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Liberals’ bold Bill C-59 would redraw the national security landscape

Wesley Wark is a visiting research professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.

The Liberal government has finally introduced long-awaited reforms to national security legislation, fulfilling a promise to roll back the Harper government's anti-terrorism measures and put its own stamp on security policy. These reforms are part of a last-minute surge of pronouncements, policy statements and legislation introduced just before Members of Parliament head to the exits for the summer recess. The national security package, Bill C-59, follows hard on the heels of a major policy speech by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, the release of the defence policy review by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and introduction of legislation by Treasury Board Secretary Scott Brison to reform the outdated provisions of the Access to Information Act.

Despite jostling for space with all these other measures, the Liberals' new national security policy deserves special attention. What is notable about this legislation is that, rather than just being a march to the political middle ground in balancing security and rights protections, it contains major elements of surprise – something that is hard to say about either the foreign policy statement or the defence review.

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When you pit a new government against an entrenched national security bureaucracy skeptical of politically tinged reform, you do not usually have a recipe for surprise. Elected politicians often have difficulty confronting a security and intelligence system that surrounds itself with a special aura of access to secret knowledge, operational experience and deep immersion in threats. Politicians often defer to the secret warriors.

The national security green paper the Liberals introduced last August to prompt public consultations helped reduce expectations. It was low-key about any big changes to independent reviews of security and intelligence agencies, and suggested general favour for some of the Conservatives' provisions, including threat-reduction powers granted to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The results of the experiment with public consultation, however welcome, hardly pointed in any specific direction for change. The suspicion grew across the media landscape that the government was "ragging the puck." Experts feared it was being accultured by the national security bureaucracy.

But Ralph Goodale's Public Safety department has pulled a host of rabbits out of its hat. The biggest surprise is just how extensive Bill C-59 is. The bill is omnibus in nature, incorporating 10 major parts.

It leads off with a bold decision to redraw the entire landscape of national security review and accountability. The Liberals began this push with a decision to create a security-cleared committee of Parliamentarians (Bill C-22, still before the Senate). Bill C-59 moves even further, establishing for the first time a viable architecture for independent, expert review of the entire apparatus of Canadian intelligence and security agencies to replace the ramshackle Swiss-cheese system of limited-scope review focused on the Security Intelligence Review Committee – a "super SIRC." A new body fashioned from the old office of the commissioner for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), will be put in place to bolster advance scrutiny of the ways in which CSE and CSIS legally operate, both at home and abroad.

Why is this big package a big surprise? Well, mostly because it eschews the easy and maybe politically expedient path of tinkering with the existing system. If Canada can make this new system work, it will return the country to the forefront of democracies determined to hold their security and intelligence systems to account, to avoid abuse and illegal activity, and to ensure sufficient public legitimacy. Canada may have restored its place in the world as it pertains to national security review and democratic controls, a place we gave up after 1984.

The details of the bill will take measured reflection. Overarching principles are good, but the devil is always in the details. Bill C-59 represents a major shot at a new liberal framework for national security. It should not be the last. Debates will continue about new powers, such as CSIS threat-reduction and data-retention, and about what exactly CSE is authorized to do, especially with regard to new offensive capabilities granted in the legislation. Sooner or later, we must have a public conversation about resource levels for national security. Follow the money, as they say.

And sooner or later, the Liberals will have to come forward with a big, future-oriented strategic policy statement on national security to make sense of it all.

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Video: Tories call Liberal security bill a ‘dangerous step back’ (The Canadian Press)
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