Weak-kneed opposition lets terror bill sail through

Thomas Walkom – Toronto Star

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his new anti-terror bill last week, Canada’s two main opposition parties were loath to criticize it.

Both New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal chieftain Justin Trudeau danced warily around the substance of Bill C-51.

They had nothing to say about measures that would criminalize speech the government deemed pro-terrorist.

They had no views on proposals that would give 17 security agencies access to any information in any government department on any Canadian.

They said nothing about a section of the bill that would permit the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to engage in illegal and unconstitutional dirty tricks.

Indeed, the only criticism of Bill C-51 levelled by the Liberals and New Democrats to date is that it doesn’t provide parliamentary oversight of security agencies that have been given these new powers.

Which is another way of saying to Harper: We don’t mind if you erode civil liberties, as long as you let a few of us in on what you’re up to.

Why are Canada’s usually obstreperous opposition parties so meek? Alas, they are afraid – afraid that if they criticize the substance of Bill C-51, Harper will paint them as soft on terror.

So far, the only opposition MP with enough guts to critique the content of the Conservative government’s new anti-terror bill is Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

She said Monday in the Commons that it would turn CSIS into a “secret police force.”

She also asked if the bill’s remarkably broad definition of crimes against the security of Canada included anti-pipeline protests (and got no answer).

Now that experts have had a chance to plow through the omnibus bill, other critics are surfacing.

In a statement released Monday, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association asked the most trenchant question: Why are these extraordinary new security powers needed?

“There are still no answers as to why our existing laws and powers didn’t work – or if they didn’t work,” CCLA executive director Sukanya Pillay wrote.

She also pointed out that criminalizing something as vague as the advocacy of terrorism could have a chilling effect on academics and journalists.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has gone even further, saying that Bill C-51 would create “an unprecedented expansion of powers that will harm innocent Canadians and not increase public safety.”

In a release, it said it is alarmed by proposals that would expand the amount of time a terror suspect can be jailed without charge and that would allow judges to impose stringent conditions – including house arrest – on people who have not been convicted of any crime.

Stripping a person’s liberty where no crime is committed or suspected runs counter to our “most basic principles of fundamental justice,” the B.C. association wrote.

Reached by phone Monday, association policy director Micheal Vonn said the bill’s definition of what constitutes a threat to the security of Canada is overly broad.

Bill C-51 would allow anyone who threatened the “economic or financial stability” of Canada – whatever that means – to be charged and jailed.

Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien says the bill will allow too much information-sharing. Innocent Canadians, not just terror suspects, will be caught up in the government’s net, he wrote Friday.

University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese, an acknowledged expert in anti-terror law, asked in his blog Saturday whether Canadians really wanted to return to an era where the security services engaged in illegal, dirty tricks.

Yet this is exactly what Bill C-51 proposes, he wrote. True, CSIS would have to receive judicial warrants first. But that, Forcese noted, merely makes the courts “enablers of illegality.”

In another blog post, Monday, Forcese said the bill threatens to create a “secret jurisprudence on when CSIS can act beyond the law.”

All of these are real and substantive worries about Bill C-51. They are exactly the kinds of questions the main opposition parties should be raising.

But the Liberals and NDP are running scared. They are so worried about Harper outmanoeuvring them in the public opinion polls that they are giving his fatally flawed bill a pass.

They think that will make us vote for them.