02/19/2015 11:36 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT

Ex-PMs call for CSIS oversight as Conservatives rush C-51 debate

As the Harper government moves to speed up the parliamentary debate on its latest anti-terrorism legislation, four former prime ministers — three Liberal and one Progressive Conservative — are among almost two dozen prominent Canadians calling for stronger security oversight.

The joint statement, published in English and French newspapers Thursday, comes as the Conservative government proposes a new mandate for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The letter is signed by Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Joe Clark, John Turner and 18 others involved in security matters between 1968 and 2014, including former cabinet ministers, Supreme Court Justices and members of security and privacy review bodies.

The Security Intelligence Review Committee currently oversees CSIS, conducting several studies each year and tabling a report in Parliament. But critics point out the review committee is just that, a review body, not an oversight agency peering over the spy service's shoulder in real time.

The letter notes that detailed recommendations for a new oversight regime, proposed in 2006 by the inquiry into the Maher Arar torture affair, were never implemented.

The signatories also point out that in October, 2004, a report calling for parliamentary oversight over national security activities was agreed upon by representatives of all parties, including then-Opposition critic Peter MacKay. The legislation to enact it was not adopted before the fall of Paul Martin's minority government.

Speaking with reporters at a security conference in Ottawa Thursday, Defence Minister Jason Kenney that "we have the same strong system of oversight that has always existed [for CSIS] and that has been supported by every government, including the last Liberal government."

However, the Harper government eliminated the inspector general office at CSIS — which served as an internal watchdog — and transferred those responsibilities to SIRC in 2012, saving almost $1 million annually as part of government-wide austerity measures.

Time allocation coming

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said Thursday the government's introduction of a time allocation motion for the new anti-terrorism bill is not a move to cut off debate, but rather a way to handle scheduling of priority legislation.

The motion is up for debate and expected to pass on Thursday. It could see the bill sent to a Commons committee for review by early next week.

Opposition MPs are concerned about not having enough time to review and debate the bill's more controversial measures.

On Wednesday, the NDP Leader Tom Mulcair announced his party intends to vote against it, while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said his party will support it but is proposing amendments to improve parliamentary oversight.

The opposition has voiced concerns that even if the legislation passes, security agencies will not have sufficient resources to make effective use of their new powers due to recent budget cuts.

Kenney said Thursday that the bill doesn't actually give new powers to police or intelligence agencies, but rather to judges and courts. He also said the "vast majority of Canadians" agree.

An Angus Reid poll released Thursday suggested four in five Canadians support C-51, while one in three felt the new powers may not go far enough. However, 69 per cent of those surveyed wanted additional oversight to ensure law enforcement’s powers aren’t abused.

"This is a threat that is going to keep mutating. We can't have a permanent policy setting. We have to be flexible in addressing the needs of our security and police agencies to counter the threat," Kenney said, adding that the bill's measures are "actually quite modest compared to the legislative setting in most other liberal democracies."

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney is in Washington Thursday, speaking about the Harper government's latest initiatives at a White House summit on countering violent extremism.