(As originally published in the National Post)
Wayne Easter and Irwin Cotler, National Post
Early in the debate about Bill C-51, the government’s omnibus anti-terror legislation, we joined four former prime ministers — including three Liberal prime ministers — and others to issue an open letter underscoring two fundamental responsibilities of government: ensuring the safety of Canadians, including by protecting Canada from terrorist attacks; and ensuring that initiatives in this regard are consistent with the rule of law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, particularly, are subject to comprehensive oversight, review and accountability mechanisms.
Individually and collectively, MPs have similar responsibilities. Thus, each parliamentarian has a duty to carefully scrutinize the measures in Bill C-51, and to propose and consider amendments in a constructive spirit.
Regrettably, during recently-concluded House of Commons committee hearings on Bill C-51, Conservative members rejected most amendments without serious consideration, prevented important witnesses — including the Privacy Commissioner — from testifying, continued the pattern of limited debate in the House by limiting the time for committee study, and responded to thoughtful concerns raised by eminent witnesses with hyperbole, petulance and scorn.
As stated in the open letter to parliamentarians by 100 law professors, “It is sadly ironic that democratic debate is being curtailed on a bill that vastly expands the scope of covert state activity, when that activity will be subject to poor or even non-existent democratic oversight or review.”
At committee, the Conservatives introduced and passed only a handful of amendments, most of which were similar to Liberal proposals. In particular, the reference to “lawful” protest was removed, so the legislation will not target individuals who engage in civil disobedience.
The Conservatives refused to accept other Liberal amendments that would have increased oversight of security and intelligence services, added sunset clauses and mandatory review provisions, limited overbroad language, and eliminated measures permitting judges to issue warrants allowing Canadians’ Charter rights to be violated.
In both process and substance, the Conservatives’ approach stands in sharp contrast to that of the Liberals following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. In considering Bill C-36, the first comprehensive Canadian legislation to address the threat of international terrorism, Liberals listened respectfully to substantive arguments by expert witnesses and opposition MPs, while engaging in spirited discussion and debate within our caucus. Consequently, the Liberal government altered course in significant respects, seeking to protect both Canadians’ security and civil liberties.
After Bill C-36 was enacted, it became clear that another element in the struggle against terrorism was required: robust and transparent oversight. By October 2004, an all-party group of parliamentarians — including the current Minister of Justice — presented Anne McClellan and Irwin Cotler, the ministers of Public Safety and Justice respectively, with a report recommending the establishment of a parliamentary committee with the authority to oversee and review the conduct of Canada’s intelligence-gathering agencies. This recommendation was based on an examination of similar bodies in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, and led to the introduction of Bill C-81 in 2005. Bill C-81 died with the election of the Harper government in 2006.
The Liberal party understands that Canada’s laws must evolve to meet changing threats. We support certain elements of Bill C-51, such as those that build on powers for preventative arrest, improve use of the no-fly list, and enable more co-ordinated information sharing, with limitations. However, enhanced powers for intelligence and security agencies must be met with improved oversight, Charter rights must be protected, and overbroad language must be refined.
As well, our response to terrorism must not be limited to legislative measures alone. It must include a robust plan for preventing radicalization before it occurs, and ensure that our security agencies are sufficiently resourced to fulfill their new responsibilities.
As a responsible opposition party, the Liberals proposed constructive amendments based on concerns raised by stakeholders, expert witnesses and ordinary Canadians. Regretfully, the Conservatives summarily dismissed them, rather than engaging in thoughtful and productive discussion and debate on an issue of vital importance to Canadians.
The Liberal amendments, including the establishment of comprehensive parliamentary oversight and review, will be included in our electoral platform. We trust they will contribute to public debate as Canadians seek to ensure that both our national security and our civil liberties have the protection they require.
Wayne Easter is the Liberal Public Safety critic, and former solicitor general of Canada. Irwin Cotler is Liberal critic for Rights and Freedoms and International Justice, and former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada.