moved that Bill C-22, An Act to establish the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, be read the second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to begin second reading of Bill C-22, which would establish the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians.
This bill is a tangible expression of our commitment towards meaningful engagement with parliamentarians and for enhanced accountability.
It would provide for a structured and responsible framework to share highly classified information with parliamentarians so that they can scrutinize national security activities, hold the government to account, and ensure that our national security agencies consistently act responsibly.
Canada is a free and just society. It is a beacon in the world when it comes to democratic principles. When this government took office, we made a strong commitment to uphold and advance these principles and to enhance our democratic institutions.
National security is one of the most important responsibilities of any government. Canadians expect their government to keep them safe. At the same time, Canadians also expect their government to pursue this objective in a way that respects our fundamental rights and freedoms. This government has always advocated that any renewed powers to government agencies to combat threats to the security of Canada, must be accompanied by strengthened accountability. The protection of both security and our rights and freedoms must be maintained or neither can truly be achieved. In fact, this became a central plank in the platform we set out for the people of Canada in the election held last October.
Within Canada's Westminster system, Parliament is where the opposition fulfills its obligation to hold the government to account. However, the open forum of the House of Commons and its standing committees present a challenge with respect to the review of national security activities. To be effective, such reviews require knowledge and understanding of classified information that, if publicly released, could harm the national interest. Our government found it unacceptable that among the Five Eyes allies, Canada is the only nation whose elected officials do not have a forum to review and examine the classified activities of our national security agencies.
We know the previous government was opposed to giving parliamentarians a role in overseeing the actions and conduct of our national security agencies. However, we believe otherwise. Our Prime Minister long ago recognized the need for increased scrutiny. It was a commitment he made during the last Parliament. It was a commitment he made during the election campaign. It was a commitment for which he asked the Minister of Public Safety and me to work together so that Canadians could see real results. It is a promise made, a promise kept.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank the current Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board for the hard work she did on this file in her previous role as the Liberal critic on national defence.
I also want to highlight the fact that my colleague, the hon. member for Malpeque, introduced a private member's bill to create a committee of parliamentarians in 2013. This goes to show our long-standing commitment to protect both public safety and the rights of Canadians to privacy. The bill aims to establish an effective forum wherein parliamentarians can access classified information in a secure and responsible manner. Better information will lead to more informed parliamentary debate about national security activities and enhance accountability.
We have studied the national security parliamentary committee models of our Westminster allies, namely Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
In fact, earlier this year, my colleague, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, travelled to the U.K. to see first-hand how their committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, is established.
While the models used by our allies where informative, ultimately, this is a made-in-Canada approach.
The bill would create a committee of parliamentarians comprising members from the House and the other place with a mandate to scrutinize our national security and intelligence activities in any department and agency, including ongoing operations, unless the responsible minister determines that the review would be injurious to national security. It would also be able to conduct strategic and systematic reviews of the framework that supports national security and intelligence activities, including legislation, regulatory policies, expenditures, and administrative procedures.
I would like to take a moment to discuss this broad mandate. Canada currently has a number of review bodies that examine the activities of specific government organizations engaged in national security operations and report to Parliament, such as the Security and Intelligence Review Committee, the commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment, and the RCMP's Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. These bodies play an important role in the accountability framework of our three main national security agencies: CSIS, CSE and the RCMP. I would be remiss not to highlight the particularly good work they do in investigating public complaints and ensuring that these these agencies operate lawfully.
However, we recognize that something more is needed. That is why, unlike these review bodies, the mandate of the committee would not be limited to reviewing specific organizations but would instead encompass all national security activities conducted within the Government of Canada.
I would note that this government-wide mandate is unique to Canada, and no other international model we examined provides for such a broad scope. This government-wide perspective will enable the committee to perform strategic and systemic reviews of our national security apparatus and examine the legal, regulatory, policy, and expenditure framework under which it operates. This will help ensure that our national security system as a whole is functioning effectively and efficiently, all the while respecting Canadians' rights and freedoms.
Another key element of our made-in-Canada approach is the ability of the committee to initiative reviews of any national security operations, including ongoing operations. No other Westminster jurisdiction we examined provides this much scope for examination. This exceptional power requires a safeguard to ensure the committee's operational reviews would not disrupt or harm any active operation. The legislation would allow the responsible minister to stop a review if it would be injurious to national security.
To provide a secure venue for the consideration of proposed draft legislation, policy initiatives, or issues of high public interest that require the examination of classified information, the legislation would further allow the government to refer specific matters to the NSICOP for study.
The committee would have the legal right to access all government information it needs to conduct its reviews, including information subject to solicitor-client privilege, to ensure that it can effectively carry out this broad review mandate.
We have limited the exceptions to information access only to areas of absolute need, such as cabinet confidences, identities of informants, sources and persons protected under the witness protection program, and personal and commercially sensitive information relating to personal banking transactions and foreign investments. We also take seriously the need to guarantee the independence of police investigations and avoid harm to military operations.
Though the bill would provide an authority for ministers to withhold special operational information, I want to be clear. Ministers cannot withhold any information, but only special operational information, a specific legally defined category of the most covert national security information, and only if ministers believe it would be injurious to national security. In every instance, ministers must provide the committee with an explanation as to why special operational information must be withheld. In this way, ministers are held to account if they misuse or abuse this authority.
The committee's mandate and powers will be legislated and cannot be altered by the government. The committee will act with full independence from the government in deciding which matters to review, and in reporting its findings and recommendations. In any case where a minister has decided to stop a review or withhold information, and the committee is dissatisfied with the minister's decision, it would be able to report on these matters to Parliament. Ministers would be accountable to Parliament and Canadians for their actions.
I recognize that my colleagues opposite are not only interested in what this committee will do, but also how the membership of this committee will be determined.
The committee of parliamentarians would be a multi-party committee. Members would be appointed by the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and would consist of nine members: two from the other place and seven from the House of Commons. Among those seven members from the House of Commons, a maximum of four members would be from the governing party. This allows sufficient flexibility to adapt to future changes in the composition of Parliament.
Of course, parliamentarians who would sit on this committee will have a great responsibility to ensure that they maintain the confidentiality of the information that they are provided. Each member of the committee will be a “person permanently bound to secrecy” under the Security of Information Act and may be prosecuted for disclosing special operating information. Members would be required to obtain a security clearance and swear an oath of secrecy before assuming his or her position.
The security requirements proposed in the bill are consistent with those imposed on public officials who have access to highly classified information. Nothing in the bill would limit members' ability to draw perceived deficiencies in government performance to the attention of Parliament and Canadians, so long as they do not disclose classified information.
The committee's annual reports would be tabled in Parliament, including its findings and recommendations. The committee would also have the power to issue special reports at any time if it considers it necessary to do so. The committee's reports would be provided to the Prime Minister prior to tabling for the sole purpose of ensuring that they do not contain classified information. It is important to underline that the Prime Minister would not have the ability to alter the committee's findings and recommendations.
The committee would be supported by a small secretariat that will be established as a separate departmental entity. The secretariat would help ensure that the committee members receive the support they need to perform their mandates. This would include providing research, briefings, and legal and technical advice. It would include preparing work plans, meeting agendas, and draft reports. The secretariat would also liaise with national security agencies and review bodies to facilitate access to information and the appearance of officials.
In short, we intend to provide the committee with the necessary resources and support it needs.
Bill C-22 would fulfill the government's commitment to establish a committee of parliamentarians. The committee would provide parliamentarians with direct access to classified information so that they could directly assess government activities, thus strengthening the democratic accountability of those activities. Through its reports and recommendations, it would help to ensure that national security and intelligence activities are carried out effectively and in a manner that respects our democratic values. The committee would act with full independence from the government in deciding which matters to review and in reporting its findings and recommendations.
This would be a significant addition to the review mechanisms. Compared to our allies in the other Westminster democracies, it goes further to review policies and operations across the spectrum of departments and agencies involved in the national security system. In these ways, Canada would set a new benchmark for parliamentary review.
The bill is exactly what we committed to achieving and what Canadians have asked us to do. We have waited a long time for this kind of committee. It is an idea whose time has come. I hope my colleagues across the way will recognize the importance of the legislation and will support our proposal to include members of their caucus in the review of our national security agencies.
During the campaign, Canadians rejected the politics of fear promoted by the opposition. They decided that openness and transparency were better than preying on people's anxieties. That is the mandate on which we were elected and that is exactly what the bill would help us achieve.
In closing, I want to take a few seconds to acknowledge and thank two more of my colleagues. First, the hon. Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, who previously as government House leader, did tremendous work to bring the bill to the House; and second, the hon. Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness for his close collaboration and hard work on the bill before us. I know my colleague is looking forward to his own remarks on the bill, as am I.