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The Conservatives’ Anti-Terror Bill Has Hit Its First Speedbump

Despite efforts to race the bill through Parliament, the NDP have succeeded in tripping up C-51.

by Justin Ling
Feb 24 2015, 8:58pm

Bill C-51 proposes sweeping new powers for law enforcement. Photo via Jonathan McIntosh

The Conservatives' anti-terror bill may have passed its first test, but NDP tactics have already managed to delay the wide-ranging legislation.

Bill C-51 passed by a huge margin in the House of Commons on Monday evening, with 176 Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, and Conservative members standing to support the massive omnibus surveillance bill.

The NDP, Greens, and a lone independent conservative, Brent Rathgeber, all opposed the legislation.

Monday's vote took place after just four days of debate. The Harper government put strict limits on how much debate the bill was allowed to receive, for the sake of getting the legislation passed as fast as humanly possible.

But on Tuesday morning, New Democrats moved to throw a wrench in the machine, filibustering a committee tasked with scheduling hearings on the anti-terror legislation.

The Public Safety committee was supposed to decide how many meetings would be dedicated to the bill and how many witnesses it would hear from. The opposition parties were pushing to have as many hearings as possible (the NDP want 25) that could include a witness list of near 100 experts and specialists. The Conservatives had other ideas, in keeping with their breakneck plan to get the bill adopted into law as soon as possible.

In protest, the NDP began dilatory tactics in order to try and pressure the Conservatives into compromising. Tuesday afternoon, a closed-door meeting of the committee dragged on into its fourth hour before it was finally adjourned without any resolution about the number of days of study or the witness list. It will meet again on Thursday to try and iron out the disputes. The meetings will likely be closed to the public and to media, despite objections from the opposition.

"The full debate about how many witnesses and their scheduling should be taking place in public," NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison told VICE after the committee adjourned. "It should not take place behind closed doors."

The Parliamentary guerrilla warfare being employed by the NDP is some of the most forceful opposition the party has used in years. It's in keeping with the vow from party leader Thomas Mulcair to do everything in his power to stop, or at least fix, the legislation.

"I don't think this is an exercise in futility," says Rathgeber of the NDP's tactics to defeat the bill. He abruptly quit the Conservative caucus in 2013 due to what he cited as a lack of transparency and openness in the government. He's the most outspoken libertarian-minded MP in Parliament.

Rathgeber says there are often sharp disagreements in the Conservative caucus, especially amongst those with civil libertarian sympathies. But while critics might be vocal over beers or in private, internal opposition never materializes in public.

"When The Centre makes up its mind to do something, opposition crumbles in the face of that," he says.

"The Centre" is the Conservatives' codeword for the Prime Minister's Office. Rathgeber says that once the boss makes up his mind, "it comes down like a ton of bricks," especially on those who consider revolting. When it comes to controversial legislation such as C-51, Conservative MPs tend to self-police and withdraw opposition, either in order to look like good team players, or to avoid blowback from the party leadership.

Rathgeber has his slew of concerns with the bill: the rushed timeframe to consider it, the apparent refusal to accept changes, the hostility towards independent oversight of Canada's spy agencies, and, of course, the infringement on civil liberties.

He's trying to get on the Public Safety committee, of which he is not usually a member. The decision about whether to let him, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May, join the study will happen this week.

Rathgeber says he's heard vocal concerns from his constituents on the bill, and there's little chance that he's the only one.

"Incumbent candidates should be forced to stand up and defend how they voted on this bill," he says.

Indeed, not a single Conservative MP voted against the far-reaching bill on Monday night.

More interesting, however, is who voted in favour of the omnibus legislation.

The NDP, Green Party, and Rathgeber all voted against the legislation. The Conservatives, Liberals, and Bloc Quebecois all opted in favour of the legislation.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney on Monday told the NDP to stop "fear-mongering" on the legislation.

"On the third page of the bill, protests are not even included. What is included is tools to ensure that those who are there to protect us will be able to protect us," he said during Question Period.

Blaney was referring to a section of the act that clarifies: "for greater certainty, [an activity that undermines the security of Canada] does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression," the bill reads.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May didn't buy Blaney's explanation.

"Well, the use of the word 'lawful' at the beginning of that phrase has been interpreted by other legal analysts, not just me, but by numerous scholars who have been looking at this proposed law since it was brought forward, to apply to all aspects. If people violated a municipal bylaw, they would no longer be engaged in a lawful activity," she said.

But the Liberal MPs who sit next to her in the House were less perturbed by the bill. While they say it needs to be fixed, they voted for the legislation in its current form.

The back-and-forth over the legislation is ratcheting up a ground war in Quebec, where the parties see an opportunity to win seats away from the NDP. Thanks, perhaps, to the attacks in Paris in January, polls have shown that Quebecers are the most forcefully in favour of new anti-terror laws.

That may explain why the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, stood to vote in favour of a bill that has sparked oppositions from his party's traditional supporters.

The NDP's Murray Rankin offered some of the more forceful opposition to the bill on Monday.

Rankin has some expertise on the subject, as he formerly legal counsel at the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) which is tasked with reviewing CSIS' activities. He says the way in which the committee has been managed in recent years has left it completely unprepared to deal with the new powers CSIS is about to accumulate.

The review committee—which is really only empowered to look at the spy agency's agencies well after the fact, and has no real power to obtain documents or hold CSIS to account—lost two committee chairs in the last few years. First was Arthur Porter, who was arrested on corruption charges in Panama. His replacement, Chuck Strahl, resigned after it was revealed that he was lobbying for pipeline giant Enbridge.

"It's broken," Murray says of SIRC. He told VICE that, between the membership issues and budgetary constraints, the review committee is also lacking its Inspector General—a position responsible for forcing CSIS to give up documents when requested. The position was axed by the Conservatives in 2012.

He adds that the legislation, which allows CSIS to "disrupt" perceived threats, even if that means ignoring Canadians' civil liberties, is far out in left field.

"I'm a constitutional lawyer and I've never seen language like this," he says.

For one, the bill puts the onus on CSIS to decide if it needs to obtain a warrant. Many of CSIS' operations may never become public, go before a judge or, possibly, even be reviewed in secret by SIRC.

Rankin, who had previously been chosen by the Harper government to work for the government on terrorism and national security cases, says he's "gobsmacked" by many of the changes.

"It's appalling. It's very disturbing."

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