Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, became law yesterday as it received royal assent. As polls continue to suggest that the Liberal support for the bill is shifting potential voters to the NDP, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has conducted several interviews defending his position as the “right move for Canadians.” Trudeau’s arguments, which have been echoed by other Liberal MPs such as Marc Garneau, boils down to three key claims: he doesn’t want to play politics with security, there are elements in Bill C-51 he likes including greater information sharing, and he will fix the problems with the bill if elected.
For those Canadians looking for an alternative to the Conservative position on Bill C-51, Trudeau’s defence falls flat.
First, the claim that the Liberals do not want to play politics with Bill C-51 is simply not credible. Indeed, the decision to support the bill was all about politics. The Conservatives introduced Bill C-51 on January 30, 2015, with both opposition parties saying they were reviewing the legislation and would seek “robust” parliamentary hearings. Several days later, the Liberals had apparently seen enough, indicating that they were ready to support the bill but push for greater oversight. Given that leading experts such as Craig Forcese and Kent Roach took weeks to comprehensively assess the impact of the legislation, it simply was not possible to assess all the implications of the bill in a few days.
The decision to support the bill was surely the result of a political calculation based on the fear of being labeled as weak on security. Indeed, Trudeau acknowledged precisely that a month later, telling students at UBC that the government was hoping the opposition would reject the bill so that it could “bash people on security.” Trudeau added that “this conversation might be different if we weren’t months from an election campaign, but we are.”
Trudeau also claims that he won’t politicize the issue by calling out the NDP opposition to the bill, stating “you won’t hear me say, ‘Mr. Mulcair, who voted against physical security, doesn’t care about Canadians’ safety.’” Perhaps not, but his MPs have done pretty much that. For example, last month in the House of Commons, MP Joyce Murray responded to criticism of Liberal support for Bill C-51 by stating “I would ask the member whether he would want it on his conscience should there be an attack that leads to deaths of Canadians because of the loopholes that the bill is attempting to fix?”
Second, the Liberal position on Bill C-51 has consistently cited the information sharing provisions in the bill as a reason to support it. Yet the information sharing provisions are among the most problematic aspects of the bill drawing criticism from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and numerous experts. In supporting those provisions, the Liberals are not only siding with the government, but they are also rejecting the analysis of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
Third, the promise to fix the bill by adding accountability provisions and a sunset provision if elected does not address the fundamental concern with supporting the bill. Since the bill’s introduction, Trudeau has delivered major speeches and policy positions on liberty and freedoms and on fair and open government. There is much to like about those positions. But talking the talk is the easy part. Walking the walk is far harder. Speaking about defending liberty, while voting for a bill that every civil liberties group in the country opposed is difficult to reconcile. Similarly, calling for major parliamentary reforms while effectively giving tacit approval to the shameful hearings on Bill C-51 (chronicled here and here) by supporting the outcome is tough to square.
The Conservative record on digital issues is far more balanced than Harper’s critics would like to admit. For most issues, there is good and bad: the government has been a strong supporter of consumer interests on telecom and broadcast policy, it has passed good copyright laws (elements of 2012 reforms) and bad (digital locks, copyright extension in a budget bill), and it has enacted privacy reforms that at that their best provide new safeguards (security breach rules) and at their worst could have been worse (lawful access). Yet Bill C-51 was emblematic of the very worst of the government: constitutionally suspect legislation, the rejection of oversight or accountability, embarrassing hearings, exclusion of expert analysis, and the persistent demonizing of critics.
The Liberal position on Bill C-51 is similarly reminiscent of the worst fears of past Liberal governments that sought middle of the road positions based on politics rather than principle. Given the way the debate on Bill C-51 unfolded, all parties were forced to pick between being labeled as weak on security or characterized as weak on privacy and civil rights. The Liberals made the wrong choice.