With the Canadian election in its final days, it’s been interesting to look at the totality of the debate over Bill C-51, our very own Patriot Act. Bill C-51 is a huge piece of legislation that does everything from increase police powers of detention, to allow the Canadian spy service to intervene in active threats, and facilitate inter-department information sharing, among a host of other controversial measures. Public opinion in Canada has seen a major shift over the course of the year on this topic, moving from widespread support to rejection. Among a vocal subset of voters, bill C-51 is a key issue. For Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, it’s been a wall to climb over. When the writ dropped in August, Trudeau found himself on the defensive for supporting the bill while proposing a series of changes.
The Canadian Election
There are 3 main contenders vying for Prime Minister right now, with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau having recently taken the lead, followed closely by Conservative Stephen Harper, and New Democrat Thomas Mulcair taking third place position. In Canada the left is split by the Liberals and NDP, and popular support recently switched between the parties. At the outset of the election the NDP had the lead, but their support has slowly eroded away. Bill C-51 has been a significant issue in this election, but it’s dwarfed by the senate scandal, Canada’s faltering economy, and the push to vote Stephen Harper out of power.
The Background of Bill C-51
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled man from Ottawa who expressed support for jihadists, attacked Canada’s Parliament last year. The incident was serious enough that our Prime Minister was literally hiding in a cupboard, with elected officials brandishing flag poles for weapons as gunfire rang out. It was a terrible tragedy. Following these events, the Conservatives enacted a series of controversial changes to the security and intelligence establishment in Bill C-51, The Anti-Terrorism Act. Mulcair eventually promised full repeal of C-51, after initially saying he would modify it as well. The growing Anti C-51 Movement quickly thought they’d found an ally in Thomas Mulcair. A messaging campaign ensued that painted the Conservatives and Liberals as The Same Big Bad that wants to take away your freedoms and create a secret police force.
An Uneasy Alliance Between the NDP and Anti C-51 Movement
It was an effective campaign, but there was a problem: The Anti C-51 movement is supposed to be non partisan, and the NDP didn’t get specific on their approach. I’ve had a number of conversations with leaders in the Anti C-51 scene, and in some corners there are disquieted murmurs of worry about the NDP agenda. There was concern that some of the worst problems with C-51 were being ignored over messages about secret police and tyranny. Mulcair’s position has changed a great deal on C-51 over the course of the year, and he has yet to make clear exactly what parts he would re-enact in new pieces of legislation. The NDP even voted with the Conservatives -the same crime they want to burn the Liberals for- to reject Liberal and Green amendment proposals that would have enacted immediate protections for activists.
Many experienced activists I know recognize the threats C-51 is supposed to address. Take the Anonymous operation against ISIS for example. But the question is how to be effective, and most importantly to not sacrifice our personal liberties and safety in the process. C-51 calls for information sharing among at least 17 Canadian departments and agencies, which could be a good thing if done correctly. But assembling a massive database of all this data without extreme security measures would be disastrous in the long term. This important point was lost in what to many seemed like a coordinated messaging campaign designed to manipulate rather than inform.
People who care about C-51 tend to be policy wonks, they don’t like to be spoon-fed soundbytes, and they want honest political discourse. If you contrast the Liberal and NDP strategy, the movement in opinion starts to make more sense. One appeals to deeper thought, the other appeals directly to emotion.
Trudeau Took the Heat
Early in the election we were seeing a great deal of blowback towards the liberals. If you have the patience to scroll into August or September on his facebook page, comments like “I can’t vote for him because of Bill C-51” are a recurring theme. But as time has gone on the wall has started to crumble, and under an unusual set of circumstances.
It’s widely understood that Trudeau loves the exchange of ideas. Debate is his thing. His principal advisor is Gerry Butts, the former head of the World Wildlife Fund in Canada. This team loves the nitty gritty of policy development, and it shows in how detailed their proposals get. When it comes to C-51 though, there are three main changes they’ve proposed that show an impressive depth of thought.
1: Making Bill C-51 a Permanent Election Issue
Trudeau wants a sunset clause put into the legislation, which would force parliamentary review and a repassing every three years. In some countries this wouldn’t be as big of a deal, after all the sunset clause on the Patriot Act didn’t do much for anyone. But most pollsters are predicting a minority parliament, a common outcome of Canadian democracy. Minority parliaments force political parties to cooperate for any bill to get passed, and as we’re also likely to see democratic reform in Canada after this election, it means Bill C-51 will keep coming back into the public consciousness. This is especially true when factoring in just how active and effective Canada’s Anti C-51 scene really is. Trudeau’s position is a fundamental recognition that the conversation must continue.
2: Protections for Civil Disobedience
Those wary of abuse of the T-Word take note, he’s explicitly brought forward protections for activists, and acts of civil disobedience. The latter is a bold position in light of the Conservative penchant for painting the left as weak on security. It’s hard to accuse Trudeau of placating the law and order crowd by insisting on protections like these. This is a recognition that activism plays a vital role in the political process.
3: Civilian Oversight, Limits on Powers and Information Sharing
The Liberals are also insisting that the powers granted to the national security construct have better civilian oversight and limits on their abilities to act, specifically when it comes to CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. They would also reduce the number of departments who could share information, and limit ministerial authority, which are vital steps in reforming the real problems with the bill.
So why did he vote for it?
There’s a great mantra I’ve heard repeated at the leadership level within the party that could shed some light on this: “Good policy first, strategy second.” The bill as Stephen Harper presented it is deeply flawed, but Trudeau took the stand that some parts needed immediate implementation, and they wanted to take a shot at getting some of their amendments in immediately. Voting for the bill was more than just a symbolic act of bipartisanship. The conservatives would have passed it on their own anyway, but by voting with them they increased the chances of inserting the sunset clause and protections for activists.