Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise to address Bill C-22 at third reading stage. Unfortunately, this is the final day of debate on an issue of national security that has divided the government from every opposition party.
Government members have remarked on the extraordinary nature of the proposed committee. They note that it would end our laggard status among the so-called Five Eyes, that it would allow some parliamentarians extraordinary access to classified information, and that it would enjoy a whole-of-government mandate. These claims are all true, but they are also the bare minimum requirements. They are simply the essential features of an oversight committee.
I hope government members are unsettled when they notice that every opposition party, and respected experts from across the political spectrum, are all pointing to the same flaws in the government's bill. I have spoken about these flaws in detail in the public safety committee and in this chamber. My colleagues and I have consulted with non-partisan experts to craft more than one dozen amendments to resolve them.
Let me summarize these flaws as succinctly as I can for Canadians.
This committee's job is to oversee the functioning and classified operations of every government agency linked to intelligence and national security. This 11 member committee will face a multi-billion dollar array of some 20 government departments and agencies, some of which have never yet been subject to any oversight. When these 11 members sit down together for the first time, all they will have to rely on is a dedicated staff, a limited budget, and the powers laid out in black and white in the bill. That is where they will begin to hit roadblocks.
Despite their top secret security clearances, this bill would bar those parliamentarians from accessing certain operational information. They would find themselves unable to summon witnesses or order documents. Instead they could only request information from cabinet ministers, who are permitted to withhold it.
While it clips the committee's wings at every turn, the bill bestows sweeping powers on cabinet and on the Prime Minister. Ministers can shut down investigations. The Prime Minister can appoint every member of oversight committees and censor its reports.
Canadians might well ask this. With such little power for Parliament and so much power for the cabinet, can this oversight body actually do its job? It is precisely in that context that the government has now shut down debate, after barely one-tenth of Canadians' elected representatives have been permitted to participate. That is the context for today.
I want to focus on what I see as the essential question for each member now, and that is this. Are the powers granted by this bill sufficient to create the degree of rigorous operational oversight that Canadians expect in the era of Bill C-51, and the extraordinary powers now granted to our security services? That is the important question because the test for this committee is not whether it can monitor uncontroversial activities. The true test is whether it can stand up to a government that is violating the law in certain circumstances, failing to protect Canadians, or encroaching on their hard-earned rights and liberties.
Let me be clear. I cannot support this bill in that context, in its current form. I believe it would fail that test and it would fail Canadians. At the very moment when they need it to be strong, independent, and effective, it would fail the test because it chooses to sacrifice transparency for secrecy, and favour executive authority over accountability.
In the wake of an intelligence failure that cost thousands of innocent lives, the American 9/11 commission report warned as follows: “Secrecy stifles oversight...current organizational incentives encourage overclassification. This balance should change...”. It also warned, “So long as oversight is undermined...we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need.”
That is what this is all about: giving Canadians not just empty assurances but hard proof that their security is protected and their rights upheld. Does this bill meet that standard when it comes to operational oversight?
In arguing against strengthening the committee, the public safety minister compared it to counterpart committees in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. He correctly noted that each of those allies allows the government to withhold sensitive information from the oversight committee, but he left out an important fact, and that is that none of them is an operational oversight committee. Canada's would be, and it would be only second among the Five Eyes.
How would its powers compare to those American congressional committees? What do the Americans require for the same kind of job we are asking our committee to do? In the United States, special committees of the House and Senate are kept informed in real time of all intelligence operations. They can cut funding and even overrule the White House to order the release of previously classified information, if it serves the national interest. This goes far beyond even what the opposition parties have proposed for Canada.
If we passed this bill without fixing it, we would be giving the committee a mandate but not the tools required to get the job done. Yet, the government resists all calls by the opposition and non-partisan experts to grant these tools to the oversight committee. This gets to the central question of trust.
To justify cabinet's sweeping powers to obstruct oversight, the government has hidden behind a straw man, the one limit to which nobody has ever objected, and that is the safeguard to protect individuals in the witness protection program. We heard all about that earlier today. One government member referred to the need to segregate especially sensitive information. With respect, this misses the point. Everything this committee would work on is, by definition, especially sensitive. Nothing should leak, and I am confident that nothing will leak, just as it has not in Britain in the 22 years that it has had a similar committee under way.
If the identities of protected witnesses were this committee's only blind spot, I would welcome it, but alongside the others, it has begun to serve as a litmus test for the government's trust in this committee. I say that because there is no meaningful distinction between that information and anything else within the committee's unique mandate. All of it is potentially damaging to national security and individuals' safety. It makes us wonder, if the government cannot trust the committee with the names of witnesses, why would it hand over operational details? The answer, I fear, is that it will not. If we passed the current bill, we would give the government the power to withhold that information at every turn. We would give the government the power to deny Canadians the operational oversight they were promised, and we would fatally undermine Canadians' faith in this new institution, because if cabinet does not trust the committee, why should Canadians?
Of course, the government insists that it would use these powers sparingly and only with the best intentions. The Liberals' faith in their own good intentions I believe is sincere, but it blinds them to the actual wording of the bill. Take clause 21 as an example. Several amendments have targeted cabinet's power to filter the flow of information from this committee to Canadians. No fewer than six government members have repeated the claim that the sole purpose of that power is to screen out classified information. Again, if that were true, I would support it, but it is simply not true. In fact, the relevant clause does not even use the word “classified”. In fact, it empowers the Prime Minister to censor any information he believes may be injurious to national security or defence, or even international relations. All he has to do is believe it and it is so, and it is not available.
A similar claim, repeated by five government members, is that this revision power could not be applied to the committee's findings. Again, I would support that clause, but it is not in the bill.
This has become a theme. Too often, government members assure us of the good intentions of this bill's authors and simply forget that legislation must be built to outlast the authors of the bill. We are making law not just for this regime but for the future.
The current Prime Minister may not intend to use his powers to suppress embarrassing committee findings, but another one may. The current cabinet may not intend to use its power to quash investigations or to hide mismanagement or scandal, but another one may. The current government may not intend to ban the official opposition from the committee or use appointments to control the agenda or hide illegal surveillance by withholding operational details on security grounds, but another government may.
Consider, for instance, the investigations taking place right now south of the border into President Trump's ties to Russia and his wiretapping claims. If Bill C-22 were the law there, President Trump could revise the reports of congressional intelligence oversight committees to remove information he felt could harm foreign relations. His cabinet could obstruct, and even shut down, investigations simply by asserting security privilege.
That is why Canadians are demanding that this committee be built to a higher standard of strength and independence, so that when the time comes, it can stand as a genuine check on the executive overreach and end operations that violate Canadians' rights or mismanagement that undermines their security. As it stands, it is simply not built to that standard.
However, I do want to recognize the progress that has been made and acknowledge the good work done by the members of the public safety committee. Because of an amendment from the NDP, the new oversight committee would now have a legal duty to alert the Attorney General to any potentially illegal activity within the entire national security apparatus.
While future prime ministers would still be able to censor reports on broad grounds, Canadians could now see exactly how much text had been revised in a particular report and the reasons the revision occurred. While cabinet ministers unfortunately retain the power to withhold information and even shut down investigations, Canadians could now monitor the use of those powers each year.
I want to personally recognize the hard work of every member of the public safety committee. They showed that progress is possible when the government is willing to work with opposition parties. However, before the government congratulates itself for accepting a handful of ideas from other parties, let us be clear about what it rejected.
The plan we proposed gave the oversight committee full access to information and the power to summon witnesses and order documents. It offered freedom to investigate any issue without interference by cabinet ministers. It let the committee choose its own chairperson from among the membership that would actually match the partisan balance of the House. It allowed the free flow of insights back and forth within the existing expert review bodies. Every last one of those proposals was rejected by the government.
While progress was made at the margins, the government is now asking Parliament to approve an oversight committee with only partial access to the information it needs to do the job for Canadians: a committee that can only request information from cabinet, not order it directly; a committee whose entire membership is selected by the Prime Minister, with no requirement that it even include members from the biggest opposition parties. This committee would not be out of place in Australia, New Zealand, or France, where there is no expectation of operational oversight, but it is entirely inappropriate in Canada.
I cannot accept the design set by the government for two fundamental reasons: first, it tilts the balance too far toward executive power at the expense of parliamentary accountability; and, second, it fails to meet the high standard of operational oversight that the Liberals made necessary when they joined with the Conservatives to dramatically expand security powers through Bill C-51.
It is against these two standards that the government's attitude toward this bill is so very disappointing. The government has adopted an approach which says that something is better than nothing insofar as parliamentary oversight is concerned, and that we should just be happy we got a little bit. It suggests to me the belief that national security is the exclusive domain of the executive branch and that Parliament is somehow an ungrateful guest on the government's turf. That is dead wrong.
Members will remember this question was addressed and answered by Speaker Milliken in 2010 when he ruled on the government's attempt to deny Parliament documents relating to the Afghan detainee affair. In denying Parliament's role as a watchdog for Canadians, the executive claimed that Parliament's general right of inquiry was limited by the executive's countervailing interest in protecting national security. Parliament, the government argued, was overreaching by demanding information on security matters and threatening the constitutional separation of powers. The parallels to our current debate are clear.
What was the outcome? After an exhaustive analysis, Speaker Milliken ruled that Parliament's right to access information, to do its job, to perform its duties is “absolute”. In fact it was the executive that jeopardized the proper separation of powers by attempting to censor information provided to Parliament.
The Canadians' elected representatives in Parliament must be named the ultimate watchdog in our system. That should be a point of unanimous agreement for everyone in this place. We all recognize, as Speaker Milliken did, that special safeguards must be put in place to allow Parliament to exercise that oversight role in sensitive domains like national security and intelligence.
That is why New Democrats supported many safeguards to protect sensitive information. For example, we supported security vetting for every member. That was a step that was rejected by the British Parliament. We agreed. Similarly, we think it is reasonable that members waive parliamentary immunity from prosecution should they leak information. We think that is entirely reasonable. That step, however, was rejected by another of our Five Eyes allies, namely, New Zealand.
These additional safeguards should be used to facilitate the greater flow of classified information required for operational oversight, but the bill turns those safeguards into shackles. It asks Parliament to accept that oversight cannot be exercised through a parliamentary committee, but only through an adjunct to the executive, the Prime Minister's Office. It asks Parliament to grant the executive veto power over its access to information against the advice of experts and the Speaker's analysis of parliamentary procedure as well. It asks Parliament to legislate limits on its own authority to investigate how well the government of the day serves the security interests of Canadians and defends their civil liberties.
Because we believe in upholding Parliament's place as the final watchdog, and because we cannot accept inadequate operational oversight of the powers that Liberals and Conservatives granted to our security agencies in Bill C-51 over the protests of so many Canadians, the New Democratic Party cannot support Bill C-22 as it stands.
However, we have everything we need to fix the bill. We have consensus among the opposition parties. We have the willingness to work together to compromise. We have all the tools we need. We just need the time.
I am asking all members to do what the members of this committee will soon be asked to do, and that is to set partisanship aside and consider whether this bill, with all the flaws agreed upon by so many security experts, meets the standards of operational oversight that Canadians rightfully demand in the context of Bill C-51, and if they have any doubt that it might fail to meet that test for Canadians, I would ask them to support the following amendment. I move:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
“Bill C-22, An Act to establish the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, be not now read a third time but be referred back to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security for the purpose of reconsidering Clauses 8, 14, and 16 with a view to assessing whether the investigatory powers and limits defined in these clauses allow for sufficiently robust oversight of ongoing intelligence and national security activities.”