OTTAWA – The House of Commons has passed a Liberal bill that will establish a committee of parliamentarians to oversee national security and intelligence operations.
Bill C-22, which was introduced last year, will create a committee of seven MPs and two senators with the power to look at intelligence and security operations in any department or agency.
They would have to have security clearances and would be bound by a secrecy oath, but they would have access to highly classified material.
The bill passed third and final reading today in the House by a vote of 166-128.
The committee’s oversight can be curtailed for a number of reasons, including if a responsible minister finds that a review of an operation would harm national security.
The legislation gives the committee a wider mandate than that given to the watchdog agencies that oversee the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP because it could look into all government security operations, not just individual agencies.
The opposition says the bill doesn’t go far enough in allowing unfettered access to material and gives the prime minister too much power.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called the legislation “a major boost in the accountability of those responsible for our collective security.”
In an opinion piece published last fall, Goodale said the committee is long overdue.
“The committee will be independent and non-partisan,” he wrote. “Only four of its nine members (seven MPs and two senators) will be from the government. Ministers and parliamentary secretaries are not allowed. It will have the resources to get the job done. It will set its own agenda and report when it sees fit.”
Government House leader Bardish Chagger, sponsor of the legislation, described it as “a tangible expression of our commitment towards meaningful engagement with parliamentarians and for enhanced accountability.”
Conservative critic Erin O’Toole, speaking in the Commons last September, said the prime minister is the “controlling mind” of the committee.
“The exceptions and outright control of all aspects of this committee by the Prime Minister’s Office renders it ineffective,” O’Toole said.
He said the bill allows too many loopholes to deny information to the committee.
“It will be simple to have this just as a token committee that will not be effective. I think all parliamentarians want it to be effective.”
Chagger said ministers will be limited in what they can hold back.
“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,” she said.
“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 legislation now goes to the Senate for approval.