NSICOP and the reality of a minority parliament

So, it seems that the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) has hit a bit of a snag. This is regrettable and should have been avoided. But it was also predictable and reminds us that ours is a system of political accountability (see chapter 3 here), even in matters of national security and defence.

What is NSICOP? It’s an executive review body whose members must be parliamentarians.

Despite having ‘committee’ and ‘parliamentarians’ in its name, NSICOP is not a parliamentary committee. Rather it is a committee of parliamentarians who serve in an executive capacity. Don’t think that matters or that it’s a pedantic point? Alas, it does matter, as we’re seeing these days.

Because NSICOP is not a parliamentary committee, it does not review national security affairs as a subset of a house of Parliament. It does so as a part of the executive. During a majority parliament, we might not care or notice this distinction. The governing party will control Commons committees and they won’t be inclined to demand any documents or undertake any troublesome investigations, as a result. In that context, having NSICOP around is quite useful. The Committee undertakes reviews and publishes reports that are eventually tabled in Parliament, and as a committee of parliamentarians, it involves senators and members of Parliament in monitoring national security issues.

The problem arises when we have a minority parliament and opposition parties control Commons committees. In these situations, the opposition will be able to use the powers of Parliament to call the witnesses they’d like and to demand documents from the executive, including those that touch on national security. While the executive will naturally prefer that these questions be referred to NSICOP, the opposition will have no incentive to play along. Once a matter is referred to NSICOP, it can take months, if not years, for the committee to complete its review and produce a report. By the time this process is over, the issue at hand will be dead, politically. Why should the opposition accept that when it can keep the issue alive during a minority parliament, a situation where an election is always around the corner and parties are vying to make whatever headway they can against each other?

National security experts will likely answer that national security issues should be above partisan politics. A similar argument has been made about how the opposition is using sexual misconduct in the military to attack the government: these questions are too important to be mired in the muck of partisan politics.

As much as I sympathize with this view, it’s too idealistic and runs contrary to the system of government we’ve developed in this country. Government accountability in Canada is a political affair. To keep sufficient pressure on the government to account for itself and rectify whatever wrongs are happening, we rely on opposition attacks that attract and sustain media attention. However ugly and petty it gets, this is the mechanism we have in place to get answers and action from the government.  

A core weakness NSICOP has had since it was first proposed is that it runs counter to this political reality, notably during minority parliaments. The true test of the Committee’s viability was always going to be when the opposition would control Commons committees and make full use of the privileges of Parliament. When the opposition has these at its disposal, why should it settle for NSICOP when holding the government to account for national security matters? Unfortunately, the only answers provided to that question don’t reflect the political, and yes partisan, nature of accountability in Canada.

See my follow-up post here.

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