The Harper government's Anti-terrorism Act went through a final day of committee hearings on Tuesday that was nasty, brutish and short. A single day was plainly not enough to consider clause-by-clause amendments to a bill that will give uncomfortable new powers to the government when it passes in June. And it comes on the heels of a truncated series of meetings where the Conservative members who dominate the public safety committee hijacked the venue to attack, in snide terms, the credibility of witnesses who criticized the many troubling aspects of the bill.
The objects of the Conservative MPs' puerile insults – "Are you fundamentally opposed to taking terrorists off the street?" was one of their questions – included the Canadian Bar Association and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. But at least those groups got the chance to be abused by the committee. The government did not even allot time to Canada's privacy commissioner to testify about a bill that clearly infringes on Canadians' rights.
How does Bill C-51 do that? It gives government departments the ability to share otherwise protected information about any person or group deemed to be a threat to national security. It transforms our spy service, CSIS, from an intelligence-gathering agency to one with police powers, whose members can "disrupt" threats of terrorism. The government has still not said whether "disrupt" means the power to detain and interrogate, though it has at least said it does not include the power to arrest.
CSIS will furthermore be allowed to violate a suspect's Charter rights if it gets a warrant from a judge during a secret hearing at which only government representatives are present. The bill does absolutely nothing to create even a minimally acceptable level of parliamentary oversight for this extremely troubling measure. Bill C-51 also makes it a speech crime to "advocate or promote the commission of terrorism offences in general" – a vague clause carrying a maximum five-year sentence.
The Harper government has never justified the need for the bill's drastic measures; it has merely brought them into being as a wedge issue, and used them to make accusations of softness against any and all critics. The government must spend more time explaining in clear, unambiguous terms why the bill and its new powers are so important, or recognize those who argue that the bill needs to be thoroughly rewritten, or scrapped, gain a legitimate upper hand.