OTTAWA – The Liberal government plans to model its national security committee of parliamentarians after the one in Britain because it has successfully kept secret information under wraps over the years, says Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
It is very important that sensitive intelligence secrets be kept in the strictest confidence, Goodale said Friday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
He will be in the United Kingdom next week to learn more about its parliamentary intelligence and security committee, which oversees Britain’s spy agencies as well as the broader intelligence functions of the government.
Goodale said he is particularly interested to know how its members maintain the self-discipline to avoid spilling secrets.
“One obvious merit of the U.K. system is that it has not leaked.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that veteran MP David McGuinty, a lawyer and former mediator, would take a leadership role in Canada’s proposed committee, with details to emerge in coming months.
Goodale said he is working with House leader Dominic LeBlanc to introduce legislation before the Commons rises for summer to create the committee of security-cleared parliamentarians. He envisions the body keeping an eye on a range of federal agencies with intelligence powers, not just the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other key organizations.
“This will be a whole-of-government approach,” the minister said.
“Wherever those extraordinary authorities are vested, there needs to be adequate review and scrutiny to make sure they’re being effective, and also to make sure that they’re conducting themselves in a way that’s consistent with Canadian values.”
Critics have long pointed out that some federal agencies with intelligence powers, such as the Canada Border Services Agency, have no dedicated watchdog. In addition, the few watchdogs that do exist cannot easily share information to get to the bottom of a complaint or problem that involves several security services.
The previous Conservative government resisted calls for a full-fledged parliamentary security committee, suggesting arm’s-length review agencies — not partisan politicians — should oversee spy services.
Still, Britain and Canada’s other chief allies, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, have embraced the concept.
“Canada is the odd man out for not having this kind of review mechanism,” Goodale said.
He has already spoken to officials in New Zealand about their approach, and expects to consult the Americans in the weeks ahead.
“We want to go to school on this and make sure that we get it right. This is not a committee just for the sake of having a committee, this is in order to provide a very vital function in the whole national security apparatus of Canada,” Goodale said.
“Why the previous government did not pick it up and run with it is a bit mystifying. Because I think they could have enhanced their own credibility and avoided a lot of doubt and suspicion on the part of Canadians if they had embraced this concept, rather than pooh-poohing it.”