Mr. Speaker, we promised Canadians that we would establish an all-party national oversight committee. Bill C-22 shows Canadians that important commitment has been kept.
As a reminder to the House, a committee of parliamentarians able to review classified security and intelligence documents has been a long time in coming. A special joint House/Senate committee was struck in mid-2004 to provide recommendations on how such a committee would function in a Canadian context. That report was followed by the tabling of Bill C-81 in 2005. That bill died on the Order Paper during the dissolution of the 38th Parliament.
Over the course of the next decade, two private members' bills were tabled that sought to create a committee of parliamentarians to review national security and intelligence matters, the second of which was defeated by the previous government at second reading shortly before it introduced Bill C-51.
As a member of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, I heard witnesses tell us that the formation of an all-party national oversight committee had been anticipated for a long time. Let me read some of their testimony.
Wesley Wark said:
I fully support Bill C-22. I think it represents a necessary and timely experiment in parliamentary democracy and activism. I give full credit to the Liberal government for seeing the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of security and intelligence and for making this a centrepiece of its response to the previous government's anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, and for making it a promise in their election platform.
Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada, said:
First, I wish to commend the government on tabling legislation to create a parliamentary oversight body of our national security agencies. The recommendation to create such an oversight committee dates back many years. The Committee could, with a properly designed legal framework, do much to increase public trust in our national security agencies
The Hon. Ron Atkey said, “I believe this represents a major and welcome change within our Canadian parliamentary system.”
Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada said that finally after the Arar inquiry and Justice O'Connor recommendations, we had Bill C-22, which was very welcomed.
Special advocate Anil Kapoor said of Bill C-22, “This piece of legislation is crucial to public trust in our security intelligence apparatus.”
One of the most important obligations of a government is the responsibility to protect the safety and security of its citizens both at home and abroad. Equally important, in a country such as Canada, is the obligation to uphold the Constitution and to ensure that all laws respect the rights and freedoms we enjoy as people living in a free and democratic society.
These two obligations do not necessarily have to compete with each other. It does not have to be a question of security or rights and freedoms.
Bill C-22, and the future national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians, will help to ensure that we achieve that balance. The committee will have a mandate to both confirm that our security and intelligence agencies have the resources and powers they need, as well as to ensure that those agencies do not exceed their authorities and respect the rights and freedoms of Canadians.
While supportive of the creation of an all-party national oversight committee, witnesses did share with our committee ways that we could make the legislation better. I am glad that we were able to reflect a number of these suggestions in our amendments.
Also, while the Conservatives were adamantly opposed to the creation of such a committee during their time in government, I am glad to see that during their time in opposition, they are much more supportive of the concept.
In fact, during clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-22 at the standing committee, many amendments received multi-party support. For instance, Liberals amended the bill to broaden the committee's mandate in clause 8. This was further subamended by the NDP and agreed to by all sides. The chair's double vote was removed from clause 19, ensuring that the chair would only cast a deciding vote in the event of a tie.
Clause 21 was also amended so that if something was redacted from one of the committee's reports, the revised version must be clearly identified as a revised version and it must indicate the extent of and the revision.
The NDP proposed a whistleblower clause that would require the committee to inform the appropriate minister of any activity it discovered that may not have been conducted in compliance with the law.
All of these are now a part of Bill C-22.
I will now turn to some of the report stage amendments, which are the focus of the debate before us today. The government has moved a motion to reintroduce some of the automatic exemptions that were originally in clause 14.
The original bill contained seven such exemptions, including: one, confidence of the Queen's Privy Council; two, information respecting ongoing defence intelligence activities supporting military operations; three, information, the disclosure of which is described in section 11(1) of the Witness Protection Program Act; four, the identity of individuals who are human intelligence sources for the government; five, information relating directly to an ongoing investigation carried out by a law enforcement agency; six, information that is considered privileged under the Investment Canada Act; and seven, certain information that was collected by FINTRAC and not reported to another department. This usually occurs when FINTRAC determines that the transaction has no flags.
One of today's report stage amendments put forward proposed to put three of those back into the bill.
Information relating to specific individuals protected under the witness protection program and the identities of confidential sources are not required for the committee to perform its mandate. The mandatory exceptions relating to this information are designed to avoid risks to the safety of individuals that may result from inadvertent disclosure.
The mandatory exception relating to active police investigations is also being reinserted. This exemption is designed to ensure that criminal investigations and prosecutions are not tainted by even the perceived influence of political actors.
This is a very important division of powers that has a very long tradition in Canada. The exemption is time limited to the period when the investigation is active, thus allowing the committee to review the information once the investigation is concluded.
The other three exemptions would not be reinserted by the amendment. This represents a responsible compromise that takes into account the spirit and intent of the standing committee's changes. It would allow the committee to be provided with access to as much information relevant to its mandate as possible, with restrictions applied only where necessary to prevent harm to individuals or police investigations. The amendment should be supported.
A second report stage amendment would see the reintroduction of clause 16, which provides a minister the discretionary authority to prevent the release of information that constitutes special operating information, as defined by the security of information act, when it could be injurious to national security. When a minister declines to provide such information, he must notify the committee as well as the relevant review body and provide reasons for not disclosing the information. The committee of parliamentarians annual report would also inform Parliament of all the times this discretionary power was used.
This is very comparable to how countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, operate in terms of providing information to their respective committees of parliamentarians. For instance, Australia's parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security cannot compel the government to provide operationally sensitive information, including intelligence sources and operational methods of information about particular operations. The government can also withhold anything it deems injurious to national security or foreign relations.
In New Zealand, the prime minister actually sits on the security and intelligence committee, which has existed since 1996. The New Zealand act allows the heads of agencies to determine sensitive information that cannot be disclosed to the committee.
In the United Kingdom, the intelligence and security committee may consider any particular operational matter, but only so far as it and the prime minister are satisfied that the matter is not part of an ongoing intelligence or security operation and is of significant national interest.
In many respects, the future Canadian version of the committee would have far greater access to information than the equivalent committees of our Five Eyes allies from Commonwealth countries.
It is important to note that after five years of working experience, the House of Commons would have the opportunity to review the legislation and amend it at that time if we believed it were then necessary.
It will be a tremendous step forward for Canada, one that will help to ensure that while our security and intelligence agencies are working to protect the safety and security of Canadians, they are fully respecting the rights and freedoms of the Canadians they serve.