Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise to address this very important bill.
I want to thank my colleagues for their insightful contributions to the debate already. We agree on a great deal, and it gives me confidence that we will be able to work together to ultimately improve this bill.
Let me be clear: New Democrats support parliamentary oversight to finally bring Canada up to the standard of accountability that our closest allies have enjoyed for decades.
This bill would fulfill recommendations made some 35 years ago and ignored by successive Liberal and Conservative governments ever since. Neglecting that warning and ignoring our allies' examples has not enhanced Canadians' security or protected their rights.
Let us be clear: We face real threats to both our security and our rights. Canadians are concerned about the threat of foreign and domestic terrorism, they are concerned about cybersecurity, and they are concerned about armed violence and unrest around the globe, but they are also deeply concerned about their freedoms and their privacy. They are concerned about government secrecy and surveillance, and above all, they are wondering why, after nearly a year in power, their new government has maintained Bill C-51 as the law of the land without changing a single comma.
I support the principle of this bill and will be voting in favour of referring it to the committee so that it can get on with the study to get it right. However, I have deep concerns about many aspects of it.
I am concerned that this bill would fail to account for the lessons of the last decade and the experiences of our allies. Unless it is fixed, it will create a committee that is neither strong enough to be effective nor independent enough to be trusted.
I have solutions to propose for each of these flaws, and I welcome the input of all members on them, because this is no place for partisanship or politics.
Before we dive into the details of the bill, let us be clear on three important points of context. First, this bill is not a new idea. Rather, it answers a warning made 35 years ago in the wake of a string of high-profile scandals surrounding the RCMP.
One major recommendation coming out of the 1981 McDonald Commission of inquiry was the creation of CSIS as a separate intelligence gathering service. Another major recommendation was the creation of an overarching parliamentary oversight committee. That one has gathered dust for three decades, so the idea behind Bill C-22 is not new. In fact, our allies, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia, each created similar oversight committees decades ago.
The second point of context is that we should all be clear that the bill before us today is far from a fresh proposal. It is nearly identical to an earlier Liberal bill, introduced in November 2005, in the final days of the Paul Martin government, by the public safety committee as Bill C-81. While the powers of security agencies have grown considerably since that time, the few minor differences between the 2005 oversight bill and this one would reduce the committee's powers and independence. For instance, Bill C-22 introduces security vetting for members and a new power for ministers to halt investigations.
An old bill is not necessarily a bad bill, but the government must surely accept that a proposal drawn up before the Snowden revelations, before the October 14 attack on this Parliament, and before the shocking overreach of the Harper government's Bill C-51 must be open to updates from members.
The third and last point of context is that we should all have a clear picture of how this proposal compares to the practices of our allies so we can learn from them, and, as the government House leader said, create a made-in-Canada solution that works for us.
The body proposed by Bill C-22 is essentially a weaker version of its closest analogue, namely Britain's intelligence and security committee.
In 2013, after public criticism of its many shortcomings, the British government significantly overhauled its committee, strengthening its powers and its independence. The committee emerged with an independently elected chair, operational oversight powers, and a shift in appointment power from the prime minister to Parliament. We heard a great deal about that in the speech from the hon. member for Durham.
These reforms are simply not reflected in the bill before us today, and I do not understand why. The British committee was in fact in Ottawa last week, and its chair warned us to work hard to earn public trust. We do not want to repeat the errors of our allies; we need to learn from them.
Last week, when the previous chair resigned, the head of a prominent British legal advocacy group responded in this way:
From UK complicity in CIA torture to mass-surveillance, the [committee] has missed every [single] major security-related scandal of the past 15 years. It has fallen to the press, the courts and NGOs to expose these events, with the [committee's] members only discovering them by reading the newspapers.
We do not want the same to be said of our committee a decade from now; rather, we should be aiming to be the leading edge of international practice. That was the advice in 2004 of the interim committee of parliamentarians on national security when that committee recommended granting complete access to information far beyond what is considered in the bill before us today. Here is what that committee said:
Though this arguably goes further than the legislation enacted by some of our allies, it is in line with developing practice....
We strongly believe that a structure which must rely on gradual evolution and expansion of access, power, and remit would be inappropriate for Canada.
Therefore, there are examples we can learn from around the globe. Could we give elected representatives a bigger role in operational oversight? Absolutely; in the United States, federal law requires intelligence agencies to keep congressional committees “fully and presently informed” of all covert actions and operations. In Germany, the group that authorizes each interception of private communications is controlled by a committee of parliamentarians.
Could we give the committee stronger investigative powers? Absolutely; Germany's oversight committee can conduct random site investigations, and subpoena witnesses and documents. Belgium's committee can even launch criminal investigations. The committee in our case would not even have subpoena powers.
I raise these comparisons not to disparage the bill before us, but to show that the door must be open to amendments. If the government shuts the door on amendments from other parties, we will be shackling ourselves to a blueprint that ignores the last decade of history and falls short of the current best practices of our allies. To me this is simply unacceptable when our safety and rights are at stake.
With that in mind, let me point to five weaknesses in the current draft and propose some solutions. I have amendments ready for each and would welcome the chance to work with members of all parties to craft a solution by consensus.
First, the government is proposing that the chair be selected by the Prime Minister rather than elected by the committee. As I say, that is what Britain originally did. It changed its way; why can we not? We have to earn the trust of Canadians. It seems like a pretty poor place to start when the government gets to control who runs the watchdog committee in the first place.
The bill should be amended to allow the election of a member from outside the governing party to chair this committee. That was exactly what Mr. Justice McDonald recommended 35 years ago to another Liberal government. It is not unprecedented, as I said; examples are Germany, Australia, and elsewhere. I fear we are going to lose the confidence of the public if we do not get this right.
Second, the committee's access to information, as has been said, is really limited. Full information is a prerequisite to effective oversight and to earning the public trust, which the British chair told us we must earn.
If the government can keep its secrets from the oversight committee, how can Canadians trust its findings? To call the committee's access rights broad, as the minister does, ignores many exemptions that make Swiss cheese of its powers. No fewer than seven different categories of information would be absolutely denied to the committee. Two more, including a catch-all category, could be denied at the discretion of any cabinet minister. Some of these are innocuous, but some of them are not.
The committee would be absolutely denied access to special operational information as defined in the Security of Information Act. This would mean that the intelligence oversight committee could be denied all information on intelligence sources, methods and targets, encryption systems, and information received from foreign partners. If this information is not relevant, indeed central, to the committee's mandate, I do not know what is. Is this not, in fact, the very type of information that the committee was designed to safely handle? Is that not why its members are to have security clearance and be sworn to eternal secrecy?
The worst is what security expert Professor Craig Forcese has called the Mack truck exception: the power of any cabinet minister to withhold information from the committee on the grounds that providing it—are members ready?—would be injurious to national security. This phrase is not defined anywhere, nor is it explained how sharing information with a group of top-secret-cleared individuals inside a secure facility could compromise Canada's security. These holes have simply got to be closed.
The committee must have complete access to information, as was recommended in 2004 by another parliamentary committee. As a solution, we should grant the committee that kind of access with the reasonable exception, I concede, of cabinet confidences, and the power to compel documents and testimony, a glaring omission in the bill. I am preparing amendments to this effect, and again, I would welcome input from members on all sides of the aisle.
Third, clause 8(b) of the bill would allow any cabinet minister to bury an investigation into his or her own department by claiming that the committee's confidential inquiry would be damaging to Canada's national security. The potential for abuse to cover up sloppy management or a scandal within a department is simply overwhelming. This line simply has to be removed if any credibility is to be retained.
Fourth, clause 21 of the bill currently would give the Prime Minister's Office complete power to censor the committee's reports before they are released. Let us pause on that. So far we have learned that the government would appoint the chair, control what information the committee sees, and stop it investigating certain areas. The government proposes to control what it can report to Canadians. It is easy to see how, as the chair of the British committee warned us, the public trust could be so easily lost.
The government has a responsibility to ensure that sensitive information is handled appropriately. We all agree. However, this must be balanced against the need to earn and maintain public trust, and that requires meaningful commitment to transparency and accountability, not verbiage.
I propose a compromise. I would propose an amendment that would require any revised report to indicate the extent of and reasons for any censorship by the Prime Minister's Office. Ideally, this would include a description of the type of information removed so Canadians can distinguish the redaction of confidential sources from the redaction of committee findings, for example.
I would ask the members on all sides to consider the utility of what I call an override clause, such as the power of the German oversight committee to publish a general assessment of an ongoing intelligence operation if supported by a supermajority of the committee. That is an idea we can look at.
Last, I would propose an amendment to give the committee a legal duty to report all suspected non-compliance or illegal activity to the Prime Minister and the Attorney General of Canada. There is a precedent for this. Section 273.63 of the National Defence Act imposes the same whistle-blowing obligation on the commissioner responsible for CSEC, the Communications Security Establishment of Canada.
That kind of duty would not only bolster Canadians' confidence; it would resolve any confusion within the committee over the proper course of action when non-compliance is suspected. To reject that kind of duty, in my view, would send a very worrying signal to Canadians.
As I said, I am prepared to introduce amendments proposing solutions to each of these five weaknesses, as I perceive them, in the current version of the bill. I would, of course, welcome the input of any member from any party. This is not a place for partisanship or ego. All parties have to work together on this committee, and we may as well begin now.
Before I close, I would also like to take the chance to flag one last issue for the government, which I believe requires further consideration but for procedural reasons cannot be addressed through amendments to this bill.
I would urge the government, as part of its broader security review, to amend the CSIS Act and the National Defence Act to require the Communications Security Establishment of Canada, CSEC, to inform the committee every time a ministerial authorization is granted to intercept private communications, and to require CSIS to inform the committee when it conducts threat reduction activities, as that term is defined, or when CSIS seeks a warrant to do so under section 21.1 of the CSIS Act.
Canadians are rightly concerned about the use and abuse of these powers. There is no justification for withholding their use from the oversight committee.
In closing, let me say again that New Democrats welcome this bill and commit to working together with any member of any party to improve it. I have identified five flaws, in my judgment, and proposed five solutions, but I know there are many more of both, and I welcome input from all.
As I said at the outset, this bill is crucial to protecting all Canadians' safety and upholding their rights. Oversight makes security services more effective, and it bolsters public trust in them. This committee will be equally as useful in closing gaps as in reining in excesses, but we cannot take its utility for granted. The bill before us is imperfect. Without amendments, it will fail to give the committee either the strength to be effective or the independence to be trusted.
We cannot settle for good enough when it comes to Canadians' security and rights. I call on every member and all parties to work together to improve this critically important bill. Above all, I urge the government to demonstrate openness to that input and to these amendments. The security and rights of Canadians are not places for partisanship.
If the government demonstrates that openness, all parties may be able to work together to craft a committee that is independent, secure, and effective at strengthening our security, protecting our rights, and upholding Canadian values. However, if the government refuses to work in good faith with other parties to make changes to this bill, I fear the support of parliamentarians and the trust of Canadians will be lost.
Three decades ago, the McDonald commission warned us as follows:
....security must not be regarded as more important than democracy, for the fundamental purpose of security is the preservation of our democratic system.
Every parliamentarian will see that balance differently, but all of us must work together to get it right.