Heaven knows, the news out of Canada’s hapless Senate has ranged from simply bad to really awful in the past couple of years. Senators on the griddle for various kinds of misbehaviour (hey there, Mike Duffy) have become a sad staple of our public life.
So it’s worth drawing attention to a glimmer of good news this past week out of the tattered old Red Chamber. Liberal senators, freed from caucus discipline by their one-time leader, Justin Trudeau, have decided to take a stand against the Conservative government’s misguided “anti-terror” legislation, Bill C-51.
Ultimately, of course, it won’t make any difference. The Harper government used its majority in the House of Commons to ensure the bill passed there late last week. And the Conservatives have a majority in the Senate, as well, so the outcome isn’t in doubt.
But legislators, elected or not, have a duty to the public good, and the Liberals in the upper house should be applauded for taking that seriously. The leader of the Liberal caucus in the Senate, James Cowan, says most of his fellow Liberal senators plan to vote against C-51, if only to make a statement of principle against a badly thought-out law.
Good for them. Unfortunately, Liberals in the Commons decided in January when the bill was first made public to support it – despite misgivings that it goes too far in countering terror. In the wake of last fall’s shocking attack on Parliament Hill by a man proclaiming sympathy with Islamist extremists, Trudeau said he didn’t want to give the Conservatives an opportunity to make “political hay” by accusing the opposition of being soft on terror. (He also said he will amend the bill once the Liberals win power.)
Liberals in the upper chamber would traditionally be expected to fall in line. But Trudeau freed them from that obligation when he expelled senators from his caucus back in January of last year in order to distance his party from the Senate’s scandals. Now, as Cowan pointed out, his fellow Liberal senators are no longer under the thumb of party central: “We are senators, we are independent, and we make our own decisions.”
The Liberal senators are particularly upset by the lack of proper oversight of Canada’s intelligence and security agencies. If the government is to strengthen their powers, they argue quite reasonably, it should ensure that the public is well-protected against misuse of that authority.
In particular, as many have noted, Canada is the only one of the “five eyes” intelligence alliance (including the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand) that lacks parliamentary oversight of its security agencies. Cowan argues that C-51 threatens too great an invasion of Canadians’ privacy. “We need a better balance between the need for police and security agencies to have appropriate powers… and everybody’s rights,” he said this week.
A host of independent experts, along with former prime ministers, justice ministers and judges, oppose Bill C-51 as a badly drafted over-reach. New Democrats in the Commons also voted against it. The Liberal senators are on the right side of this issue – and they are giving their erstwhile party leader in the other chamber a lesson in sticking with principle.