Madam Speaker, I rise today on Bill C-22, an act to establish the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians
It goes without saying that safety and security of Canadians is one of the top priorities of any government. I am sure every member in this chamber would agree with that statement.
Like many members, I spent the last few months in my riding, travelling from one end to the other. I spoke with countless constituents about the issues that were important to them. For many, their highest priorities were, of course, jobs and the economy. As a Conservative, I am proud to say our record speaks for itself on those two files.
I also heard from people who were concerned about public safety and national security. Across the globe, terrorist attacks are taking place and have taken place. The idea that these types of attacks do not happen in Canada was a common belief a few years ago, but now, when we look at the political landscape, terrorism cannot be overlooked.
As we know, attacks have taken place in our own country, plans have been thwarted many times by our brave women and men in law enforcement. Do not misunderstand me, please, I am not attempting to strike fear into the hearts of Canadians, but I believe it is important that we are not naive about our place in the world.
The most prominent example of this was October 22, 2015, or even most recently in August, when our enforcement agencies stopped an attack. There have been attacks across Europe. We see them in France, Belgium, and Germany, among others, and of course, in the United States. I say all of this because it is important to provide context on what members of the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians will have to review.
Our law enforcement, intelligence, and military agencies have played a crucial role in keeping Canadians safe. This bill has legislated a committee of specific design. I think we agree on the essence of it, but there are parts of it that I have issues with, members on the Conservative and NDP benches seem to have the same issues.
The committee will consist of a chair recommended by the Prime Minister. The committee will have up to eight additional members of Parliament, to a maximum of four from the government and no more than two from the Senate. Members of the committee cannot be a minister of the crown, minister of state, parliamentary secretary, and are appointed by the Governor in Council on recommendation by the Prime Minister, and the leader of the other members' party.
The committee is intended to be non-partisan and highly independent, but yet, the Liberal government appointed the committee chair in January before the legislation was even created. This committee will review agencies that were highly specialized and effective in their designated fields; yet, there is no requirement that the members of the committee have any experience in public safety and security issues.
I also find it concerning that the government refused to consult with opposition parties, despite the public willingness by the Conservatives and the NDP to discuss this important committee. In fact, our official opposition critic wrote to the minister twice about this committee. The committee, as it is currently written, is appointed by and reports to the Prime Minister's Office.
I believe, and I think most members on this side believe, that it should be open and reporting to Parliament. The Prime Minister campaigned on a reduced role of the PMO. We all know actions speak louder than words.
The committee is mandated to review the legislative, regulatory, policy, administrative, and financial framework for national security and intelligence, any activity carried out by the department that relates to national security or intelligence, and any matter relating to national security or intelligence that a minister refers to the committee.
I am going to quote the government's own backgrounder here:
The committee would have robust powers to access any information to conduct its reviews, subject to specific limitations such as to protect third parties, prevent interference in active military operations and maintain the independence of law enforcement functions. While the NSICOP would have a right of access to information it requests, the legislation would allow Ministers to withhold special operational information, but only if the disclosure would harm national security. The responsible minister would need to provide the committee with the rationale for their decision to withhold information.
The NSICOP findings and recommendations will be tabled in Parliament
However, and here is where some of the big concerns I have arise:
The government will review the committee’s reports before tabling to ensure that they do not contain classified information.
I find it deeply troubling that Bill C-22 provides for numerous exceptions, and permits government agencies and ministries to opt-out of providing information for review. This weakens the oversight, and does not permit the committee's mandate to be fulfilled.
I also find it concerning that the Prime Minister would basically have a veto on what is in the reports of the so-called independent committee. Would it not be even more appropriate for non-partisan officials or the committee to decide what can or cannot be released? The government in power should not have a veto on what the committee reviews or reports.
As with any committee, the chair provides crucial support and direction to the committee as a whole. It is, therefore, peculiar for a committee of this importance, for a committee that is claimed to be independent and non-partisan, that the government would have already selected who it is going to appoint to this position. We know it is the member for Ottawa South, and like all of us he is political. I have great respect for the member for Ottawa South.
There are many members in the chamber who I am sure would like to be on that committee, and I have no doubt had there been a free election of the chair, the member probably would have won because he is well respected by members on all sides of the House. However, the government will not even give those members the opportunity to select their chair. What happened to the Liberals' sense of accountability? What happened to their transparency? Real change they said. However, the chair, as I have mentioned, was appointed before the committee was even struck.
There are seven exemptions under section 14 in this legislation, including that the committee cannot look at ongoing investigations that may lead to criminal charges. If I am not mistaken, that basically covers every investigation, and operation of law enforcement and security agencies in this country.
It has been made clear that Canada is not the first country to create this type of oversight committee. Many of our allies have enacted similar oversight systems. This includes the British, the Australians, and New Zealand. I will not get into all of the details because it has been discussed by my colleagues.
I would like to thank my colleague, the member for Durham and the official opposition critic for public safety, for his work on this important file.
The importance of a national security and intelligence committee cannot be overstated, and we have heard that throughout the debate. It is, therefore, critical that legislation be properly drafted. As I said earlier, we all agree on the essence of the committee, but there are just some finer points that need to be tuned up in order to appease people on this side of the House.
The committee of parliamentarians should not report to the Prime Minister or the government. This is something the Liberals raised many times in the previous Parliament. It is something the Liberals talked about during the election. They said the PMO has too much power, and that power needs to be given back to Parliament. What do we see with this piece of legislation? The Liberal government is no different than any other government before it. It just has the sunny ways title to go with it.
As the legislation stands now, the government will have the ability to vet and veto the decisions made by this committee. This, therefore, would take away all the independence claims that the government has made. In effect, under the current legislation, the committee would be controlled by the Prime Minister's Office, and the Prime Minister's Office has appointed the chair already. This is an issue I hope all members on both sides of the House would agree that politics should be left out of. After all, the Liberals campaigned on it.
We as parliamentarians need to continue to ensure that our enforcement agencies have the tools and equipment they need to keep Canadians safe.
I would like to take a moment to thank the men and women who put their lives on the line every day, and those who currently serve or who have previously served at home or abroad, in conflict or peacetime. I appreciate their sacrifices. We shall never forget. It is all in the protection of our rights and freedoms. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces, our intelligence agencies, police, firefighters, first responders, we thank them for their service.