Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to report stage of Bill C-22 today. The NDP was supportive of this bill at second reading because we are supportive of the idea that we need stronger oversight when it comes to our national security and intelligence agencies. We were optimistic that if the bill were to proceed to committee, we could work out details at committee that would make that oversight body of parliamentarians an effective means of oversight.
Our optimism was rewarded at committee. There was some good work done there. There was collaboration across party lines, which is really important to underline because part of the point of this committee of parliamentarians is to have that kind of co-operation across party lines. When it comes to issues of national security it is important not to make them partisan issues. Therefore, up to this point, the committee model for the legislation was working well as a model for the committee of parliamentarians. The kind of inter-party co-operation we would hope to see on that committee, once established, was actually taking place at the committee level.
It was not just committee members pulling ideas out of a hat and all agreeing on it; there were experts who testified at the committee and made suggestions as to how to make it better in the sense of ensuring that it would be effective. We can establish a committee of parliamentarians who can meet in secret, but if the government is controlling all of the information the committee gets, and if it does not have the power to subpoena witnesses and get that information that it deems is necessary for adequate oversight, and if government is able to control the release of its findings, rather than leaving it to its good judgment, then it is a horse and pony show. It is not really about providing meaningful oversight for our national security agencies, it is more about government placating Canadians, and having something it can point to that says, “We did something that really makes no difference operationally speaking for those security and intelligence agencies.” The committee was doing that. It was not just New Democrats and the Conservatives calling for those changes at committee; the Liberals on the committee were calling for those changes also. In fact, they made those changes.
The committee heard from experts. The experts gave good advice on how to make this a meaningful oversight committee. Amendments were passed in order to effect those changes. Then, when it came back to the House, the government presented a number of amendments, which we are debating now, to vitiate the substance of a lot of those amendments. That was disappointing because it means that if these amendments pass, structurally the committee would not be the kind of effective oversight body that Canadians and the committee members were looking forward to, including the Liberals on the committee. It is a disappointment in that sense, but it is also a disappointment, and I think foreshadows a legitimate concern for us and for Canadians, that the government is not taking a sincere and authentic approach to having this committee provide independent oversight. Here we had inter-party co-operation and it did not produce what the government wanted. We have seen this before. We saw it at the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, where again we had a lot of fanfare from the government about how it was going to do something totally different. This was precedent-setting. It was agreeing to the NDP's idea for a committee. It was even going to see it have a majority on that committee. Then, when the committee came up with something it did not like or did not already agree with, it said, “Forget it. We're not really serious about that.”
The substance of the government's amendments to the all-party work that was done at committee in order to make this a better bill foreshadows that same attitude on the part of the government. If it has that attitude toward the committee that did the work to create an effective oversight body, then I think it is reasonable for Canadians to expect that this is the attitude it will have toward the work of the committee itself. I think it is fair for Canadians to say, “Why bother with an independent oversight committee”, when the government is essentially giving itself a clear path to control the information that the committee would see, in other words, to make sure that, if there are things that would impugn the government, that independent oversight committee would not see that information, because the committee itself would not have the power to compel testimony and to get information for itself.
If the government is going to control it at that level, and it already have a history of ignoring the advice of committees that it initially said were going to be a great thing and were going to come up with something and were going to be an example of inter-party collaboration, then I do not think Canadians have cause to be optimistic that this committee would produce the results that everyone was so hopeful for. That is too bad. It is shameful in fact, and frustrating, particularly from a government that said it was going to respect the role of committees.
In the context of Wednesday night's vote on the genetic discrimination bill, the government had better start getting wise. It talks a good game about respecting the role of committees and the independence of parliamentarians, but it has actually been very heavy-handed in the way it treats committees and in the way it treats its backbenchers, at least in name. Instead of listening to its backbenchers up front to develop better policy, and instead of listening to its Liberals on committee who vote for good changes, it says it is not going to do it that way.
If it had listened to it backbench on the genetic discrimination bill it would have avoided an embarrassment. Essentially, Liberal backbenchers said they did not trust the Prime Minister's judgment when it comes to constitutional issues, because the Prime Minister came out and said he did not think the changes to the law were constitutional. The Liberal backbench disagreed. That is fine. That is their right.
All I am saying is it would be a better government and more consistent with what the Prime Minister has said if it had just listened to its members up front and listened to committees up front. If it had listened to the committee, and instead of taking out the committee amendments had gone ahead with them, we would have the gold standard in independent parliamentary review of security and intelligence agencies. It is because of the Liberal backbench, with no thanks to the government, that we are going to have a decent law on genetic discrimination in Canada. That is a good thing. Why the government feels it cannot do that as a matter of course, I do not understand. Perhaps some Liberals will want to shed light on that later.
There is a problem with the substance of these amendments in terms of what they do to the committee and its capacity for independent oversight. There are clearly problems with the process in terms of the government's attitude toward the work of its own members on committee, as well as the opposition. There is no better reason to oppose something when it is wrong on the substance of the matter and it is wrong with respect to the process. If it did not get the process right and it did not get the substance right, it is beyond me why members of the House would see fit to support these amendments.
The committee, if it were established, would simply be the first step, because there are other questions that play out in a number of different ways about how we provide effective ongoing oversight of our security agencies. Presumably, we want a committee that is going to have the information it needs in order to provide advice to government on whether we should have a super agency, for instance, that would supervise all of our security and intelligence agencies, or the current model, where we have a number of review bodies that specialize in the specific tasks and roles of particular security agencies, whether CSIS, CSE, or the RCMP. However, we need to give the committee a better mandate to collaborate more effectively, to make sure there are not any pockets where security and intelligence work is being done where there is no oversight.
We need a committee of parliamentarians who can provide good advice on that. However, we are not going to get it if that committee does not have the independence it needs. Also, if it does not have independence with respect to the information it receives, it does not have real independence as an oversight committee. That is why this change to the committee's ability to subpoena witnesses, and with respect to the minister's right to make judgments about what information the committee would receive, is so important.
It is for all those reasons, reasons of substance and process, that I am not prepared to support these amendments. It is for those reasons that if the amendments pass I will not be prepared to support the bill going forward.