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Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Mulcair is right to question the politics of terror Add to ...

Are the Conservatives playing politics with terror? NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has been saying as much. He questions why they are planning new liberty shrinking measures on top of an already large mass of post-9/11 laws. He questions why it is being done without prior consultation with opposition parties.

He notes how the Conservatives have been trying to cast Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Parliament attacker, as being linked to a terrorist network without offering proof. The RCMP promised to release a background video on him but, as Mr. Mulcair notes, it hasn’t been forthcoming. Is it because it tells a different story?

A paradox of terror is that it increases the homeland leader’s stature. French President François Hollande’s stock has risen following the Paris murders; former U.S. president George W. Bush’s did after Sept. 11, 2001; Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s did following the trauma on the Hill.

After the Paris attacks, Mr. Harper issued a pious and rigorous defence of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Good words. But has he paused to consider his own government’s track record in respect to muzzling, secrecy, misleading Parliament and myriad other anti-democratic abuses?

Looked at in numerical terms, terrorism isn’t much of a threat in this country. In the last decade or two, you can count the number of deaths from it on one hand. But, in part because the media have a history of going apoplectic at the least hint of it, the psychological resonance of terrorism is profound. Politicians know they can take advantage by playing the fear card. The Bush administration went so far as to issue colour-coded alerts. The brighter the colour the more the citizenry was supposed to tremble.

In Canada, laws brought in by Liberal and Conservative governments since Sept. 11 have given our authorities a broad new range of powers. Canadians can be detained without charges and arrested without warrants. Preventive arrests they are called. Or, you might say, guilt by assumption.

Such laws were due to expire, but in 2013 the Tories’ Combatting Terrorism Act reinstated them. There are now laws restricting the right to remain silent and laws allowing CSIS to spy on Canadians overseas.

One can debate the pros and cons of such measures. There’s no easy answer. But are there not enough such powers already? Do we need a whole new slate?

How open to abuse might they be? Would they make it easier for a government with a long enemies list, one that has employed undercover sting operations, to target opponents, or to monitor and disrupt labour and environment movements?

Existing laws have led to excesses (under the Liberals) such as the detention and torture in Syria of Maher Arar and three other Arab Canadians.

Increased liberties are supposed to be a cornerstone of conservative governments. But what’s more apparent with these Conservatives is an overbearing presence, whether it be in respect to curbing civil liberties, a draconian approach to criminal justice, bullying opponents, or the obsession of the Prime Minister’s Office with controlling all that goes on.

Get government off the backs of the people, Ronald Reagan used to say. The Conservatives have made government smaller in terms of revenue generation, but with the expansion of the powers of the executive branch in the form of Mr. Harper’s PMO it is a larger and more powerful and more intrusive force than ever. New anti-terror measures might make it even more so.

Mr. Mulcair isn’t playing down the seriousness of terrorism or what happened in Paris. Nor should anyone. But he has a right to raise concerns about politicizing terror and he is right to say the government should be acting in concert with other parties on matters as sensitive as new security legislation.

We don’t want to see the country turned into a surveillance state.

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