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OTTAWA – Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal says it’s “deeply problematic” that Canada lacks a full-fledged national security committee of parliamentarians to keep an eye on spy agencies.
At a national intelligence conference Wednesday, Segal described current oversight of the spy world as a “non-system of zero legislative accountability.”
It features parliamentary committees — including one on which Segal sits — that aren’t allowed to see secret documents and watchdogs that conduct after-the-fact reviews, the senator told a symposium of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.
He pointed to countries such as the United States and Britain where parliamentarians are able to tackle current crises head-on, eliciting candid testimony from spy chiefs.
In Canada, no one — least of all the responsible cabinet minister — steps forward to address the issues when an intelligence crisis erupts, Segal acknowledged.
“Any minister who says, ‘Actually, we have a big problem, I’m going to look into it’ these days is not part of the operative political culture,” he said.
“And I think that is deeply, deeply problematic.”
Segal said there has been a “lack of political will” to address the question with a measure of discretion, balance and focus.
Segal’s comments follow highly publicized allegations about Communications Security Establishment Canada, the national eavesdropping agency known as CSEC.
Documents leaked by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden suggest CSEC initiated a spy operation against Brazil’s ministry of mines and energy and helped allies monitor leaders at a G20 summit.
Last month, the NDP unsuccessfully sought support in the House of Commons to study stronger oversight for the intelligence community.
More recently, Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter tabled a private member’s bill to create a national security committee of parliamentarians that would have access to top-secret information.
Segal said he hopes there’s a constructive discussion about Easter’s proposal, which effectively revives an idea broached by the former Liberal government of Paul Martin shortly before the Conservatives took power.
University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach told the symposium Wednesday that a national security committee of MPs and senators would not be a panacea for intelligence oversight.
Easter’s bill worries Roach because the government would have “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” to decide what information the parliamentary committee would see.
“So I’m not terribly optimistic about that,” said Roach, who served as part of the research advisory group on the O’Connor commission of inquiry that looked into the Maher Arar torture affair.
Justice Dennis O’Connor recommended changes to allow national security watchdogs to exchange information and conduct joint investigations. He also advocated a co-ordinating committee that would include various security watchdog chairs to ensure seamless handling of complaints and probes.
Roach noted both the watchdog that monitors CSEC and the one that keeps tabs on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have spoken of difficulty in following the intelligence trail through government because each has authority to peek into just one agency.
It’s time to adopt the “one big committee” approach to spy oversight instead of the current roster of watchdogs working in isolation, Roach said.
“We can be creative with the diverse composition. It can include present or past parliamentarians, judges, experts, civil society — I think that’s totally open, but we need to have a debate about it.”
The Conservative government has said it is studying the notion of an inter-agency review system that would modernize the current approach, but no details have emerged.
Growing visibly more angry with every allegation coming from a senator that he appointed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during question period on Tuesday that Mike Duffy has shown no remorse for claiming ineligible expenses and should be removed from the Senate.
Harper’s remarks came a day after the former Conservative dropped a second bombshell, saying there was not one but two cheques cut to him by Harper’s former chief of staff.
Duffy told the Senate on Monday that Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, arranged to have his legal fees paid by the Conservative Party — in addition to the $90,000 cheque Wright gave Duffy to repay his ineligible expenses.
“The reality is,” Harper said on Tuesday, “that Mr. Duffy still has not paid a cent back to the taxpayers of Canada. He should be paying that money back.”
‘On our side, there is one person responsible for this deception. That person is Mr. Wright.’— Prime Minister Stephen Harper
“The fact that he hasn’t, the fact that he shows absolutely no regret for his actions, and the fact that he has told untruths about his actions means that he should be removed from the public payroll,” Harper said.
The prime minister has maintained all along that he knew nothing about the $90,000 cheque that his right-hand man gave to Duffy.
On Tuesday, the prime minister took direct aim at his former chief of staff, telling the Commons, “On our side, there is one person responsible for this deception. That person is Mr. Wright.”
“It is Mr. Wright by his own admission. For that reason, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Wright no longer works for us. Mr. Duffy shouldn’t either,” Harper said.
The prime minister did not, however, deny on Tuesday that the party cut Duffy a second cheque to cover his legal fees.
“That is a regular practice. The party regularly reimburses members of its caucus for valid legal expenses — as do other parties,” Harper said.
Duffy’s claim that he had paid back his ineligible expenses using his own funds was “the story of Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright,” Harper said.
“Mr. Duffy should be removed from the Senate.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair continued to pepper the prime minister with sharp questions on Tuesday.
If Duffy’s expenses were “inappropriate,” as Harper said again Tuesday, why did the Conservative Party pay for the senator’s legal fees? Mulcair asked.
Harper did not directly answer the question, saying only that he has said “it was inappropriate all along.”
- Canadians believe Mike Duffy over Stephen Harper on Senate scandal: poll (globalnews.ca)
- Harper defends payment for Duffy’s legal bill, says senator should get the boot (sunnewsnetwork.ca)
- Harper to face tough questions in wake of Duffy revelations (globalnews.ca)
- Harper says chief of staff Wright ‘dismissed’ over $90,000 cheque, not resigned (calgaryherald.com)
- The Senate Circus Continues (emkaydeeblogs.wordpress.com)
- Senate scandal not on Canadian public’s radar (beaconnews.ca)
The NDP made Prime Minister Stephen Harper their first target as Parliament resumed today, questioning what he knew about a deal between Senator Mike Duffy and his former chief of staff.
NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen and whip Nycole Turmel also set out a proposal to stop government MPs from pushing committees in-camera.
In question period, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair set his sights on Harper, who left Thursday morning for Brussels to sign a tentative trade deal with the European Union.
Mulcair listed a number of people close to Harper who are now under scrutiny over corruption or other allegations of wrongdoing, including senators, Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and his former parliamentary secretary, MP Dean Del Mastro, who faces charges over his election spending.
“These are chosen members of the prime minister’s own inner circle implicated in scandal,” Mulcair said.
“The prime minister needs to take responsibility for the climate of corruption that he created. Instead the prime minister flies off to Brussels … When will the prime minister stand up in this House and tell the truth to Canadians?”
Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, accused the NDP of being anti-trade.
“Once again the leader of the Opposition attacks our prime minister for travelling abroad to conclude the biggest trade agreement since NAFTA,” he said.
“The NDP would simply like to build a big brick wall around Canada. A brick wall that would keep out 80,000 jobs, that would keep away 500 million customers, that would keep away $1,000 in increased income for the average family.”
Limiting secret committee meetings
Earlier Thursday, Cullen and Turmel announced New Democrat MPs would push for committees to be more open.
Committees can go behind closed doors for planning purposes or when preparing a report, but Conservative MPs have been pushing them in-camera more and more than previous governments. They often use the tactic to kill opposition motions in secret. Conservative MPs form the majority on all parliamentary committees.
MPs are also forbidden from discussing what goes on behind closed doors afterward.
“The minute Conservatives don’t like a discussion that’s taking place in any of our committees, they go in-camera and shut the door on Canadians,” Cullen said.
“The abuse of this in-camera tool is undermining the work of all members of Parliament and increasing the skepticism of the Canadian public.”
New Democrat MPs will present motions in all committees next week, Cullen and Turmel said, laying out specific instances in which they can go in-camera:
- To discuss wages, salaries and other employee benefits, contracts or other labour or personal matters.
- For briefings concerning national security.
- To discuss draft reports.
The motion also mandates that minutes be taken, including how each member votes when votes are taken.
NDP on offensive
“As parliamentarians, we must be accountable to those who elected us,” Cullen said, adding that towns and school boards use the same rules the NDP want to see in Parliament.
“In a healthy democracy, shutting the doors on debate should be limited to only the most exceptional circumstances.”
The Official Opposition hit the Hill on the offensive this morning.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus raised a question of privilege, which the party announced Wednesday. Angus is asking House Speaker Andrew Scheer to find Prime Minister Stephen Harper misled the House, when he said nobody in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about a deal between Wright and Senator Mike Duffy.
Wright paid back Duffy’s wrongly claimed Senate expenses. An ongoing RCMP investigation into the payment, and into Duffy’s expense claims, alleges Wright told them three other PMO staffers, plus Senator Irving Gerstein, about the agreement.
The Senate committee in charge of financial and administrative matters, the board of internal economy, met Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.
The Senate as a whole will resume at 2 p.m. with a new government leader, Claude Carignan, and deputy leader, Yonah Martin. But unlike his predcessor, Carignan will not sit in cabinet.
Harper has removed the Senate leader from cabinet for the first time in 50 years.
One of the Senate’s first acts was to move to suspend without pay Duffy and Pamela Wallin, who is also under investigation by the RCMP.
- NDP ploy ensures no reprieve from Senate expenses scandal for PM Harper (macleans.ca)
- They’re Baaaack (theepochtimes.com)
- NDP says PM in contempt of Parliament for misleading answers on Senate scandal (macleans.ca)
- Opposition renew calls for details of Mike Duffy visit as Senate expense affair heated up (o.canada.com)
- Senate panel to review report on Pamela Wallin expenses today (globalnews.ca)
- Senators poring over audit of Pamela Wallin’s expenses (o.canada.com)
- Pamela Wallin may have tried to retroactively change expense claims after audit began (news.nationalpost.com)
- PMO says secretive fund Nigel Wright was in charge of wasn’t used to pay Duffy (news.nationalpost.com)
- Prime minister’s political fund not used for Duffy payment, Conservatives say (canada.com)
- ‘A lot of stuff goes on in the PMO’ without Stephen Harper’s knowledge: Rathgeber (news.nationalpost.com)
- Prime minister’s political fund not used for Duffy payment, Conservatives say (o.canada.com)
- Harper is Mad, Reporters are Unruly, and Duffy’s in the Doghouse (theepochtimes.com)
- Conservative MPs used like ‘trained seals,’ Rathgeber says (cbc.ca)
- Wright resigns. Stephen Harper, and questions, remain (macleans.ca)
- Nigel Wright resigns. Now what? (macleans.ca)
- Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigns after Mike Duffy $90,000 cheque controversy (news.nationalpost.com)
- Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, resigns (thestar.com)
- Senate expense claim scandal dampens Victoria Day festivities (sunnewsnetwork.ca)
- Senator Mike Duffy resigns from Conservative caucus over expenses scandal (globalnews.ca)
- Stephen Harper and chief of staff Nigel Wright under growing scrutiny over Senate-expense scandal (canada.com)