OTTAWA — The Conservative government gave a clear indication Friday it has no plans to support the creation of a parliamentary national security oversight committee although it plans to introduce new sweeping anti-terrorism measures.
Roxanne James, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, told MPs in the Commons Friday that Canada already has "independent robust oversight that actually includes a former member of provincial Parliament from the NDP."
"We are not interested in creating another bureaucracy that has the same responsibilities as the oversight body already in place," James said.
"[T]he difference between [us and] the Liberals and the NDP, is we would rather focus our resources on giving law enforcement and security agencies the tools they need," she added.
Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons that laws and police powers would "need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest." He pledged to bring forward legislation in an expedited fashion.
There doesn't appear to be any former NDP MPPs or MLAs on the three-person Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) which provides civilian oversight to Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Former Reform MP Deb Grey serves as interim chair along with members Gene McLean, a former RCMP officer and corporate security specialist from New Brunswick, and Yves Fortier, a former Quebec lawyer and top diplomat.
The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) has a commissioner, retired justice Jean-Pierre Plouffe, who provides external advice as to whether the agency is complying with Canadian law.
The Liberals, however, believe more checks are needed on Canada’s spy agencies.
"If the government decides to give more power [to security agencies], for us, the essential is that there is a system of surveillance to ensure that there is no abuse," said Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau.
Both Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter and Liberal national defence critic Joyce Murray have introduced bills calling for bi-partisan committees to oversee security agencies.
Murray told The Huffington Post Canada Friday that James is wrong. "There is currently no oversight process accountable to the public through elected representatives, unlike our all of our 5-Eyes partners," she wrote in an email, referencing an intelligence sharing agreement between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
"The involvement of Parliamentarians will increase transparency and boost public trust, and thereby increase the effectiveness of Canada's security activities," Murray said.
Last year, the former head of CSEC John Adams threw his support behind an all-party committee. "[F]rankly, if CSEC and its officials can’t convince the Parliamentarians that what they are doing is for the benefit of the country and not going to compromise civil liberties, then they've got to re-think their approach and see if they can’t move in another direction," he said during an interview with CTV.
Friday, the SIRC tabled its annual report on CSIS’ activities. The oversight committee said it was mostly satisfied with how the spy agency had carried out its mandate but the committee raised several red flags, including some regarding the agency's use of firearms abroad.
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