Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Stephen Harper doesn’t like Parliament very much, to put it politely. He is certainly not the first prime minister to harbor dark thoughts about the institution and its inmates (Pierre Trudeau comes to mind), and he won’t be the last, but Harper carries his disdain to a higher level. Even though he has a majority government – and thereby has effective control over everything Parliament does – he does not trust the place or its members.
Bill C-51, the government’s new anti-terrorism legislation, is a case in point. Given the importance that the government attaches to the bill, it should have been presented first to elected representatives in Parliament. Instead, Harper went off-site, to a Tory-friendly political rally in Richmond Hill; he’d pulled the same stunt before with the government’s fiscal updates.
Bill C-51 raises two issues that need to be addressed by Parliament. First, do the security agencies really need increased powers? Are the powers already vested in the Criminal Code and other federal statutes truly inadequate? Second, who will watch the watchers? What sort of oversight will be put in place to ensure that the new powers are not abused?
For example, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is our national spy agency. It gathers intelligence on groups and individuals that it believes may be a threat to national security. Bill C-51 would increase the scope of CSIS from spy agency to secret police. Not only would it gather information and monitor suspicious activities, it would have new powers to disrupt those activities.
Currently, such oversight as there is of CSIS is entrusted to the grossly underfunded Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a five-member body that until recently was chaired by the notorious Dr. Arthur Porter, a patronage appointee chosen by the prime minister; at last report, Porter was in jail in Panama fighting extradition to Montreal to face major fraud charges, his wife already having pleaded guilty.
The case for parliamentary or legislative oversight is compelling. That’s the way it is done in Washington, Britain and Australia where all-party committees of elected representatives, meeting in private, review the operations of the spy services. Those committees are accountable to Congress or Parliament. The system is not perfect, but it is preferable to leaving oversight to a shadowy group like SIRC, which appears to be accountable to no one.
Parliamentary oversight is not going to happen in Ottawa. Harper has made it clear through his parliamentary secretary that he is happy with the system as it exists. He is not about to give authority to MPs who, heaven forbid, might want to ask to ask him questions he wouldn’t want to answer – just as, a few years ago he refused to answer questions about the costs of new prisons and the F-35 fighter aircraft program.
Parliament is not the only Ottawa institution that Harper dislikes. The list is quite long, but the Supreme Court of Canada would be near the top. It frustrates him. He has appointed seven of the nine members of the current court – and where is their loyalty, their gratitude? They no sooner don their ermine-trimmed robes than they turn on him.
Last year they prevented him from appointing Marc Nadon, a Federal Court judge whose conservative bent he liked, on the ground that, as the government well knew, he was not eligible for the Supreme Court. Harper didn’t like that at all.
Last week, the court opened an issue that Harper very much wanted to avoid: the right to doctor-assisted suicide. Reversing a ruling it had made 21 years ago in the Sue Rodriguez case, the court ruled that desperately ill Canadians have a constitutional right to assistance to end their lives. The decision was unanimous, 9-0, all seven Harper appointees supporting the ruling.
The court set down a number of safeguards and gave the Conservatives one year to write a new law. It was not a message Harper wanted to hear in election year.