The Liberal government, in its first year in power, has enjoyed the benefit of a highly advantageous environment for national security policy making: a majority in Parliament; ineffective political opposition; no terrorist attacks; a public whose attention is largely elsewhere. The pressure has been off and the government has been able to pursue its agenda at a measured pace.
There was one close call, when Aaron Driver, placed under a terrorism peace bond, came very close to slipping the attention of the authorities and conducting some kind of attack using home-made IEDs. A dramatic shootout in August in front of his residence in Strathroy, Ontario, ended in his death and the foiling of a plot. There was some fast intelligence and law enforcement work in this outcome, but also a good deal of luck.
But even the best of political environments comes with its own challenges. No pressure doesn’t mean a government is off the national security hook. The Liberal government has some big election and mandate promises to live up to.
Among the promises was a new role for Parliament in scrutinizing intelligence and security matters. The Liberals promised this when still the third party in Parliament and it became one of their main rejoinders to Harper-style national security policy making. Once in office, the Liberals made an early misstep in appointing a chair to the promised committee well before Parliament had any sight of the legislation to establish such a thing. But the legislation, Bill C-22, to create a National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, was eventually introduced and is now going through committee hearings, presumably to emerge as law by early 2017.
One test the bill poses concerns the willingness of the government to accept some amendments to ensure the support of opposition parties and get the whole thing started on a reasonable footing. On that one, we shall see. Amended or not, the legislation marks a major step forward in the ability of Parliament to hold the secretive world of intelligence to account, and should significantly increase the public’s understanding of what goes on in the shadows.
A second major promise concerns a millstone left around the new government’s neck by the passage of the Harper’s government’s anti-terrorism legislation (the contentious Bill C-51) in 2015. The Liberals promised to repeal its “problematic elements” and ensure a better balance between security and rights for Canadians. While the Liberal government has signalled what it thinks the problematic elements are, its caucus may have different ideas and certainly opposition parties do.
The NDP is clear that Bill C-51 should be thrown out in its entirely. The rump Conservative caucus continues to extol C-51 as good legislation. We have yet to see what the government intends precisely with regard to anti-terrorism powers, but the path forward for legislative changes will not be smooth, and behind the scenes security and intelligence agencies will be making various pitches to hold on to powers they so recently acquired.
The most radical promise the Liberals made was to consult Canadians and increase transparency around intelligence and security issues. In fulfilling this promise, the government launched in September a “Green” (discussion) paper on national security, addressing 10 issues about which it encourages public discussion and input. An online portal is open until December 1 and has already seen some 8,000 responses. In addition, the government has consulted with experts and stakeholders; the parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security is touring the country, holding “open mic” sessions; Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is on the road; and even his officials have been thrust onto the public parapet. How the government will digest and respond to the Green paper exercise remains to be seen. But this is an unprecedented and welcome experiment, whether it succeeds, fails, or fizzles.
For the Liberal government, its first year in office offered a glimpse of the future. Its second year will have to see the future come home in the form of new legislation, new policies, new strategic visions around balancing the meaning of security and rights. If the Liberals are lucky, they will continue to benefit from a calm (call it sunny) political environment in year two. But the calmer things are, the more they will have to deliver straight on their promises.
Wesley Wark is a Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He recently gave invited testimony to the Commons Committee on Public Safety on the National Security Green Paper.
This article was first published in The Ottawa Citizen on 18 October 2016.