Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published Mar. 16, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

"Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war" – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3

With the House of Commons in recess this week for yet another mid-session breather, it is a perfect moment for everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and bring some calm to the debate over Bill C-51. To leash the dogs of war, as it were.

This could have been a civil debate. If the government felt it needed to top up police powers to deal with terrorism, it could have introduced a modest measure to that end, explaining to Parliament why additional powers were needed, what precisely those powers would be, whether they would be temporary or permanent, and what controls would be put in place to ensure the police did not abuse their new powers. And the Conservatives could have agreed to accept reasonable amendments from the opposition.

Parliament, I think, would have passed such a bill fairly quickly, assuming it represented an honest attempt to strike a balance between public safety and the protection of individual rights. The problem with the Harper government – or, perhaps more accurately, one of its problems – is that it cannot resist excess.

A measure that was introduced in response to the murders of two soldiers by lone-wolf assassins in unrelated incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, somehow escalated into a holy war against the jihadis of international Islam, then, courtesy of the personal intervention of the prime minister, branched into an attack on the dress code of Muslim women.

Why should the prime minister waste time worrying about what Muslim women choose to wear? The niqab or hajib have about as much (or little) to do with good governance and public safety as the ridiculous-looking Stetsons that Harper wears at the Calgary Stampede. In a free society, even prime ministers are permitted to make their own sartorial decisions.

It took Stephen Blaney, minister of the Orwellian-sounding department of public safety, to crank the fear factor up a nasty notch. It’s not just women with scarves on their heads that Canadians need to fear. There are “jihadist terrorists,” he assured a parliamentary committee, who have declared war on Canada “simply because these terrorists hate our society and they hate our values.”

How do we prevent them? Well, we start by making the “promotion of terrorism” a criminal offence. This, it seems, may mean limiting freedom of speech in Canada. “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words,” Blaney explained, sort of.

From jihadis to head scarves to our hateful values to the Holocaust – if it weren’t so serious, it might be funny, more Gilbert and Sullivan than George Orwell. But it’s serious because the Conservatives seem actually to believe this nonsense.

They believe it deeply enough to ram through Bill C-51, cutting off debate at every stage, as they rush to give the security forces powers they probably don’t need to deal with a threat that looms large in Conservative imaginations, and rejecting all opposition attempts to improve the bill with amendments to provide oversight of the police powers.

In the process, they are prepared to risk stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, thereby alienating some of the minority communities that they – Jason Kenney, in particular – worked so hard to woo in the 2011 election.

If the Conservatives seem to be panicking, it is because they see the headlight of the next election racing down the track at them. I think the Tories miscalculated. They thought playing the “fear card” would have brought them to a sweet spot in the polls by now, a spot where they would enjoy a tidy lead over the Liberals and NDP. Instead they are deadlocked with the Liberals with the New Democrats not too far behind.

Right now, a Liberal-NDP coalition or cooperative government is as good a bet as another Conservative government. Bill C-51 is simply creating havoc in Harperland. It’s time to step back.