. Taylor has also been a critic of the decreasing amount of accountability in government and he pointed out that his committee was the first to raise the issue of the growing number of quasi-government agencies that increasingly avoid scrutiny by the public or Parliament. He told The Hill Times that C-27 is another example of that trend.

"I think the Auditor General's report, the byelections, they're all wrapped up in the one ball," he said. "The public wants to know what's going on and they not only want to know what's going on, they want it to appear that they know what's going on. This whole idea of 'Trust me, I'm from Ottawa,' doesn't wash very much."

The bill raised little fuss when it went through the House, though Liberal MPs did vote down an amendment put forward in the House Natural Resources Committee by Bloc Québécois MP Serge Cardin that would have added access-to-information provisions.

Toronto Liberal MP John Godfrey, who is on the Natural Resources Committee, said the Waste Management Organization doesn't really fit with the debate over other arm's-length agencies because this one will be entirely funded by the private sector.

"I mean, it's always important that these arm's-length organizations be transparent and accountable, but I can't think that the fundamental issue [with the bill] is about the auditor general and access to information. I think in the grand scheme of things, those are relatively minor points. Maybe they're symbolic of a larger set of issues of accountabilty, but the real issue is almost a philosophical one. I mean, we've produced the stuff. We've benefitted from it. We're all in on it. We're all guilty and it seems to me that anything that advances the cause of more research into the various options and which spurs further technological investigation into new things that we haven't discovered yet, is good."

But one of Mr. Godfrey's Liberal caucus colleagues took issue with his statements. Ontario Liberal MP John Bryden has been fighting "the larger set of issues of accountability" for years and almost got a bill passed that would have forced Crown corporations and arm's-length agencies like Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. and the CBC to comply with the Access to Information Act. He says he doesn't buy the argument that it's okay for the Waste Management Organization to be exempt because it's privately funded.

"The problem is, it's public safety," he said. "Because it's public safety, then it should be open to public scrutiny.

"You need to be able to see how the administrators are performing in order to increase your comfort level that they're obeying the principles outlined in the legislation, so I'm very, very interested that the Senate is taking this on because it shows the Senate is doing it's job."

While Mr. Bryden said he's optimistic a Treasury Board Task Force looking at updating the Access to Information Act will have positive recommendations when it reports shortly, he said the forces of secrecy led by the Privacy Commissioner seem to be winning out over calls for openness.

"I'm quite concerned," he said.

Backing up his concern is Canadian access specialist Alasdair Roberts, an associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, who has criticized Bill C-27 as part of the Liberal government's continued "assault" on the right to information.

Prof. Roberts also criticized Mr. Godfrey's argument about private money, saying this new body will be drafting public policy that will literally affect the country for thousands of years and therefore it should be subject to the access act.

"We used to think policy development happened in government departments, but that's no longer true," he said, pointing to the increasing power of these agencies.

Prof. Roberts also had low expectations that the task force report will tilt the scales toward more access. After hearing a presentation from Task Force chair Andrée Delagrave at a recent conference, Prof. Roberts said it appears her report will merely propose administrative tweaking and will even restrict access by bringing in new rules and increasing fees.

"This government is clearly not a big supporter of the Access to Information Act," he said. "I would say while the desire to set up new organizations doesn't stem from the desire to limit the act, this government is using the opportunity to limit the ambit of the act. So, while it's not a driver of the reform, it's one of the spin off benefits for the government, I suppose.

"So one the critical issues with the preservation of the right to information is expanding the number of institutions that are subject to the Access to Information Act, and it seems reasonably clear that the task force, or rather the government, isn't going to take dramatic steps on that.

"The decision on the Waste Management Organization has already been taken by the government. The decision on the Canada Health Infoway to exclude it from the act was already taken from the government, at the same time that the review [on access legislation] is going on. So if you want an understanding of what the government's position is on alternative service delivery and the right to information, the WMO and the Canada Health Infoway give you the answer."

--Bill Curry's e-mail is bcurry@hilltimes.com

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