The Liberal government is set to reject proposals that would have given broader powers to its new national-oversight committee of parliamentarians.
The legislation to create the committee, Bill C-22, will return to the House of Commons this week for debate after it was heavily modified late last year by the Public Safety Committee of the House.
The government has served notice that it will reject many of the amendments that were proposed by the committee, including giving subpoena powers to the new body. In addition, the government has rejected proposals that would have limited the ability of ministers to deny the transfer of particularly sensitive information to the new committee.
“Our government believes in the importance of those powers granted to the committee, while also ensuring safeguards exist so that certain classified information is not disclosed that could disrupt government operations or be injurious to national security,” Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger said in a statement.
As promised in the 2015 election, the Liberal government has tabled legislation to create a national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians to provide oversight of all 17 federal agencies involved in security issues.
The new committee will report to the prime minister, unlike traditional committees of the House and the Senate. The new committee’s annual and special reports will be vetted by the government before they are released to prevent the disclosure of any classified information, which stands to constrain the body’s ability to raise red flags with the public.
The proposal for the new oversight committee has been generally well received in Canada’s intelligence and security communities, although there have been concerns over the government’s ability to control the information that it will receive.
In November, the Public Safety Committee of the House decided to provide the oversight committee with the equivalent of subpoena powers. Using traditional parliamentary language, MPs decided to give the committee the ability “to send for persons, papers, and records.”
“The committee lacks a very basic power, namely the power to compel witness testimony and the production of documents,” NDP MP Murray Rankin said at the time.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith added: “It makes good sense to me that this committee wouldn’t typically exercise such powers, but they’re there if they’re ever needed.”
However, the government has served notice that it will oppose the inclusion of new subpoena-like powers in Bill C-22.
In addition, the government has served notice that it will largely restore clauses in Bill C-22 that give it the ability to control the sensitive information that is provided to the committee.
Over all, the only major change that the government wants to make to its original legislation is related to the committee’s make-up. Under a proposal that still needs to be approved by the House, the committee would now include 11 members (eight MPs and three senators), up from nine members (seven MPs and two senators) in the original draft of the legislation.
The legislation to create the committee will be up for debate in the House starting on Wednesday, with a vote on the government’s motions to come at a later date.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said last year that the new national-security oversight committee will be at its most powerful when it goes public with its concerns over the government’s national-security apparatus. He argued that ministers need the ability to limit some of the information that is provided to the committee in specific circumstances, but that the committee will be able to fight back through its public reports.
“If the minister feels that in fact there is some injury to national security that’s risked in a certain set of circumstances, then the minister would need to explain that to the committee. If the explanation is not satisfactory, the bully pulpit that’s available to the committee will be a very powerful tool in the court of public opinion,” Mr. Goodale told the Public Safety Committee last November.Report Typo/Error