For many voters, the Liberal Party stumbled badly last year when, still in opposition, it voted in favour of the Harper government's Anti-Terrorism Act. Also referred to as Bill C-51, the act – now the law of the land – is a dangerous overreach, something critics were saying loudly when the Liberals backed it.
Among other problems, the law lumps legitimate protest and free speech in with acts of terrorism and gives police-like powers to CSIS, the domestic spy agency. Most alarming of all, CSIS can ask a judge in secret for a warrant that lets its agents violate the Charter rights of terrorism suspects. The law establishes secret police powers in the name of national security, with zero parliamentary oversight.
And the Liberals went along with it. Voting for the Bill C-51 was a tactical move by leader Justin Trudeau to outflank a Conservative government that hoped to corner him into appearing weak on terrorism. But in denying Stephen Harper an election soundbite (Justin is for terrorism!), Mr. Trudeau betrayed his party's values. It was a troubling trade-off, one the Liberal leader vowed to put right if he was elected prime minister.
And now here we are. Mr. Harper is a spectral Opposition backbencher, and Mr. Trudeau has a majority government. There is nothing stopping the Prime Minister from bringing in his promised amendments. To date, all indications are that he will do so quickly.
Even more promisingly, though, the new government has taken preliminary steps to increase parliamentary oversight of CSIS and other intelligence and security services. This is great news. If Mr. Trudeau delivers on this, he will more than erase the black mark he earned with his support for Bill C-51.
The question of the moment, then, is, will this government do what all before it have failed to do and create an oversight body or bodies that have the power, resources, independence and mandate to credibly monitor and review Canada's intelligence and security agencies?
The Maher Arar and Air India debacles, as well as the passage of Bill C-51, have demonstrated that Canadians' liberties and security are as much at risk from sloppy intelligence work, unjust arrest and detention, and government invasion of privacy as they are from the threat of terrorism. But no government of the past 30 years has established an adequate level of scrutiny of our security and intelligence bodies.
The big three – CSIS, the RCMP and the Communications Security Establishment, which intercepts and analyzes foreign communications and electronic signals – can gather information and share it liberally with each other, as well as with the Armed Forces and a multitude of government departments.
But most of that security work is done without review. The review bodies that do exist – the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) for CSIS, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, and the CSE commissioner – can't talk to each other. They are confined to their corner of the world and thus can only carry out partial reviews. It would make far more sense to have a single review body – a "super-SIRC," as many have called it – that could monitor security and intelligence-related work across the entire government.
The biggest failing of all, though, is that Canada is the only one of the so-called Five Eyes security partners that doesn't give elected representatives, other than cabinet ministers, access to secret information. (The other Five Eyes partners are the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.)
In fact, Canada is virtually alone among Western countries in the sidelining of elected representatives in matters of security and intelligence oversight, according to a new omnibus analysis of the issue by Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, two university professors who are among the leading critics of Bill C-51 and Canada's security oversight shortcomings.
Their primer on the subject points to the obvious solution: the creation of a committee of parliamentarians who have classified access to all of the doings of CSIS, the CSE, the RCMP, the Armed Forces, the Canada Border Services Agency and others in order to ensure that the nation's intelligence and security activities are "lawful; proportionate to the threat; necessary; and designed to be effective and efficient."
As it stands right now, parliamentarians can't even get a straight answer "about the number of Canadians who have left the country to join terrorist groups abroad," a Senate committee complained in July.
Mr. Trudeau signalled this week that he is moving in the right direction when he announced that MP David McGuinty will chair a proposed "statutory committee of parliamentarians that will be responsible for reviewing security-related issues." The legislation creating the committee will be tabled by June, the government said.
As well, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Mr. McGuinty travelled to the U.K. this week to study Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. The British committee, though not without its own controversies, is considered to be the gold standard because of its relative independence from government, the scope of its mandate, its large resources (it has its own secretariat) and its access to all secret information.
Canada must strive to meet that standard. Our intelligence and security capacities have increased steadily since 2001 and are more vital than ever today.
But Canadians need to be able to trust that their tax dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent, that the Charter of Rights and the laws of the country are being respected, and that they are not being duped by government officials hiding behind a curtain of official secrecy. Our Five Eyes allies have demonstrated that an independent parliamentary committee is a non-negotiable part of any democratic nation's security apparatus. Canada should have one, too.
Mr. Trudeau knows what the right thing to do is. Anything less than that will be a failure.