Getting the Balance Right on C-51

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 30, 2015

The Liberal party announced its desired amendments to Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation, last Thursday morning. The Liberals seized at least a temporary, first out of the gate, advantage in what will become the battle of the amendments, following a deeply partisan testimony battle to the House of Commons Public Safety committee, that generated more heat than light.

The Liberals have been desperately seeking a distinguishable stand on Bill C-51, a matter that has become more important as Canadian public support for the legislation shows signs of declining and becoming more conflicted.

In reality, unbalanced approaches to security and rights are the real danger and the demand we can make of all three political parties is to say: Prove you have the best formula for achieving the security-rights balance.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced the party’s initial stance on Feb. 5, with a speech designed to show his gravitas on matters of national security: “We have a duty to act against terrorist threats, as a Liberal government did following 9/11. We have a duty, as legislators, to balance the freedom and safety of all Canadians.” But Trudeau subsequently took major flack for this approach from public audiences across the country, with voices wondering whether he was betraying “liberal values.”

Now the Liberals have tried to stake out the political middle ground of a balanced approach to security enhancements and rights protections more firmly by calling for 10 changes to the anti-terrorism legislation. They have promised that, if their amendments are not accepted by the government, they will form part of the Liberal party’s campaign stance heading into general elections in the fall. That is a big promise and a potential hostage to fortune, but it signals that the Liberals have a principled stance on the legislation and are not simply dancing with the Conservatives in order to avoid being skewered by the Harper government’s “tough on terrorism” stance. The old saw about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer does not always work well in domestic politics.

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The key amendment called for by the Liberals is not really an amendment at all. The party has reiterated its call for the creation of a security-cleared joint committee of Parliamentarians to: “review the legislative, regulatory, policy and administrative framework for national security in Canada.” The Liberals are on strong ground here, and their call has been supported by former senior executives from the Canadian security and intelligence community.The day after the Liberal announcement, the NDP followed suit, endorsing the need for parliamentary oversight “that will work,” though they provided no details.

The government has tried to beat back calls for Parliamentary review, on several unconvincing grounds — including that Parliament is not up to the task (members of the governing party sometimes forget they are also MPs and could find themselves back in their former occupations), that the proposal is somehow “American”, that it doesn’t work elsewhere (when it patently does, see the UK or Australian examples for starters), that review is best left to the existing review bodies (which are under-resourced, lack public legitimacy, and have no capacity to look at the broad range of national security operations), or even that it is enough to leave it all in the hands of judges, when judicial “oversight” is, of necessity, so clearly limited. If you believe any of this, well, check the dictionary definition of “credulous.”

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Balanced approaches to security and rights are a tough political sell in times of heightened public concern about security; less pitchable, certainly, than being tough on terrorism or being the dedicated upholder of rights. They can also be seen as mere political expediency by the more skeptical among us, which probably represents a good part of the Canadian population, and especially the youthful demographic. But in reality, unbalanced approaches to security and rights are the real danger and the demand we can make of all three political parties is to say: Prove you have the best formula for achieving the security-rights balance.

Maybe even the Conservatives are getting that, with their last out of the gate, minor amendments to C-51 leaked late last week, following the Liberal call.

But on the big issues such as Parliamentary review and new CSIS disruption powers, we are unlikely to see any accommodation, despite some unease within the Conservative ranks.

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