Politics·Analysis

National security vs. individual freedoms: How the Liberals aim to strike a balance

The Liberals' new anti-terrorism measures once again puts the party firmly between the security-at-any-cost Conservatives and the oppose-at-all-costs New Democrats on issues of national security and the power to be handed to agencies such as Canada's spy agency, CSIS.

Changes aim to strike balance between protecting communities, safeguarding rights

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale, right, and right to left, Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan and Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier announce amendments to national security oversight on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

To understand the Liberals' new anti-terrorism measures introduced Tuesday, go back two years to when the party supported the then Conservative government's hard-line anti-terrorism bill with a promise to amend the most controversial measures just as soon as they got the chance.

The Conservatives were proposing to give this country's national security agencies dramatic new powers after two members of the Canadian Forces were killed by self-radicalized jihadists, powers that critics argued were too broad in the name of stopping real or perceived terrorist threats, with too little oversight of how those powers were used.

The issues for Liberals then are the same as they are today, to strike a balance between public safety and Canadians' rights to privacy.

Tories want more security, NDP more rights

It also doesn't hurt that the Liberal proposal, known as Bill C-59, once again puts the party firmly between the security-at-any-cost Conservatives and the oppose-at-all-costs New Democrats when it comes to anti-terrorism legislation and the power to be handed to agencies such as Canada's spy agency, CSIS.

"Canadians have made it very clear that they don't trust the NDP with their safety and they don't trust the Conservatives with their rights," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in the Commons.

In fairness, the Liberals didn't appear to trust their own instincts when they promised in the last federal election campaign to get rid of the "problematic elements" in the Conservative's legislation.

Canadians expect their governments to do two things: protect our communities and uphold our rights and freedom- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

The government embarked on months of public consultations, holding five town halls across Canada, soliciting nearly 59,000 public responses online, and meeting with security and privacy experts before tabling their bill.

What they gleaned from all of that is that a delicate balance exists between the need to confront terrorism at home and abroad and the need to avoid violating constitutional rights.

"Canadians expect their governments to do two things: protect our communities and uphold our rights and freedoms," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. "Getting that balance right has always been the focus of the Liberal Party."

New forms of oversight

It's no surprise then that the signature piece of the Liberals' plan is a new national security and intelligence review agency with the power to look into the actions of not just the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, but other government agencies such as the Canada Border Services Agency, and the Communications Security Establishment, which monitors foreign internet traffic.

The proposed law also creates an intelligence commissioner who must give prior authorization for some intelligence and cybersecurity actions. These new authorities will complement the parliamentary oversight committee created under separate legislation that passed in the Senate on Tuesday. 

Today's legislation makes it clear the Liberals don't take public safety seriously- Erin O'Toole, Conservative MP

And the Liberals made good on their election promises to tighten the definitions in the Criminal Code of what constitutes terrorist propaganda and limit the use of peace bonds to cases where it's "necessary" to prevent a terrorist attack rather than "likely" to prevent it.

University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese was among the most persistent critics of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism measures introduced by the Conservatives. He calls the amendments put forward Tuesday by the Liberals "a repair job" that addresses concerns that security agencies would have too much power and too few constraints.

"I see this bill as both enhancing the accountability framework, but also to the extent that it refines the powers that were at issue in Bill C-51, putting them on a sounder constitutional footing… this puts us in a better position to make use of our services in a manner that enhances national security."

The Conservatives are not impressed.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Erin O'Toole says the proposal put forward by the Liberals makes them seem oblivious to what's going on in Europe. (Chris Wattie /Reuters)

Former cabinet minister Erin O'Toole says the Liberals seem oblivious to what's going on in Europe, where trucks have been driven into pedestrians on bridges in London and where a suspected terrorist was shot just yesterday in Belgium, as well as what is happening here at home.

"Today's legislation makes it clear the Liberals don't take public safety seriously," he said. "In the days following horrific attacks in Europe, and one day after a court in Montreal convicted a Canadian of attempting to leave and train with ISIS, they are watering down Canadian security measurers."

More powers to oversee

But the Liberals' bill contains more than just additional monitoring of security operations. It comes with more powers to be overseen.

The fact remains there is still too broad a definition as to what constitutes national security- Matthew Dubé, NDP MP

The CSE will be permitted to use more advanced methods of gathering intelligence from foreign targets, and will have new power to act proactively to stop cyberattacks.

Information sharing among government departments will continue, although with stricter guidelines than before.

New Democrat MP Matthew Dubé says there's not much difference between the Conservatives' anti-terror law and the Liberals'.

"We still have in place an information-sharing regime that was one of the key problems with [the Conservative] bill," he said. "The fact remains there is still too broad a definition as to what constitutes national security."

The Liberals will take the criticism from their opponents — one saying they've gone too far and will hamper national security, the other saying they haven't gone far enough to protect Canadians' rights.

It's all of question of balance. After many months of public consultations, the Liberals clearly think they've positioned themselves exactly where they need to be.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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