Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour to rise today to take part in this very important debate on Bill C-22.
I feel honoured to give voice to the serious concerns that many of my constituents have in the great riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford. I also want to note that this debate is taking place under the yoke of time allocation. In other words, the ability of parliamentarians to provide oversight on a bill dealing with oversight has now been curtailed by the government.
Bill C-22 cannot be debated without being properly placed in the context of Bill C-51 from the 41st Parliament. Bill C-51 was one of the most draconian pieces of security legislation to emanate from the previous Conservative government. Indeed, more than 100 of Canada's brightest legal experts from institutions across the country sent an open letter to all members of Parliament at the time, expressing their deep concern about Bill C-51. They called that bill a dangerous piece of legislation, in terms of the potential impacts on the rule of law, on constitutionally and internationally protected rights, and on the health of Canada's democracy.
We had former prime ministers, former justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, and all sorts of experts who gave close scrutiny to Bill C-51 and were convinced it was unconstitutional. Many of my constituents were very vocally opposed to Bill C-51, and indeed many of them took part in the protests that erupted across Canada during that time.
It was a sad day in Parliament when the Liberals joined with the Conservatives to pass that bill. I think, and many of my colleagues will agree with me, that on Bill C-51, the Liberals were indecisive, unreliable, and plain wrong to support it at the time. I do not think they realized how much of a serious misjudgement they had made with the Canadian public on the mood of Canadians.
Then, when we edged closer to the 2015 election, we suddenly saw a commitment in the Liberal campaign platform to introduce new legislation that would balance collective security with our rights and freedoms. Part of that promise was to establish an all-party national oversight committee, which we see today in Bill C-22.
In our system today, we have a history of having opposition chairs in oversight committees. Committees on ethics, public accounts, status of women, and government operations all have elected opposition chairs to ensure proper accountability and oversight. It is most unfortunate that the government, through clause 6 of the bill, has provided for the Governor in Council to designate the chair of the committee. In fact, the government has not even bothered to wait for the passage of this bill, because, as we all know, it has been widely reported that the member for Ottawa South is to be the chair. The government has also rejected attempts at the committee stage to allow for the committee to elect its chair, something which I think is unfortunate.
If I could deliver one message today, it is that Canadians expect to have a watchdog and oversight committee that has real teeth. I think this committee must have full access to classified information, have adequate resources, and, most importantly, it must have independence subject only to justifiable limits and the power to share its findings with Canadians in an informative and transparent manner.
Without adequate access to information, the committee will not be able to do its job effectively. I think this work is far too important to do half-heartedly or ineffectively. I will not support creating a committee that cannot properly provide oversight in accordance with what Canadians expect.
One of the government's proposals is to allow cabinet ministers to withhold information from the oversight committee. This is evident in Motion No. 5, which the government has presented, which seeks to reinstate clause 16. It is worded in a way that allows a minister to withhold information if he or she feels that it is special operational information or that the provision of the information would be injurious to national security.
If injurious to national security is not a blanket statement to cover any kind of reason, I do not know what is. I have heard Liberal MPs say that there is a proper accountability in oversight because the minister simply has to inform the committee of his or her decision and the reasons for it, as if that somehow makes everything okay.
I cannot support such a reinstatement of that clause. The public safety committee and the experts who were heard made it very clear that the the executive branch having this kind of power over an oversight committee simply will not fly. It would make the committee completely ineffective anytime that a minister wanted to withhold information. With regard to the way that the government wants to write the bill, the minister could claim that a confidential inquiry somehow jeopardizes the country's national security. I think that giving the government the ability to shut down any kind of investigation into its actions is too dangerous for a functioning and accountable democracy.
The other thing is that we need to build Canadians' trust in our security and intelligence community, and the way to do that is to create meaningful parliamentary oversight. We need to have a fully briefed parliamentary oversight committee that can issue authoritative reports to Canadians. Without full access and full trust from the agencies, the oversight committee cannot help those agencies earn the trust of Canadians. It is very disappointing and frustrating that the Liberals are not living up to the commitments they made trying to fix Bill C-51. To rebuild this trust, the committee must be strong, independent, and effective. The Liberals must fulfill their promise to “repeal the problematic elements of Bill C-51”.
I find it very troubling that the government cannot seem to place its trust in a select group of parliamentarians who will be security cleared, sworn to secrecy, and who will have waived all immunity based on parliamentary privilege. To underline how ridiculous this premise is, I would like to point out that there are members of the Conservative Party in opposition who were once members of cabinet in the previous Parliament. At that time, they had access to all kinds of sensitive information and are still bound by secrecy. Why the government will not now trust this committee to have full access and provide proper oversight remains an elusive mystery.
All parties worked hard during the committee process to improve Bill C-22. The final product, as was reported back to this House, was praised by four of Canada's leading authorities on intelligence and oversight issues. They wrote a joint op-ed in The Globe and Mail, calling on the government to accept the improvements and pass the bill. The last-minute changes that the government is now trying to make are unsupported by evidence heard at the committee, and they would undermine the effectiveness of the committee and the trust of Canadians. The Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Kent Roach and Craig Forcese, the first chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, and a representative of the Canadian Bar Association, all testified that the oversight committee should not be restricted in its access to necessary information. I do not understand why the government is attempting to reject that expert evidence.
There are three core agencies responsible for security and intelligence work in Canada: CSIS, CSE, and the RCMP. They have a combined budget of approaching $4 billion, and they employ close to 34,000 people. Clearly such a vast network needs to have the accountability and oversight of Parliament in order to regain Canadians' trust. The role of Parliament is to scrutinize the government, represent the Canadian people, and bring forth good laws to govern our people.
I call on the Liberal MPs sitting in the back rows to go back to that special day on March 8 during the vote on Bill S-201, when they had the courage to stand up and assert their power as legislators in the face of the opposition from cabinet. As they did then, those Liberal MPs should reject the government's 11th-hour amendments to this bill, and instead listen to the evidence that was so clearly presented to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. I ask all MPs in this House to remember that the government is accountable to Parliament, not the other way around.