The Conservative government is trying to restrict the testimony of expert witnesses on a controversial new anti-terror bill to just three hearings at a Commons committee tasked with scrutinizing this expansion of powers for police and security agencies.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday urged the Public Safety committee to quickly complete its study of Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, noting the legislation is "strongly supported by Canadians."
Opposition parties, though, are urging caution, and asking for more time to hear testimony on the bill, which represents the most sweeping increase in power for Canadian security agencies since the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
At a closed-door meeting of the Commons Public Safety committee Tuesday, sources say, the Tories tabled a motion proposing Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay appear before MPs on March 10 for two hours. That would kick off the hearings.
After that, the Conservatives proposed, the committee would hold just three meetings of two hours each with up to six witnesses a meeting, sources say.
The timeline the government sketched out would see the Commons committee proceed to clause-by-clause study of the bill by March 31. The Conservatives say they want the bill to become law before the summer.
The NDP and Liberals are fighting the restrictive schedule, arguing this would only enable the committee to hear about 18 witnesses other than the government ministers.
The NDP tried to delay the Tory motion at committee, attempting to filibuster. The Conservatives, with their Commons majority, can control the number of hearings but parties are still negotiating.
The NDP is proposing a list of as many as 50 witnesses including the four former prime ministers and ex-Supreme Court justices who signed an open letter calling for greater independent oversight of Canada's national security agencies. They want to hear from former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Joe Clark and John Turner as well as former Supreme Court justices including John Major, Ian Binnie and Louise Arbour.
The Liberal list of proposed witnesses is close to 30 at last count.
Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter said opposition parties are willing to sit longer hours in March so the committee can hear more witnesses. The Commons is only sitting for 12 days in March.
Mr. Easter, a former solicitor-general in the Chrétien government, noted that after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Liberals held 19 sessions of Commons committee hearings with 80 witnesses before passing major anti-terrorism legislation.
"There is no reason why the committee can't sit during break week or meet for extended hours in the evenings as the finance committee does," Mr. Easter said.
"Give at least most of those who want to be heard a chance to be heard. Let's make sure we have the best possible bill at the end of the day."
A spokeswoman for Government House Leader Peter Van Loan declined to comment on the Conservative motion to limit witnesses, saying she could not talk about things that might have taken place in a confidential committee meeting.