Ralph Goodale is a minister who can spend 10 minutes answering a yes-or-no question, and that's a particularly useful skill when the topic is ragging the puck.
The Liberal government has been putting off promised changes to Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terror legislation passed by Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
On Thursday, Mr. Goodale and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced consultations on broader national-security issues – the kind the Liberals promised to launch once they'd tabled legislation to replace C-51. But now changing Bill C-51 will come after the consultations, at some point in the future.
That delay, Mr. Goodale said, was because the government is following an "orderly" process. He listed some things the government has done in the area of national security, which, he said, shows the Liberals aren't failing to live to up to their promises to amend Bill C-51. That's notwithstanding the fact that they haven't lived up to those promises.
In their campaign platform, the Liberals promised to legislate eight measures related to Bill C-51, and, they said, "as this legislation is tabled," they would launch broader consultations on national security. Now amending Bill C-51 will wait.
The Liberals sounded a lot more rushed in opposition. Bill C-51 had been tricky for leader Justin Trudeau. For fear of looking soft on terrorism, they said they'd vote for the bill, but amend it if they took office. But then many left-leaning voters, the kind that might vote Liberal or NDP, expressed unusual hatred for Bill C-51. In the campaign, the Liberals toughened up a promise to repeal Bill C-51 and replace it.
In government now, the Liberals' slow movement raises suspicions they've lost their zeal.
Consultations on national security aren't a bad thing. Government consultations can be self-confirming processes, but national-security policy has been a closed-circuit thing for too long. And Mr. Goodale noted the government has addressed two of the eight measures it promised to "fix" Bill C-51, notably by tabling legislation to create an intelligence-oversight committee of parliamentarians.
But it's hard to see why the government can't move quickly on the other changes. One was to "guarantee that all Canadian Security Intelligence Service warrants respect the Charter of Right and Freedoms." Bill C-51 allowed judges to authorize violations of the Charter. If the government thinks unconscionable violations of the Charter have been legalized, you'd think they'd hurry to fix it. The Liberal platform also promised to narrow an "overly broad" definition of "terrorist propaganda," and that's not overly complex.
Mr. Goodale did say Thursday the government will still make five of those promised measures law, eventually. If you're counting, there's still one platform promise left out, and it's a big one: the pledge to limit the powers of the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's electronic eavesdropping agency, "by requiring a warrant to engage in the surveillance of Canadians."
That promise grew out of a private member's bill sponsored by Liberal MP Joyce Murray, and security agencies don't want it. The CSE isn't supposed to target Canadians, but it can pick up their communications when they are targeting foreigners, and do warrantless bulk tracking of communications, intercepting so-called metadata – who called whom, when, for how long. They don't want to go to a judge each time.
Is that change still Liberal policy? Mr. Goodale didn't recommit; an aide noted the CSE is under the jurisdiction of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. Mr. Sajjan's office didn't respond by press time.
We'll see, eventually. Mr. Goodale, despite his verbal gymnastics, is a serious minister. But he might disappoint those anti-C-51 NDP-Liberal voters who now seem to have gone Liberal. The long version of the discussion paper released for public consultation gives the impression the Liberals aren't looking to roll back spy powers. Its tone suggests they favour the biggest feature of Bill C-51, which was giving Canadian Security Intelligence Service broad powers to "disrupt" threats – traditionally the purview of the RCMP – rather than to just collect intelligence.
The weak public explanations for ragging the puck raise the suspicion that the real one is political: The Liberals are rolling the C-51 changes into a bigger package, and delaying it, because they worry that what they deliver will underwhelm the voters who hated Bill C-51.