Harper is losing the argument on C-51 … with Conservatives


Bill C-51 was supposed to unite conservatives in the latest round of the War on Terror™. Instead, it’s dividing them — both on and off Parliament Hill.

This week, Conservative MP Michael Chong, never one to blindly toe the line, criticized the bill’s lack of oversight in a statement to the House of Commons: “However, while I fully support Bill C-51, I also believe we need greater oversight of Canadian security and intelligence agencies by a parliamentary committee of elected MPs, who are directly and democratically accountable to Canadians. That greater oversight is even more important as we give these agencies new powers to combat terrorism.”

That same day, at committee hearings on the bill, Connie Fournier, founder of the former conservative online forum FreeDominion, criticized the bill’s infringements on privacy and freedom of speech. Fournier is going a step further, reviving her website to fight Bill C-51 — and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“I feel like we’re in some kind of alternate universe,” she recently told the Tyee. “You spend your life working for the Conservative party, and the Conservative party finally gets in, and (now) you’re saying, ‘I hope the NDP really steps up and protects us from our Conservative government.’”

The committee has heard criticism from others on the right as well. Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal supported the bill but called for more independent oversight. Former Security Information Review Committee chair Ron Atkey predicted the bill could not survive a constitutional challenge. So did Brian Hay, chair of the Mackenzie Institute, who said “… permitting a judge to break a law, or to ignore the Charter to uphold the law or to protect a society which is to be based on law, seems, at best, contradictory.”

Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association, who had publicly described Bill C-51 as “being a sort of creeping police state bill”, was supposed to appear before the committee, but mysteriously pulled out at the eleventh hour.

What’s curious is that the government seems completely uninterested in addressing the bill’s obvious shortcomings — even though doing so would appeal to parts of the Tory base. Additional oversight, for example, is a no-brainer that would actually reinforce the Tories’ security agenda in the long run. If you’re going to champion a law and order agenda, people need to believe that no one is above the law — and that they can trust law enforcement to respect them and their rights.

Another smart change to the bill would be to enhance privacy protection. It’s an issue important to libertarians and freedom-lovers of all right-wing stripes — so you’d think the Conservatives would address this, if only for partisan reasons.

And when it comes to freedom of speech, you can already hear the Charter of Rights challenge engines revving up — in the Tories’ own garage. Bill C-51 would criminalize the dissemination of “any writing, sign, visible representation, or audio recording that advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general.”

It is wildly ironic that the Conservative Party’s own website might have run afoul of this part of the law — when it published the words of terrorists threatening to attack the West Edmonton Mall as part of a political outreach pitch on its Facebook page. It perfectly illustrates the absurdity — and the chill — this provision of Bill C-51 could put on freedom of expression, and on the ability of journalists and even political parties to report events or make people aware of the very threats they may be facing.

Finally, there’s the bill’s definition of ‘terrorist’, which many consider over-broad. Could the legislation be used to brand aboriginal and environmental groups terrorists? Should we really give law enforcement the power to investigate anyone who threatens the “economic or financial stability of Canada”? How will those terms be interpreted? Could a left-wing government apply them to corporate entities, or their organizations, that take actions or make statements they disagree with?

Conservatives, beware: The closer your supporters look at C-51, the less they seem to like it. If the Tories are planning on campaigning on this bill at election time, they’d better make some changes — or risk the wrath of their own people.

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