Politics·Analysis

Letting RCMP patrol Parliament Hill could raise constitutional issues

MPs are getting their first chance to formally share their thoughts on a controversial proposal to give the RCMP full 'operational control' of security on Parliament Hill — from the front lawn, through the precinct to the doors of the Commons itself. Kady O'Malley lays out what's at stake.

RCMP reporting to House and Senate speakers 'simply not going to happen,' senator says

Last December, MPs paid tribute to the House security team for their efforts during the October shooting on Parliament Hill. Today, they begin debating a motion that would put the RCMP in charge of policing the precinct. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

MPs will have their first chance Friday to formally share their thoughts on a controversial proposal to give the RCMP full operational control of security on Parliament Hill — from the front lawn, through the parliamentary precinct and to the doors of the House of Commons chamber itself.

But while the motion to be put forward for debate states that the "privileges, immunities and powers of the respective Houses" will be respected, it is pointedly silent on what measures, if any, would be put in place to preserve the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government that lie at the heart of the Westminster system.

Both the British and Australian parliaments have special arrangements with outside security forces to patrol certain areas of their respective parliamentary precincts.

The London Metropolitan Police Service has a separate division to handle policing within the Palace of Westminster, which works closely with the parliamentary authorities, while the Australian government turned over internal and external control of Parliament House to the federal police force last fall.

No details on how system would work

But so far, the government has offered no specific details on how, exactly, such a major shift in protocol would actually work in the Canadian parliamentary setting.

In a memo sent to MPs and senators on Wednesday night, Government Whip and Board of Internal Economy spokesman John Duncan noted that, while integration of the House and Senate security services, as initially recommended by the auditor general in 2012, "is a good first step," it apparently doesn't go far enough.

"A fully integrated security force, under the operational command of the RCMP, will provide for one chain of command, one point of accountability and access to the types of resources that only the RCMP maintain," he concluded.

That suggestion has left Senate Liberal Larry Campbell — who sits on the joint advisory working group set up in the wake of the Oct. 22 shootings — wondering just what the government has in mind.

"If the plan is to have an RCMP officer in charge of all of the parliamentary precinct reporting to the [House and Senate] speakers, who are in charge of that constitutionally, that's simply not going to happen," he told CBC News.

"I'm an ex-Mountie, and I'll tell you, Mounties report, at some point, to the commissioner, who reports to the government," Campbell said.

He questions whether such a move would even pass constitutional muster.

"I'm not on any court, but I'd be very surprised if that would pass a constitutional challenge, and a challenge could come from so many people — including the security people themselves," he noted.

Capitol Hill has separate security force

Like virtually everyone else on Parliament Hill, Campbell says he found out about the proposal through media reports.

"That was the first inclination that either I, or anybody on the security committee had even heard of," he said.

Just last week, the security working group was in Washington, D.C. studying the security apparatus that protects Capitol Hill, he noted.

"They have higher levels of security [than Canada], but they have one police force that reports to a committee, and the co-chairs of the committee are the sergeant-at-arms for the Senate, and the sergeant-at-arms for the House," he explained.

"They have jurisdiction outside of the precinct, in concert with Washington Police Department — it's really quite impressive."

Back in Ottawa, Campbell isn't the only parliamentarian to raise concerns over the constitutional implications of the proposed change.

"The RCMP is the government's police force," Independent MP Brent Rathgeber told CBC News Thursday.

"It gets its funding through the public safety minister, and is accountable to the House through the public safety minister."

That makes the RCMP "part of government," he argued.

"Parliament is supposed to be independent of government, therefore the security forces are always under the supervision of the sergeant-at-arms. who is accountable to the speaker."

Ultimately, he stressed, it is the Speaker's office that is in charge of the precinct.

"I think it's symbolic of how the government treats this place," he added.

"This government wants to control everything."

Mandate questions

Both the House and Senate will have to sign off on the proposal before the plan can proceed further.

Meanwhile, an internal memo from RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson advised his officers that, while he has engaged in "preliminary discussions" on the issue, "there are a lot of steps to be taken before this becomes a reality."

Campbell suggests the commissioner's missive was almost certainly intended to reassure his team.

"I mean, what's today's headline? The Mounties had to give up 500 people that were on organized crime to deal with the supposed terrorist threat. Where are we going to get these people from? How can they possibly fulfill that mandate? And is it constitutional?"

Campbell suggests the news may also have sparked some consternation for officers in the field.

"They're all going to think they'll be coming to Ottawa to guard the tulips."

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