Debate began in Ottawa yesterday over the Conservative government’s contentious new anti-terror legislation, which proposes to dramatically expand the powers of Canadian intelligence and security agencies. It’s something of a relief that a debate is happening at all. With a federal election scheduled for this autumn and the security issue playing to prime minister Stephen Harper’s perceived political strengths, the opposition parties are looking as though they might offer only the meekest resistance.
Critics have assailed Bill C-51 for being badly written, overreaching and vague. Legal experts warn that aspects of it are unlikely to pass muster with the Supreme Court. In a recent editorial, The Globe and Mail newspaper admonished the government for turning the country’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (Csis), into a “secret police force”.
Despite the criticism, the public – unacquainted with the bill’s particulars perhaps –appears to support the draft bill: as many as 82 per cent of them according to a poll published yesterday. A rare moment of national consensus if ever there was one.
Which explains why the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau is treating the bill as a bit of a third rail. After voting against Canada’s involvement in military operations targeting Islamic State – a move that the majority of Canadians support – the Liberals now seem wary of sticking their necks out. Trudeau has said his party will support the bill but that he intends to make increased oversight of intelligence agencies an issue in the upcoming campaign.
Fortunately, after some initial waffling, the New Democrats appear determined to give the bill the airing it deserves. The party’s leader Tom Mulcair has labelled Bill C-51 as being “dangerous, vague, ineffective,” and accuses the Liberals of being cowed into supporting it. Mulcair has also expressed concerns regarding whom the new powers could be used to target, such as environmental and aboriginal groups opposed to oil and gas developments.
It’s not an idle concern. A leaked 2014 assessment by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dubiously branded the country’s “anti-petroleum” protestors as a threat to national security, though there is little evidence to suggest how this is so. Without more clearly circumscribing whom Bill C-51 is intended to target, it effectively enables law enforcement to disrupt and undermine the actions of legitimate protestors.
So far Harper has held firm against complaints about the bill’s vexing lack of clarity. Nor has he addressed why Canadians aren’t entitled to the same level of parliamentary oversight of their security services as found in the US and the UK.
Then again, there is little incentive for Harper to secure bipartisan support. Not when the bill is so clearly calculated as his opening gambit in what promises to be the most closely fought election campaign this country has seen in more than a decade.
Christopher Frey is Monocle's Toronto correspondent.