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Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

lawrence martin

Anti-terrorism law: Why the Liberals aren’t amending it Add to ...

New Democrat MP Randall Garrison is putting together a bill aimed at repealing anti-terrorism measures brought in by the Conservative government a year ago. Mr. Garrison says the Liberal government is moving too slowly on its election promise to soften the security legislation, commonly known as Bill C-51, that gave the spooks all kinds of new powers.

Our New Democrats have been considerably muted as a result of the October election. So it’s good to hear them – they should be getting some inspiration from the likes of Bernie Sanders – holding up the values of the left.

Any move by them to salvage civil liberties, however, won’t get far. In due time there will probably be a few amendments to C-51. But they are likely to be minor in nature, like the timid change the Liberals have introduced thus far – the appointment of a parliamentary oversight committee to monitor and scrutinize spy activities. It has the claws of a kitten.

EDITORIAL: How is the Liberal government using Bill C-51? Good question

Justin Trudeau did not want to be seen as being soft on terror when the Harper government brought in C-51, which was in response to consecutive terror incidents on domestic soil. The Liberals backed the bill and sought cover with the promise of amendments. But given the climate of the times, given the recent spate of terrorist atrocities, they now feel a new need to be cautious.

What if, an insider explained, the Liberals brought in big-time amendments to defang C-51 and there was a subsequent terrorist act on Canadian soil: “How would we look then?”

There’s another timing problem. The Liberals don’t want to do anything until the U.S. election is over. If Donald Trump becomes president (a doubtful prospect), all hell breaks lose. Security policy, border policy, immigration policy south of the border would be overhauled. Ottawa would have to respond in a manner considerably different than it would if Hillary Clinton wins the Nov. 8 vote.

RELATED: Entrapment verdict: Canada’s anti-terror strategy found guilty

Politically speaking, the Liberals, because of all the global terror, are under little public pressure to move quickly. When C-51 was first introduced, there was a civil liberties outcry. Rather than just gathering intelligence, C-51 gave our spy agency (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) powers to make arrests on suspicion that someone might carry out a terrorist act. “Suspicion” is a word of considerable latitude. The spooks were given powers to apprehend anyone engaging in an act that is deemed to promote terrorism. “Promote” is a rather flexible term as well. CSIS was given powers to disrupt gatherings whereas previously it had only a monitoring function.

Reaction on the left was heated: “We’re creating a new parallel police force.” “Anyone can be locked up without judicial recourse.” “Police state here we come.” But you don’t hear much of that any more. For example, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in conjunction with the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, is trying to get Canadians to raise their voices through a parliamentary e-petition. They are getting very little response.

The NDP has been steadfast in its opposition to C-51, its point being that you can have tough anti-terrorism laws which do not infringe on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Among the Liberals’ promises of change to C-51 was one that would ensure that CSIS warrants did not contravene the Charter. The Liberals promised a wide range of public consultations on the legislation. But such consultations have yet to begin. The Liberals promised to review petitions by Canadians who find themselves on a no-fly list. But that promise has been diluted.

The parliamentary oversight body is supposed to fill a glaring omission in the Anti-Terrorsim Act (it was inexcusable that the Conservatives were so opposed to oversight). But the committee is severely handcuffed. The government can cite national security to deny it information it is seeking. And the committee doesn’t report to Parliament but to the Prime Minister; he is then free to censor or do with its report as he wishes.

It’s symptomatic of the Liberal approach to C-51, which is to tinker. But on the anti-terrorism law, that may be all that the people want.

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