National Column: Security debate could be PM’s undoing

It came in like the proverbial lion, dominating debate both here and across the country, sparking protest
and anger.

But when Stephen Harper’s anti-terrorism legislation passed the House of Commons this week, it was delivered on time, virtually untouched, just as he drew it up. It moved to the Senate, looking a little like a lamb.

Bill C-51 passed as much of Ottawa was tied up in debate about tax breaks for the middle class and while much of the country was marvelling at the electoral breakthrough in Alberta by the NDP.

The outcome in a majority government was anti-climatic but still raises the question as to whether Harper can sustain his security plank, along with the economy, in a double-barrelled election platform.

If the fight against terror fades from public consciousness in the heat of a campaign, it would only benefit the Liberals and Justin Trudeau.

The NDP maintained a principled and consistent fight against the terror bill and the more scrutiny it received under the spotlight provided by Tom Mulcair, the less public support it received.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May has been similarly consistent in her opposition.

The Conservatives would also like to play the security card in the campaign. But they may have to scare us again to move it up the list of concerns.

It is Trudeau who has the most to lose if this plays out during a campaign.

The Liberals signalled support of the anti-terror legislation far too quickly, then advocated for amendments even as they said they would vote in support of the legislation.

Wednesday evening, their MPs did rise with the Conservatives to pass the bill by a count of 183-96.

The NDP may yet find its opposition to the bill will help them in the autumn because, as Harper is finding this week, owning the security file takes more than simply frighten, legislate, repeat.

First, he tripped over his own propaganda in Kuwait and Iraq when the film crew that travels with him to document campaign-style footage identified Canadian soldiers in a posting to Harper’s 24 Seven website, endangering the safety of not just the soldiers, but more vitally, their families back home in Canada.

Then Thursday, Omar Khadr, the child soldier who had grown to become this government’s tough on terror symbol, walked free in Edmonton after government lawyers were left with no arguments to overturn a decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal to grant him bail.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was left to bluster on about disappointment, heinous crime and the same boilerplate the government has always mustered in its bid to keep Canadian streets safe from the man who has served nearly 13 years behind bars at Guantanamo Bay and Alberta.

The Canadian anti-terror debate is not happening in isolation, of course.

In France, anger has mounted over legislation that, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, goes further than the Canadian legislation.

That law would allow authorities to spy on digital and cell communications of anyone linked to a “terrorist” inquiry without legal authorization. Internet providers and phone companies would have to surrender data on request and France’s spy agency would be given the right to install cameras, recording devices and keylogging devices that record keyboard strokes in real time in private homes.

President FranÁois Hollande has promised to test the law before the country’s highest authority on the French constitution.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is under siege after revelations that the country’s spy agency targeted European companies and institutions at the behest of the U.S. National Security Agency.

In both Paris and Berlin the issue is the lack of oversight of the spy agencies, a key failing of Harper’s legislation.

On Thursday a U.S. federal appeals court ruled the NSA program of harvesting Americans’ phone records, known as metadata, is illegal. In ruling with the U.S. American Civil Liberties Union, it marked the first time the judicial system in the U.S. ruled on the previously secret program.

Washington had argued the huge data collection of calls that include time, date and duration of calls (but not the content) could prove crucial in thwarting a planned terror attack.

The decision comes in the midst of a fierce congressional debate over security versus privacy. All of this suggests that privacy versus security debate will continue to play out around the world, including Canada.

It will likely only intensify and the depth of that debate may yet wound the Harper Conservatives as they sell themselves as the only ones who can keep Canadians secure.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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