A Conservative MP has broken ranks with the government by calling for parliamentary oversight of Canada's anti-terrorism agencies.
Conservative MP Michael Chong said he supports the government's Bill C-51, but added he also agrees with the opposition parties that a committee of MPs should oversee the work of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other national-security operations.
The Conservative government has repeatedly rejected calls for any new oversight mechanism, saying the existing Security Intelligence Review Committee [SIRC] is a made-in-Canada success.
"I think SIRC worked well for many decades, but things have changed in the last decade," Mr. Chong said in an interview. "With the changes that have taken place in law, and in the government's activities with respect to security and intelligence, should come increased oversight. That would bring us in line with other Western democracies."
His comments come as the public safety committee of the House is embarking on a fast-paced review of the proposed surveillance bill, which the government wants to pass before the summer. The committee has started to hold evening hearings to finish its review of the legislation this month, with calls for increased oversight a common refrain among critics.
The bill has won broad public support after the government portrayed it as a necessary reaction to the terror attacks in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu last October, but the NDP has vowed to fight to amend the legislation over concerns about the privacy rights of Canadians and fears that some environmental and native groups will become the targets of anti-terrorism authorities.
The government has rejected calls for parliamentary oversight as opening the door to "political interference" and defended the work of the "experts" at SIRC, which is made up of five members appointed by the government.
"This is an independent review body with extensive powers to decide the scope and type of investigations it conducts," Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said in the House. "It is accountable, it certifies the report of the director of the intelligence service and it investigates activities at its own discretion, free from government involvement or partisanship."
Bill C-51 would boost the powers of Canada's spy agency, criminalize the promotion of terrorism, make it easier for police to make preventive arrests and facilitate the transfer of personal data among federal departments.
"I strongly support C-51," said Mr. Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills in Ontario. "It closes a lot of the gaps that we currently have in law, which are preventing us from countering terrorism in Canada."
Mr. Chong said the new mechanism of "democratic oversight" would not be created by legislation, but by amending the standing orders of the House to give a committee the powers of oversight over intelligence activities.
"It's not incongruous to say I support this bill and say that we need a separate instrument to affect changes to standing committees," he said. "You can't amend this bill to achieve that oversight, you need to do it through a motion of the House."
Mr. Chong added that ideally, there would also be changes to the ways the committees of the House of Commons are filled. As it stands, party leaders, through their whips, decide which MPs sit on which committees.
"We must change the method of selection," he said. "We should go to the Westminster system, where MPs elect members to committees so that they are truly independent from party leaders' offices and, by extension, the Prime Minister's Office."
Mr. Chong has championed the Reform Act that would give MPs the power to trigger leadership reviews, suspend and reinstate caucus colleagues, and select their own caucus chairs.