Liberal MP's CSEC oversight bill may be nixed by House Speaker

A Liberal MP's backbench bid to lift the curtain on the operations of Canada's electronic spy agency and give MPs more oversight over national security issues may not make it to the floor of House of Commons after all.

Potential cost implications of Joyce Murray's private members' bill raises red flag

Liberal MP Joyce Murray wants to increase transparency at Canada's electronic spying agency, but her backbench bid to do so may fall afoul of House rules. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A Liberal MP's backbench bid to lift the curtain on the operations of Canada's electronic spy agency and give MPs more oversight over national security issues may not make it to House of Commons finish line after all.

Last June, Joyce Murray introduced the CSEC Accountability and Transparency Act, a sweeping private members' initiative that would impose new reporting and disclosure requirements on the espionage agency.

She told the House it would "establish clear rules for judge authorizations and for the reporting, oversight, and review of CSEC operations," and "strengthen protection of Canadians' personal communications, including their metadata."

Metadata is the information about a specific communication, such as dates, phone numbers or email addresses, but it doesn’t reveal the substance of the communication itself.

Murray's bill would also create a special parliamentary committee to "provide intelligence and security oversight."

"This bill would help improve transparency, an important Liberal value, and would restore public trust in this important establishment that is so vital to protecting the security of Canadians," she said at the time.

Last week, Murray was one of 15 MPs promoted to the priority list for private members' business, which means she'll get the chance to bring her bill forward for second reading later this fall. 

But on Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Speaker Bruce Stanton served notice the bill could eventually be ruled out of bounds due to concerns it could cost money to put it into effect. 

Cost concerns

Under House rules, a private members' bill can only impose an expenditure on the federal treasury if it has a Royal Recommendation, or ministerial endorsement. 

The onus is now on Murray to make the case to House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.

If he rules that it does, indeed, exceed the parameters for private members' business, she could still put it up for second-reading consideration, but even if it made it to committee and back without garnering the necessary support, the Speaker would be obliged to rule it out of order before the final third reading vote.

Alternately, the Speaker would likely give Murray the option to swap it out for an amended version that would allay his concerns over cost, or a different bill entirely.

Murray's bill was triggered by media reports alleging that CSEC was conducting sweeping surveillance operations that had netted the private data of Canadian citizens.

In August, Communications Security Establishment Canada commissioner Jean-Pierre Plouffe revealed that the agency had kept 66 "unintentionally obtained" communications.

He also uncovered instances in which "procedures relating to the identification of private communications were not followed correctly by CSEC employees," including several cases where those communications were erroneously marked for retention — but, he says, were ultimately deleted.