Colleagues and all present, I am pleased to be here with the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to discuss Bill . The bill would establish the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians.
Within Canada's Westminster system, Parliament is the primary forum for democratic accountability. By its very nature, parliamentary business is by default open and accessible to Canadians. However, this presents a challenge with respect to the review of classified information regarding national security and intelligence activities.
The purpose of Bill is to provide for a structured and responsible framework to securely share highly classified information with parliamentarians. When our government took office, we committed to doing things differently. One of my key priorities as government House leader is to make Parliament more relevant by empowering parliamentarians and strengthening our parliamentary institutions.
Bill is an important step forward in that regard. It will allow for a more meaningful engagement with parliamentarians in reviewing classified national security matters in a way that has never been done before. It will provide assurance to Canadians that government agencies are exercising their powers appropriately and are subject to appropriate oversight. I have no doubt that we can all agree with this objective.
Bill is designed to provide the committee with a broad, government-wide review mandate. This includes the power to review any national security matter, including an ongoing operation, carried out by any department or agency of the federal government.
I would note that this is unique to Canada, and no other Westminster model we examined, namely the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, provides for such a broad scope. We believe that this government-wide perspective is essential to enable the committee to perform reviews of our national security system as a whole, and to advise whether it is functioning effectively and efficiently while also respecting Canadians' rights and freedoms.
The bill establishes the mandate and powers of the committee of parliamentarians. This ensures the committee will act with full independence from the government in deciding which matters to review, and in reporting its findings and recommendations to Parliament.
As is the case in other Westminster countries that have established similar committees, such as the U.K., the bill provides for certain safeguards on the most classified information and to ensure that the committee's work does not disrupt or interfere with government operations.
I would like to discuss some recent criticism of these measures. The Prime Minister's review of the committee's report prior to tabling has been characterized as muzzling the committee. This is an inaccurate characterization. I would like to note that other Westminster countries that have well-established national security committees also provide for similar reviews of committee reports prior to public release. This review would be done in consultation with the chair of the committee and for the sole purpose of ensuring that the reports do not contain classified information. The Prime Minister will not have the authority to alter or redact the findings of the committee on the grounds that they are critical or embarrassing to the government.
Rather, it is the committee that has sole authority to determine the direction and conclusions of its public reports, including how to redact any classified information. How any redactions are done is decided by the committee itself and not the Prime Minister. If the committee wants to use blacked-out lines, as in an access to information request, the committee can do so. If the committee wants to denote a redaction with an asterisk, as the U.K. committee does now, they will be able to do that. It's up to the committee.
Some have commented that the committee lacks independence because of certain restrictions on accessing and reviewing some operational information and activities.
Mr. Chair, members of this committee will be examining each of these provisions in detail and we look forward to hearing their views. However, I would like to highlight that other international models either prevent their committees from reviewing operational matters, or limit such reviews to past operations only. We have taken a significantly different approach, where the committee's mandate and powers allow it to examine any matter it chooses.
The restrictions in the bill are intended to help prevent the committee's review from inadvertently interfering in or disrupting an active operation. This will ensure that ministers remain fully accountable to Parliament for government activities and for taking corrective actions when needed. This is a fundamental principle of our system of responsible government.
Bill fulfills the government's commitment to establish a committee of parliamentarians. It provides parliamentarians with access to classified information so that they can directly assess government activities, thus strengthening the democratic accountability of those activities.
I don't think that was 10 minutes, but that's good for now, Mr. Chair. Merci.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
It's a pleasure to be back with you once again, accompanied this time by the government House leader; my deputy minister, Malcolm Brown; and also, from the Privy Council Office, Ian McCowan and Heather Sheehy.
The topic today, of course, is Bill , the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians act.
The establishment of a rigorous parliamentary oversight mechanism of national security and intelligence activities was one of the crucial points of our election platform in the last campaign. It's a significant component of the steps we are taking to ensure the safety of Canadians while protecting our rights and freedoms. As I have clearly indicated on many occasions, Bill C-22 is the cornerstone of our approach, but it is definitely not the only measure we are taking.
Our multi-faceted approach to national security includes creating an office of community outreach and counter-radicalization with funds that were committed in the last budget; improving the no-fly system, particularly with respect to redress and appeal mechanisms; ensuring full compliance in all respects with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; protecting the right to advocate and protest; providing greater clarity regarding warrants; better defining terrorist propaganda; mandating a full review of anti-terror legislation after three years; and consulting Canadians, including parliamentarians, subject matter experts, and members of the public about what else should be done to achieve the dual objectives of protecting both our security and our rights.
It was in the context of these consultations that I appeared before you a few weeks ago. I know that this committee has since travelled the country to hear Canadians on this broad topic of national security. I very much appreciate your engagement, and I look forward to receiving the report that you will file, which will be an important contribution to this unprecedented national conversation about Canada's national security framework.
I'll turn specifically now to this one element of that framework that we have before us today, specifically Bill . It will create, as you know, a committee of parliamentarians with extraordinary access to classified information so they can examine the security and intelligence operations of all departments and agencies of the Government of Canada.
This is something that most of our allies have had for many years, or at least some variation thereof. It's an initiative for which many in this country have been advocating for many, many years, including this very committee back in 2009; other parliamentary committees, including those in the other place; the Auditor General; and at least two judicial inquiries.
Bills quite similar to Bill were introduced by the Martin government back in 2005 and by several MPs and senators over the past decade. Unfortunately, none of them were adopted. Canada has, therefore, remained an anomaly among our allies when it comes to national security accountability. At long last, this legislation will fix that gap.
For just a few moments, I'd like to look more closely at how our proposed committee—that is, the Canadian committee—compares to those of our allies who have Westminster-style parliaments.
First, the scope of the Canadian committee's mandate would be distinctly broader than is the case in most other countries. Bill mandates the committee to review “the legislative, regulatory, policy, administrative and financial framework for national security and intelligence” as well as “any activity carried out by a department that relates to national security or intelligence”.
In other words, the committee would be empowered to examine activities across the entire federal government, including operational matters, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
It's estimated that some 20 departments or agencies would be covered. That list, I emphasize, is open-ended. It's wherever the evidence leads.
This is in contrast, for example, to the British committee, which requires a memorandum of understanding between the committee and the U.K. Prime Minister in order to examine anything beyond the work of three specific agencies: MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. If the British committee wants to go beyond those three agencies, it actually has to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the Prime Minister.
Similarly, the Australian committee is limited to conducting statutory reviews of legislation and the administration and expenditures of particular agencies. In fact, in Australia a parliamentary resolution or ministerial referral is required for the committee to even look at additional issues related to those same agencies. You can see that the language in the federal law here in Canada is substantially broader.
With respect to our Canadian committee's access to information, a matter that several members raised during the second reading debate, again I think it's useful to examine the way that these committees work in other countries.
In the U.K., a minister may prevent information from being disclosed to the committee on the grounds that it is sensitive information that in the interest of national security should not be disclosed. That's the British rule.
In New Zealand, a witness may decline to provide information to the committee on the grounds that it is sensitive and that it would not be in the national interest to disclose it. It is up to the Prime Minister to overrule if he or she determines that disclosure is desirable in the public interest.
In Australia, ministers can issue certificates preventing witnesses from giving evidence to the committee in order to prevent disclosure of “operationally sensitive information”.
Our allies have lists of types of information that cannot be disclosed, such as in Australia, for example, information that would or might prejudice national security or the conduct of foreign relations; in New Zealand, information likely to prejudice the maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation, and detection of offences; and in the U.K., information that might provide details of “operational methods”.
Clearly, our allies recognize the need for some discretion to ensure that committee investigations do not jeopardize security, and we agree with that principle. That's why, for example, Bill allows the minister to step in if he or she determines that a review would be injurious to national security. However, because of the extensive scope of the Canadian committee's mandate, and because Bill C-22 deliberately does not bar the committee from examining operational matters, our Canadian version will have investigative authority that generally exceeds that of its equivalents elsewhere.
It might also be noted that if there is a controversy between the committee of parliamentarians and the government, the fact that there is a dispute about some activity or some information is something that the committee is perfectly at liberty to report upon. If the committee, consisting of seven members of Parliament and two senators, reports an accumulation of incidents where the committee does not appear to be getting the co-operation of the government, that in itself will become a very serious discipline on the government. The controversy will not go away until the committee gives the all-clear signal.
Finally, another matter that was frequently discussed at second reading was the committee's annual report and additional special reports. The House leader has made reference to this. I simply want to underscore the importance of it. As is the case in the United Kingdom, the committee—that is, the Canadian committee—will send its reports to the Prime Minister before those reports go to Parliament. And as in the case in the U.K., the Prime Minister may have certain elements redacted on the grounds of security.
I don't think any of us would agree that this is unreasonable. When we're dealing with classified material, classified material needs to remain classified, but that is the only purpose for referring the report to the Prime Minister. He is not in a position to otherwise edit, alter, add to, or change the committee's report. It is simply for the purpose of protecting classified information. I suspect that this power in the Prime Minister would be used pretty infrequently in any event, because the committee itself would not want to publish classified information. I think we all have a common interest in making sure that such information is protected. Otherwise, the committee can say anything it wants to say, and at any time.
The suggestion was to indicate in the public report the parts that have been redacted, and I'm open to that possibility. I'm actually open to any good-faith proposals that might help us to achieve our dual objective of ensuring that Canada's national security framework is working effectively to keep Canadians safe while protecting our rights and freedoms.
As you study the bill, I encourage you to keep in mind also the international context in which this committee will exist and in which our Canadian arrangements need to be seen as credible. Those who have gone before us in other countries in developing this kind of review and oversight have all recommended to us that we start prudently and that we learn by experience.
The MPs on this committee will need to become familiar with the unique and extraordinary role and responsibilities they will have. The committee will need to earn the trust and the confidence of the public, and equally the trust and the confidence of the agencies they oversee, along with the other review bodies that already exist in the federal system.
On this point, I would quote former Senator Hugh Segal, who had this to say about how to get this committee started on the right foot:
||The model suggested in Bill C-22, namely a committee of parliamentarians, chosen by order in council, as opposed to a parliamentary committee elected by the various parties in the House and the Senate, is the right choice and mirrors the initial form of oversight chosen by the United Kingdom....Moving to where the U.K. committee of parliamentarians is now, after decades of operation and a proven track record on trust and discretion, would be a...mistake....
You might remember that when this bill was introduced in June, one of Canada's foremost experts in national security law, University of Ottawa Professor Craig Forcese, said that the committee created by Bill will be a stronger body than its U.K. and Australian equivalents. I agree with that. He also said that it will be a dramatic change for Canadian national security accountability. I agree with that too.
Bill will finally give Canada the necessary parliamentary scrutiny of security and intelligence matters that we have lacked for far too long. Then, down the road a bit, after five years of working experience, we will have the opportunity to review the legislation and amend it at that time if we believe it is then necessary.
Mr. Chairman, may I just close with the observation that I notice that the makeup of this committee has changed since my last visit here. May I welcome Mr. Clement as the critic for the official opposition. I wish him well in his new responsibilities.
Thank you, Deputy. I hope you see our committee as effective, and now magnanimous as well.
I don't want the committee to move for a minute. I have a couple of things I need to do.
It's great to be surrounded by such fine public servants, so on behalf of the committee, thank you not only for today but for your work on the safety, security, and human rights of Canadians.
Committee members, I want to make just one suggestion for a change to our calendar. We'll have a lot of quality time. We have four more meetings on Bill with witnesses. Right now, we have the amendments scheduled for November 23 at noon. I'm going to suggest that we move that to the end of day on the 23rd.
On the 25th, I have work with the clerk and analysts. On the 24th, we will receive the summary of evidence from the national security framework studies thus far. Unfortunately, that evidence won't be able to inform your amendments—I know you're already writing them—but it will be able to inform our discussion about the amendments when we come to clause-by-clause on Tuesday, November 29. Clause-by-clause was going to be on the 24th. We're moving it to the 29th so you can get the summary of evidence on the 24th and use it in your deliberations. Is that okay?
I have two more things. Mr. Dubé has presented a notice of motion. We will deal with that on Thursday at our meeting, so we'll take five minutes. I draw that to your attention.
I also want to note that it is Chad Richards' last day in working with Mr. Miller. He served Mr. Miller well this year, and he served our committee well.
Good luck with your next venture. Thank you.
Some hon. members: Hear, hear!
The Chair: The meeting is adjourned.