The heart of our democracy in a time of terror

In praise of red tape

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

On the day after a madman stormed Centre Block, there was defiance and appreciation. “We are here, in our seats, in our chamber, in the very heart of our democracy,” Stephen Harper said in the House of Commons on Oct. 23, “and our work goes on.”

Three months later, one of the government’s parliamentary secretaries was sent out to shoo away suggestions that the occupants of those hallowed seats—”In all its diversity of peoples and opinions, this House personifies the spirit of Canada,” the Prime Minister said in October—should have greater insight into the operations of our national security apparatus. “We are not interested in creating needless red tape,” Roxanne James explained.

The adjective “needless” qualifies the complaint, but as a general rule parliamentarians should avoid likening themselves to red tape, lest efficiency fetishists start wondering whether we could do without them.

“What we need to do is make sure our police and security agencies have the tools they need,” the Prime Minister clarified for the House yesterday afternoon, challenged to defend his government’s new anti-terror legislation, “that is the real job here, and make sure we are not going after them but after terrorists and jihadists.”

Note the false choice there, but let’s set it aside for now.

Making sure our police and security agencies have the necessary tools is certainly a real job, but it is not quite the real job of the 308 members of this place. The real job here is to debate and discuss and challenge and scrutinize and then do something and then do more to ensure that that something works out. It is not merely to do stuff, but to make great effort to ensure that the stuff you do is wise. It is a lot of red tape. Centre Block is, essentially, a grand monument to red tape. Or at least it should be.

One might put Barack Obama’s assessment last weekend that terrorism does not constitute “an existential threat to the United States or the world order” against Harper’s assessment last weekend that “jihadi terrorism is one of the most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced” and start there. How great is the danger? What is the nature of the threat? On the one hand, we likely lost far fewer of our fellow citizens last year to terrorism than we did to drunk driving. On the other hand, we can’t know what tomorrow might bring and can only imagine what madmen are capable of.

But so fraught is this end of the discussion that we probably can’t hope for it to be had in Parliament, where even saying the words “root causes” is enough to get one branded a weak-kneed naif and even the slightest step toward sociology is likely to be met with the grumbled heckle of “hug-a-thug” (a phrase that was muttered in the House this week during a question from the NDP’s Murray Rankin about community efforts to prevent radicalization).

But if the philosophical debate might have to be left to university campuses and op-ed pages, we might still hope that our MPs will question everything else. “Top among the lessons,” Steve Hewitt wrote last week of the British experience responding to terror, “is that skepticism about the need for new powers or laws should be the default reaction from parliamentarians, news media and the wider public.”

That sounds about right, not least because skepticism is at the very basis of parliamentary governance. And if we are to give the state serious new powers and place further limits on the basic right of free speech, we should surely have thought for awhile about why.

We still know basically nothing about the man who stormed Parliament Hill. There’s a videotape, but we haven’t seen it. Beyond the work of journalists, there has been no definitive accounting of how he ended up dead at the entrance to the Library of Parliament. Would these new laws have done anything to prevent that attack? What could we have done? There is some suggestion that the attack in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu might have been prevented with these proposed laws in place, but a full airing is equally required in that case.

If not enough to stop those attacks, what necessitates these laws? Either way, what would these laws accomplish and at what cost and risk? Studied observers, including the privacy commissioner, are raising serious and specific concerns about the bill’s implications. What can be said to their questions? What all, for instance, would be captured by the new offence of “advocating and promoting terrorism offences in general”? That particular proposal is worth throwing a hundred hypotheticals at.

In the face of C-51, it would be lovely to know right now that we have ourselves a legislature capable of serious and careful study of these issues—a place where those of any party stripe could be counted on to step forward with their thoughts and where the close review of the bill would be entrusted to a relatively independent committee of MPs. It would be lovely to know, to borrow the Prime Minister’s phrasing, that the very heart of our democracy was healthy enough to handle the burden of being rational, or at least deliberative, about terror. Alas, the available evidence and the heavy control that party whips seem to exert over committee business undermines any basis for hope here—nothing diminishes one’s faith in the ability of a House committee to act professionally quite like watching a House committee in action.

Even still, the House has so far only barely come near to confronting the above questions. The bill has not yet come before the House for formal debate and the New Democrats and Liberals seem loath to give the Prime Minister the focal point he seems to desire—the Liberals are currently willing to support the bill.

So as yet, the primary debate in the House has been an existential one—whatever we allow our national security agencies to do, how should they be held to account for their doing so?

It is the opinion of some on the opposition side that there should be greater oversight, perhaps even that our elected representatives, as in the United States, Britain and Australia, should be given such purview. It is the opinion of the government that, in its current form, the Security Intelligence and Review Committee—an appointed group of unelected individuals—is sufficient. And that anything more would amount to unnecessary red tape. Or worse.

“This is an independent body with the credibility and expertise to do the job,” Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney explained of SIRC on Monday. “There will be no political interference. When it comes to security, there has to be a certain level of expertise, and that is what the review committee provides.”

On Tuesday, when presented with Peter MacKay’s previous support for direct parliamentary oversight, Blaney felt it necessary to preface his concerns with a reminder of the stakes. “Mr. Speaker, the international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada,” he said, “and we believe that third-party, non-partisan, independent, expert oversight of our national security agency is a much better model than political intervention in the process.”

Despite the government’s assurances, there are concerns about SIRC’s mandate and capacity—not to mention the fact that the Prime Minister once appointed Arthur Porter to the committee.

But beyond that, the implications here are rather dispiriting.

Is the very heart of our democracy filled with insufficiently schooled partisans who cannot be trusted to deal with national security like reasonable adults? While they might currently be charged with reviewing every other facet of federal responsibility, including war, must we leave the truly serious business to more serious people?

It is at least interesting to see the government demonstrating such faith in expert and elite opinion. Indeed, it is tempting to wonder whether this idea of “third-party, non-partisan, independent, expert oversight” should be extended to all other areas of public policy. But then, of course, we’d have a long-form census and a carbon tax and none of the government’s silly boutique tax credits and the Conservatives would howl with indignant outrage about the tyranny of it all.

SIRC would seem to be a useful, if limited, institution. Maintaining it, as well as improving it, seems like a good idea. And there are very real issues with how a parliamentary committee would be designed and empowered to review security matters. But as Peter MacKay argued sometime before he decided otherwise, there is much to be said for bringing the oversight of parliamentarians to bear on the situation.

MacKay now makes the simplistic argument that things are more complex. “I think the real emphasis now has to be on specific expertise and arm’s-length expertise that lends more to the prevention of terrorism and the oversight model than political oversight, quite frankly,” he said on Tuesday.

Once again, there is a false choice here. When a House committee recommended new parliamentary oversight in 2004, it envisioned that the “existing review agencies” would continue to function. Both MacKay and Kevin Sorenson, currently the minister of state for finance, were members of that committee.

Of course, everything in the distant past seems simpler, but, regardless, complexity is a terrible reason to exclude our democratic representatives. It is to mythologize the issue and diminish the people we elect. It is a strangely defeatist note in the midst of a supposedly defiant song. Is our legislature regularly a spectacle of insufficient seriousness? Most definitely. But that can’t mean settling for that.

With greater power should come greater accountability, and not only through the courts. And whatever Peter Van Loan’s desire to seem productive, Parliament is not a widget factory. It is, functionally and philosophically, red tape. Wonderfully durable and sticky stuff meant to constrain and test the powerful.

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