Here’s the thing, TVO readers: for nearly a year, my musings on federal politics have been showing up in this corner of the internet on regular basis, so by this point, I think we’ve gotten to know each other well enough that I can be honest about writing under the influence of a not-particularly hidden agenda.
In that spirit, then, a confession: I was so looking forward to bringing you a good-news story this week. When I started planning out this column in my head, I was all but certain that it would turn out to be the exact opposite of a cautionary tale: a rare but heartening moment of cross-aisle collegiality shining through the fog of partisan rancour.
It had all started out so well last November, when Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale invoked a seldom-used parliamentary protocol by sending his government’s long-awaited proposal to overhaul Canada’s national-security and anti-terror laws — which the then-campaigning Liberals had vowed to review in order to address the “problematic elements” introduced under the Conservatives’ controversial C-51 — to committee before second reading.
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Before your eyes glaze over completely, let me explain why this particular break with standard procedure was so significant, at least within the current political context.
Basically, when it comes to adopting or rejecting proposed legislation, the second-reading vote is generally taken to constitute “agreement in principle” with the overall goal of the bill, with the understanding that it may have minor or technical shortcomings that would be addressed at committee.
But as the House has officially signed off on the underlying principle, the committee is under strict limits as far as how substantially it can rewrite the bill before sending it back for final approval.
Amendments must, for instance, be within the scope of the original bill — the committee can’t just tack on new provisions or additional sections, even to deal with related issues or specific concerns that have come up during witness hearings.
Referring a bill to committee before second reading, in contrast, gives the committee a far wider mandate to redraft it, as the Commons hasn’t yet endorsed it in principle. In this particular case, it also seemed to underscore the ostensible openness of Goodale and his government to making changes to the bill as initially presented to the House.
For the next few months, the House public-safety committee heard testimony from all sides of the perennial debate over balancing security with civil rights, including current and former officials from the intelligence and law-enforcement communities, academics, lawyers, human-rights activists, and other interested parties — more than 70 witnesses in total, many of whom offered at least one or two suggestions on how the bill could be improved.
Last week, the committee kicked off a clause-by-clause review — which, for those who of you who might have skipped that section of high-school civics class, is where amendments can be proposed, debated, and accepted or rejected.
And while that process is still in progress, even midway through the re-read, it’s become frustratingly clear that, despite its willingness to expand the committee’s power to revise Goodale’s proposal, the government isn’t quite ready to hand over the red pen to the opposition.
So far, not a single substantial amendment put forward by a non-Liberal committee member has been adopted.
That’s not to say that the bill is unaltered from its original form — in fact, it’s already undergone a modest-to-moderate rewrite, which includes the addition of a new section formally enshrining the minister’s directive on sharing and using information that might have been elicited through or raise the risk of mistreatment or torture.
But so far, the bulk of the changes to make the final (at least, for now) edit are coming from the Liberal side of the table, which also holds the majority of seats, which effectively gives them full control over the outcome of any vote.
The upshot: it’s a pretty safe bet that the only amendments to succeed will be those that have been pre-approved by the government. While no less democratic than a standard committee review, this seems like a wasted opportunity, as far as having gone to the trouble of sending it to committee before second reading.
In any case, there’s still a chance — albeit a faint one, and quickly fading — that a handful of opposition-backed amendments might ultimately go through. But at the moment, it looks like Goodale’s good-faith gesture was for show, not substance.