Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, and an expert on national security issues. He gave testimony before Parliament on Bill C-51 in the spring of 2015.
The federal government has just released a long-awaited public consultation document (green paper), titled Our Security, Our Rights. The paper fulfills a Liberal promise to consult with Canadians about national security issues in the aftermath of the very contentious and heated debate over the 2015 anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, passed as one of the last acts of the previous Conservative government.
Consultation with Canadians is a great idea, but attendant with real difficulties. The process is unheard of historically – never before has a Canadian government actually encouraged a public debate about the secretive realm of national security. Not surprisingly, few Canadians are well versed in such matters. Our national security literacy is low, whether we are talking about threats or about the tools available to respond to those threats. Due in part to the way Bill C-51 was rolled out, the Liberals face entrenched political views on national security. Conservatives are ready to fight to the end to preserve every inch of C-51; the New Democrats are ready to throw the whole thing out.
This green paper will test whether there is space for a genuine, informed political debate in Canada. Another challenge hidden beneath its folds is that it was written by government bureaucrats who – let us face it – have grown up under the Conservatives, are used to their ways and outlook, and may be resistant to change or a new doctrine of openness. Whether the thinking of senior security and intelligence professionals can be "greened" by the green paper remains an interesting question.
The green paper is set in the predictable and unavoidable context of finding the right balance between security and rights. But the balancing act is made precarious by two problems. One is that Canadians lean to the rights side of the equation because that is what we know and cherish. The other is a narrow perspective on security threats. Here, the Liberals have fallen into a trap set by the long-standing contention of the previous Conservative government that terrorism was the No. 1 threat to Canadian national security.
Really? What about espionage, cyberthreats, climate change?
Critics of the green-paper process will charge that the government is just ragging the puck (a valuable tactic in hockey), rather than getting on with it. The more cynical might believe that this is all smoke and mirrors
for a government that already knows what it wants to do. But let's agree on two things: that consultation on national security should be the new democratic norm, and that what you ultimately want with government security policy and legislation is not divisiveness and political cacophony but something approaching societal consensus. This takes time and thought. So good on the Liberals for taking a new approach.
The boldest step taken by the green paper is set out in the section titled Investigative Capabilities in a Digital World. The issue concerns the boundaries around intrusiveness and privacy. There is probably no more delicate or fraught balancing act to be achieved than this. Previous debates going back years over lawful access have been stalled, and into the mix has come all the Edward Snowden revelations concerning global surveillance activities. If the Liberals can come up with new ideas for digital security capabilities and rights protections, that will be a big achievement.
Whatever happens with the public debate and online consultations, and whatever the Liberal government ultimately proposes for legislative and policy changes, maybe we can be good Canadians and avoid the worst antics of the presidential candidates' national security debate south of our border.