National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act
Mr. Speaker, as the public safety critic for the Conservative Party, the opposition here in the House of Commons, it is my distinct honour to stand and begin to state our position in this debate on Bill C-22.
I would like to thank the government House leader for her remarks and to start by saying that I agree with one part of what she said in response to several questions and comments, that this is something that probably should have been in place for some time. If my friend looks back at it, she would know that in the past, in the last generation, this has been examined on several occasions by both Conservatives and Liberals.
The MP for Malpeque from her caucus, and the former MP from Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, Peter MacKay, from our caucus were supportive of this concept, as was the retired Senator Hugh Segal. Moreover, a number of eminent parliamentarians and scholars have talked about how Canada, as one of the Five Eyes allies, should have some degree of parliamentary oversight of its intelligence and security operations.
That is a ground of agreement. That is hard to carve when there is a minority Parliament and the government is trying to do something that needs to be above politics, because the operations and, indeed, the safety of our security and intelligence personnel depend upon this committee of parliamentarians not being politicized or not being used to advance political ends.
That is why am profoundly disappointed that the minister did not begin debate on this subject. Here I want to congratulate my friend, the MP for Victoria, the NDP critic on this subject, for his own extensive background working as a lawyer on national security matters, including as an adviser to the last Conservative government and with the Security Intelligence Review Committee, SIRC, some years ago.
That member from Victoria and I have collaborated on this subject from the beginning of this Parliament, because we want it to be above politics. Sadly, the government has not participated in that collaboration, despite several entreaties to take the politics out of this.
It is profoundly disappointing that the minister did not appear to introduce his own bill today on something that is supposed to be above politics. I am not overreacting. I have tried to speak to him on this. I wrote the minister on March 1, on behalf of our caucus, after consultations, and said that “the Conservative Party is willing to work with the Government to create this Committee”.
I laid out several recommendations that I thought should be part of a parliamentary oversight committee, a special committee of this unique nature. I got no response. In fact, I collaborated and shared my thoughts and ideas with the NDP critic, the member for Victoria. I wrote the minister again on April 15, outlining some additional considerations on how this committee of parliamentarians should work in conjunction with existing bodies like SIRC. I appreciate the amazing work that SIRC does, and the CSE commissioner, and the constellation of security oversight review that we already have. How can this committee fit within that constellation and not duplicate existing efforts and not to create a competitive oversight environment?
Finally, the minister gave me what I used to call a “thanks for coming out” response letter on April 20, after I had written him twice, and also the NDP member for Victoria, in trying to take the politics out of this. He said:
It remains the Government’s intention to engage with parliamentary colleagues as the process of developing the committee of parliamentarians unfolds.
That never happened, despite the opposition’s asking for this, to do this right, to do this the way the British, the Australians, and our Kiwi allies do. The minister has really failed in this department, because he has not sat down and taken advice. In fact, he has acted in a very cavalier manner.
As members will see, this bill violates the privileges of members of the House. That could easily have been remedied.
Proposed subparagraph 6(1) of the bill would designate the Prime Minister, not Parliament, as the controlling mind of the committee. I will remind members that the Prime Minister is just the MP for Papineau. He is a member of this chamber, like all of us. He does have a role within the government, but that is separate. Your office, Mr. Speaker, has considered this on several occasions. The Prime Minister should not have full control over this committee. What is ironic is that he also designates the members of the upper house, the Senate. Remember, he tossed the Liberal senators out. The Senate is now independent, according to the Prime Minister, except with respect to this committee. Those members are selected by him as well.
Why is this disappointing? Bill C-22 was dropped on Parliament about four days before we rose for the summer. Not only did the minister ignore opposition requests to discuss, it was tossed in before people left. However, months before that bill was tabled and before the structure of this committee was even understood, the Liberals appointed a chair to the committee.
I have a lot of respect for my friend from Ottawa South, but that has not left a good impression on how he will take the chairmanship role of this committee. If he wanted to be chair, he should have stood before this place or members of that committee and sought the position of chair. In fact, that was the position his party ran on in the election of last year. It was the Prime Minister‘s position with respect to committees of parliamentarians. I will quote from the Liberals’ election platform. It states, “To increase accountability, we will strengthen the role of Parliamentary committee chairs, including elections by secret ballot.”
The Prime Minister talks so much about sunny ways that the glare of the sun allows him to break a lot of promises and people do not see them, and they do not get reported. This is yet another broken promise. The committees are to be more accountable and responsible. If we ever want a committee to be beyond partisanship, it is this one. However, sadly, the Liberals picked the chair months before they even brought the originating legislation to the House of Commons. That is unparalleled in terms of contempt for the House. We did not even know the structure of the committee, yet the deemed chair was travelling around the world with the minister, talking about it.
What is interesting is that in the last Parliament, my friend whose riding was Saskatoon—Humboldt in the last Parliament, introduced Motion No. 431, a motion where the members of this chamber unanimously reaffirmed the desire to have elected chairs of committees. Something ironic about that motion from 2014 is that the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness voted for it. So did the MP for Ottawa South. Where was that good intention from that vote? They stood in this place and said that they wanted committee chairs elected. In fact, that motion from my friend and Conservative colleague was to elect the chairs from the entire chamber, not one person, the MP for Papineau.
This is pretty much everything the government does. It is set up with a facade of sunny ways, accountability, transparency, and it is a mug’s game. It is actually not. Everything is done for the Liberals’ own partisan advantage, but it is very much captured in a way that presents them in a positive fashion.
The Treasury Board president, the member for Kings—Hants, spoke in favour of the election of chairs. He said that having the election of chairs “has the capacity to render committees more independent, potentially more constructive and less partisan”. Another member of the Liberals’ caucus, the member for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame in Newfoundland and Labrador, went further and said that chairs of committees should be elected. However, is it not refreshing that all 308 members of the House have the chance to put themselves in a place where they are the chair of a committee based on their skill of being a member of Parliament and a decent chair?
It is not based on what kind of favours are owed to them in a party structure or a reward given for good behaviour. Quite frankly, that is essentially how it works. This takes control away from the executive and brings it back to the House of Commons.
That member is still in this caucus. I hope he referenced that in the way Bill C-22 has been handled, where the chair was not elected by this place. The chair was appointed before the committee was even struck, in fact, before the committee even existed. It was just an idea before Bill C-22 was tabled. It is profoundly disappointing that my friend for Ottawa South has to start under this cloud. I am quite sure he would have made the case for being the chair.
I will now switch to what renders the proposed legislation essentially ineffective and why we are still trying to work with the government on it. We want to see some substantive amendments, and I have talked to my NDP colleague on it as well.
There are seven exemptions under section 14, including that the committee cannot look at ongoing investigations that may lead to criminal charges. That is pretty much every investigation or operation of law enforcement or security agencies in the country. Defence intelligence cannot be looked at. The Investment Canada Act cannot be looked at. Then section 16, on top of those seven exemptions, piles on two broad “let’s catch everything” exceptions. Special operational info is excluded and anything “injurious to national security”.
Once again, the Prime Minister appoints people and then he and his ministry decide. Those ministers are just members of the House like me. They decide what this committee sees. Therefore, the exceptions and outright control of all aspects of this committee by the Prime Minister’s Office renders it ineffective and does not render it what my friend for Malpeque or other parliamentarians wanted to see years ago, which was Parliament being supreme and actually conducting oversight of security and intelligence. It is a real missed opportunity.
I now want to show how the bill, particularly the ham-fisted way the minister has not worked with the opposition parties on this thing that should be above partisanship, actually violates the privilege of the members of the House. Who will support me in my argument? The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, because I will be using some remarks from him.
The House leader tried to discount these exceptions by saying that ministers would have to justify why information could not go to the committee. With 20 different doors of exceptions to choose from, it will be simple to have this just as a token committee that will not be effective. I think all parliamentarians want it to be effective. It is supposed to be like it is in the U.K., a cabinet-like level of secrecy with a special room, and with special advisers. However, if they are not even seeing information relating to an ongoing investigation that may lead to charges, this is essentially window dressing.
Why I think this violates the privilege of members of the House of Commons is because your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, declared this, in Speaker Milliken’s reading of April 27, 2010. In that widely-covered Speaker’s ruling, the question of privilege was considered with respect to the production of documents regarding Afghan detainees.
Members will remember the positions were reversed at the time. The Conservative Party was in government and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness was then a very upset member of the opposition, as many people were.
However, the issues and the privilege attaching to the decision of Speaker Milliken is on the mark for this very issue, because it is the balance of what the House and members of the House should be able to see to perform their job, and how we balanced off sensitive information.
I will quote Speaker Milliken dealing specifically with this sensitive information argument, that the House leader said they would have to justify why information would not be received. The Speaker said:
However, I cannot agree with his conclusion that this obviates the government’s requirement to provide the documents ordered by the House. To accept such a notion would completely undermine the importance of the role of parliamentarians in holding the government to account.
He went on to say:
Before us are issues that question the very foundations upon which our parliamentary system is built. In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and in fact an obligation.
Remember, as members of the House, we are the members holding the government to account. Speaker Milliken was quite clear that the fact there was sensitive information, or intelligence documents, or information relating to an ongoing investigation did not remove the obligation of the government to share those documents with the House.
That is even more pronounced now that the government is setting up a specialized committee of parliamentarians with security oversights and an oath of secrecy. There are even more safeguards for the sensitive information with the committee that wants to be formed by Bill C-22 than that which existed over the Afghan detainee issue in 2010.
Speaker Milliken went on to say:
The right of Parliament to obtain every possible information on public questions is undoubted, and the circumstances must be exceptional, and the reasons very cogent, when it cannot be at once laid before the houses.
Speaker Milliken was talking before the House. There was not even consideration of this highly secret, highly confidential, and protected, designed committee of parliamentarians. However, Speaker Milliken said that members of the House, as it stands, were entitled to that information. Bill C-22 violates that privilege.
The minister could have raised this issue by working with the opposition. We expressed some concerns. He could have raised it with some of the leading experts. He refused to meet with them too. Once again, sunny ways is the slogan but not the conduct.
Finally, I will provide one last quote from Speaker Milliken’s judgment, because it is germane to this discussion on why this violates privilege. He said:
The insinuation that members of Parliament cannot be trusted with the very information that they may well require to act on behalf of Canadians runs contrary to the inherent trust that Canadians have placed in their elected officials and which members require to act in their various parliamentary capacities.
Speaker Milliken was clear in saying there could be a balance struck on sensitive information and the absolute right of the House to review information and to hold the government to account. With the apparatus and security safeguards set up around a special committee of parliamentarians, it is even easier to ensure that balance is struck. Sadly, the minister has missed the mark.
Let us see what the minister himself said in 2010, some weeks after Speaker Milliken’s ruling. The member from Wascana called the actions of the government of the day’s holding back some documents unilateral, arbitrary, and contrary to parliamentary tradition. He then went on to say:
That series of questions of privilege resulted in your ruling on April 27, when, in very eloquent terms, you indicated that Parliament did have the right to information. You indicated, at the same time, that there were sensitivities around issues related to national defence, national security, and international relations and that the House leaders and parliamentary critics should get together and arrive at a process to make information available to members of Parliament and Canadians for the purpose of holding the government to account and to do so in a way that would not imperil national security, national defence, or international relations.
He went on to say that Parliament was entitled to such information if safeguards could be in place. These are the minister’s own words in 2010, saying that members of the House were entitled to that information.
I would ask the government, through its Minister of Public Safety, the member from Wascana, why the seven exceptions? Why the two blanket exceptions in section 16 that would not allow parliamentarians to fulfill their duties? Why the absolute control by the Prime Minister‘s Office?