Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published on Feb. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in the olden days, as the storybooks might say, societies venerated their elders. They respected their experience and wisdom. They looked to those who had been there and done that to give guidance to their community or nation on the issues of the here and now.

That’s not so much the case these days. We live in a time – not solely in Ottawa, although it is pronounced there – when history does not register on the Richter scale of the present, where the lessons of the past are routinely ignored.  Columnist Allan Fotheringham once described Stephen Harper’s Ottawa as a capital run by ”kids in short pants” – young ideologues who have no appreciation of anything that went on before they got off the bus from wherever and assumed  positions of influence in the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet.

Because they have no sense of the past, they do not understand the present. Everything is political. They do not see the difference between principle and partisan strategy or between carefully considered policies and short-term tactics.

This brings us, albeit circuitously, to Bill C-51, the Harper government’s anti-terrorism bill, a thoroughly bad piece of legislation. Although the kids in short pants may not be aware, or care, we have been there before – in 1970 at the time of the FLQ and the War Measures Act and in 2001 following 9/11.

What we learned, or should have learned, from those experiences is that our security services, principally CSIS and the RCMP, have ample existing powers under the Criminal Code and other statutes to deal with domestic terrorism and security. They don’t need more weapons. What they need is more resources – money and manpower – to be able to do their job in dangerous times.

A second point. This being a democracy, any increase in police powers, if deemed necessary to calm a nervous public, must be balanced by an increase in legislative or judicial oversight to make very sure the new powers are not abused.

A remarkable thing happened last week. Four former prime ministers, all of them experienced in national security matters, wrote an open letter to the Globe and Mail, to address the oversight issue. Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and John Turner (three Liberals and one Conservative) wrote the letter, which was co-signed by 18 other elders (including retired judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, ministers of justice and public safety and solicitors general).

Essentially, their message was to slow down; don’t hand out new powers to infiltrate and disrupt what may only seem to be suspicious activities unless and until a “strong and robust accountability regime” is in place to make sure security agencies exercise their powers lawfully. Citing the Maher Arar case, they wrote,  “Experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security.”

One of the co-signers of the letter was Roy Romanow, the former premier and attorney general of Saskatchewan, who – with former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent – had written an open letter a few days earlier on the same subject. They went further than the four prime ministers.

They called on Harper to withdraw Bill C-51 –  “If it is not withdrawn, Parliament should vote it down. Possibly, then, a more limited and focused statute would be worth debating.” And this: “The exercise of security powers must be made subject to review by an open, publicly observed review process.”  

This is scary stuff, handing the police powers they have never had in peacetime without any transparency, without an effective means of ensuring they do not overstep.

The prime minister has shown no inclination to amend the bill. The chances of him withdrawing it are approximately nil. He has too much riding on it, including his re-election.

The experience of elders, those who have actually been there, counts for nothing in Harper’s Ottawa. He is riding a runaway train to election day.