Bill C-51: Conservatives soften stance on expert testimony
New Democrats willing to sit evenings and weekends to hear from as many as 50 witnesses
After fending off accusations it was trying to sidestep parliamentary scrutiny of its controversial anti-terrorism bill, the government agreed Thursday to give the House public safety committee significantly more time to hear from witnesses.
The move came in response to a New Democrat-driven filibuster that could have put the committee review on hold indefinitely while MPs bickered over the proposed work plan.
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The new offer, which was introduced Thursday morning by Conservative MP Roxanne James, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney's parliamentary secretary, would allocate eight meetings for witness testimony.
Each hearing would have two panels of up to three witnesses, for a total of 48 witness slots.
That would effectively double the initial offer of four meetings, in addition to one to hear from Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay and their officials.
James made it clear her party was also willing to consider extended and special sittings in addition to the regularly scheduled meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The New Democrats, however, were adamant that eight two-hour sessions was still insufficient to allow proper scrutiny of such a significant bill, and stuck to their original counter-proposal, which called for 25 meetings, with just two experts per panel.
While the committee began in-camera Thursday morning, MPs quickly returned to a public discussion to debate the competing timelines, a process that wound up taking the better part of the day. The meeting continued throughout the morning and through the afternoon, with a brief break for question period.
Late Thursday afternoon, the Conservatives used their majority to force Conservative chair Daryl Kramp to call the vote on the motion, which was passed over the objections of the opposition members.
Hearings are now expected to get underway on March 10, after MPs return from next week's constituency break.
NDP wants to hear from ex-PMs
Earlier this week, the committee spent nearly five hours huddled behind closed doors after the NDP launched a filibuster to protest what they saw as an attempt by the government to further limit discussion of the bill.
The New Democrats want to hear from as many as 50 witnesses, including four former prime ministers, six retired Supreme Court judges and three former members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have released their proposed witness lists.
James wouldn't say whether the Conservatives would agree to a request to hear from the former prime ministers.
Speaking with reporters outside committee during a break in the marathon meeting, James called the government's new proposal "very reasonable."
"This is absolutely critical for the national security of this country and for our citizens in this country," she noted.
MPs agree on urgency
She also expressed frustration at what she deemed "an unwillingness to cooperate" on the part of the Opposition.
"I think Canadians would expect that we should not be filibustering determining numbers of meetings," she said.
NDP Public Safety critic Randall Garrison stressed that his party is not asking for a delay, and has already pledged to respect the proposed March 31 deadline.
"We have conceded is that there is an urgency," he told reporters.
"We are willing to start these hearings when we get back from the break week."
Without "full scrutiny" of the bill, he warned, the result may be a bill that's "perhaps still unconstitutional, and perhaps ineffective at meeting the terrorist threats."
Given that concern, he said, it's important to get it right.
"We're asking to do more work on this bill … We're prepared, as we have said repeatedly, to sit at night, to sit during the next break week. We could easily do 25 meetings before their deadline if we actually got down and worked very hard on this committee."
Liberal MP Wayne Easter told CBC News via email that his party has also been calling for more hearings.
"While we support the elements in this bill that will improve security for Canadians, we will propose amendments to improve oversight, review and narrow the overly broad definitions of national security," he noted.
Independent MPs want seat at committee table too
Meanwhile, a group of independent MPs have joined Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Green MP Bruce Hyer to formally request that the committee consider allocating one "temporary, non-voting seat" for MPs not represented by a recognized party.
In a letter sent to the chair and all committee members, they argue C-51 is of "particular national importance."
"Together, we represent approximately 1.2 million Canadians," they note.
"Every one of us has heard from their constituents. Many support the bill, and many oppose it. As MPs, we are, similarly, without consensus. However, we are united in our will to represent our constituents and to voice their concerns with this bill."
In addition to the Greens, the signatories include former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, former New Democrat MP Sania Hassainia and suspended Liberal MP Massimo Pacetti, as well as members of the Bloc Québécois and Forces et Democratie, neither of which are officially recognized by the Commons.
With files from Laura Payton