Enhancing the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians: Reduxed and Reduced

My part of the joint submission that Kent Roach and I made yesterday to the Senate SECD committee, studying bill C-22, is posted here (just after the earlier Commons testimony).  C-22 creates a National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians -- one that would be security-cleared and entitled to see (at least some) classified information.

Also included in my document is an updated table comparing the C-22 proposal to parliamentary review bodies in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Discerning readers will note that Kent Roach and I have, as the saying goes, "put water in the wine" relative to our position at the Commons. There, we called for full C-22 committee access to classified information. But we live in the real world: having had a kick at the can, it is clear that this level of access is not going to happen.

So at the senate, we proposed some modest compromise positions that we think might bridge the distance between the government and opposition. Such a bridge is unusually important here, with a body whose members will be those same parliamentarians. There needs to be a shared commitment and confidence in the body, or it will suffer from a failure to thrive. (See my discussion here. I really hope that rumours of an opposition boycott once the committee starts-up are exaggerated -- this is not a body so anemic in its powers that it should attract that treatment. Nor should any party use national security to triangulate on partisan advantage. That way, madness lies.)

There is now also a measure of urgency. This bill has been in Parliament almost a year. I have little doubt that the government could get a delayed bill through after a rumoured prorogation. But we are running down the parliamentary calendar. Not only will other matters compete for attention, but also it takes considerable time to stand-up a new review body. For instance, even with existing national security review bodies, training a new reviewer takes roughly a year. Starting from scratch means, among other things: determining & security-clearing the membership, finalizing the budget, hiring an executive director, hiring staff (and the body must be well staffed), security-clearing the staff, acquiring secure facilities, putting in place document handling safeguards, establishing protocols for information-sharing by the security agencies (and existing review bodies), establishing internal rules of procedure (including regulations governing that), setting review priorities and...starting actually to fulfil the committee's mandate.

We are talking years before this body is fully operational. We have two years until the next election. Doing all this in an election year would be a very bad idea. And then, during the election the committee ceases to exist, and after the election, its composition will change.

The current C-22 proposal isn't perfect. But even on first reading, it was better than the earlier government bill under the Martin government. After the Commons process, it is much better. It also compares favourably to the systems in other Westminster democracies.

The glass is three-quarters full. Perhaps three-quarters full of watered wine. But at least there is wine. Indeed, at least there is a glass.  Even water. The alternative is: vacuum.

Let's get this done.