Terror No-Go Zones an Election-Friendly Scrap

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 14, 2015

The campaign trail declaration by the Stephen Harper Conservatives to set up a regime of designated no-go terrorist activity zones is a left-over from the omnibus anti-terrorism legislation that the government introduced and passed earlier in 2015. The proposal for yet another tweak to Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation appears to mimic an Australian amendment proposed by the Abbott government back in August 2014 and subsequently passed into law.

What we need from all the major political parties contesting the election are coherent and substantive statements about their strategic vision for Canadian national security, now and in the future.

Had the Harper government been serious about following the Australian lead, there was plenty of opportunity to have done so earlier and as part of its own new anti-terrorism measures. That the Conservatives chose not to do so suggests that this particular measure was felt not to be a priority, and was considered a bridge too far in terms of a likely constitutional challenge. Now this scrap has been introduced as an election promise, devoid, of course, of any details or any chance to scrutinize actual legislation.

As a piece of imitation, it doesn’t quite measure up to the Australian amendments to their anti-terror laws and policies, contained in their “Foreign Fighters Bill.” If the Conservatives had really wanted to take a leaf out of the Australian book, they should also have looked at the significant Australian funding increases for security agencies, the promise to improve the technical capacities of those agencies — especially in their use of informational technology — and, especially, the Australian proposal to review the government machinery for counter-terrorism and ensure that adequate coordination was in place.

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The idea of designated no-go zones has potential merit, particularly in the context of providing both an additional legal deterrent in the fight against the foreign fighter problem and updating some very antiquated laws still on Canada’s books regarding mercenaries joining foreign wars. But, despite the arguments of some, there is very little merit in trying to debate a piece of legislation during an election campaign in the absence of that piece of legislation — and in particular without knowing what the actual no-go zones would be, what safeguards would be built into the law to prevent innocents being caught in the security net, what redress mechanisms would be available to those accused, and what kind of accountability protections would be constructed around such a measure. The experience of Bill C-51, the recent anti-terrorism legislation, does not create much confidence about a strong regime of checks and balances should the Conservatives win another majority in the fall and actually introduce such legislation.

What we need from all the major political parties contesting the election are coherent and substantive statements about their strategic vision for Canadian national security, now and in the future. This is not a paper exercise, but a real-world concern, as is evidenced by the very divided views about national security threats in the United States. The Obama administration is struggling to find a coherent strategic vision. The U.S. military places the Russia threat at the top of the hit list, the FBI says it’s ISIS, and others in the Obama administration point the finger at the persistent Al Qaeda threat. Let’s see our political parties engage openly on this difficult matter.

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What we don’t need are point-scoring little announcements like the no-go zone one, designed by the Conservatives to seize a putative advantage by showing yet again that they are “tough on terrorism” and force their opponents into various traps as they react. Maybe Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will play along and provide a half-hearted endorsement, with divisive consequences in the Liberal ranks? Maybe Tom Mulcair’s NDP can be painted into the corner of rejectionist responses to the terror threat?

That must have been the thinking in Conservative party HQ. It’s just the wrong kind of approach to take, and should only serve to underscore concerns about cynical tactics during an election campaign versus serious attention to the big issues.

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