I have an op-ed in the Globe and Mail today calling for a security-cleared national security Committee of Parliament.
Here are a few responses to questions and counterarguments I anticipate.
1) How will we deal with members’ privilege of free speech?
We can keep the current provisions of the NSICOP Act that limit the privilege.
Parliament can legislate specific criminal provisions for the committee, as Australia does.
We can ensure that the houses sanction members who abuse their privilege.
This isn’t the problem it’s made out to be, sorry.
2) Won’t the committee be partisan theatre?
When dealing with classified information, the committee will not be meeting in public. This will reduce the partisan theater, since there will be nobody watching.
There may be open sessions, sure. Will that be taken over by theatrics? Maybe. But it likely won’t be the same behind closed doors when the committee is doing its classified work. This happens in Belgium, where parliamentarians will be more partisan when in a public committee, but less so in a closed committee.
Oh and take a look at the NSICOP members from the last Parliament. You may notice that some of the opposition members engaged in partisan theatre when in the legislature and in public. Did they do the same as part of NSICOP? Probably a lot less. Maybe that’s because theatrics are put on and reserved for public places where they’ll get attention. Just a thought.
Not all committees are partisan theatres. The Public Accounts Committee does serious work, for instance. Evidence from other countries suggests this would happen with a parliamentary national security committee, too.
Perhaps more importantly, are we saying that we shouldn’t bother with any legislative committees because of their theatrics? Should be delegate all accountability functions to officers of Parliament and executive bodies? Why not?
3) We’ll end up with terrible members because the executive won’t control their appointment.
The UK Intelligence and Security Committee members are appointed for the life of a Parliament by the houses on the recommendation of the PM and the leader of the opposition. This is effectively the process we have now for NSICOP, but in a legislative setting. We could mimic this without difficultly.
Again, this isn’t the problem it’s made out to be.
4) Members would be irresponsible yahoos if they were part of a parliamentary committee.
Why? Why would having NSICOP as a legislative committee change the behaviour of the members, particularly if it does most of its work in camera and there are clear penalties for leaking or mishandling information? What’s the theory here? How does putting the committee in the legislature fundamentally alter its dynamics?
More to the point, someone needs to explain how being appointed to an executive office magically changes someone’s suitability to have a clearance or do serious work. What miraculous transformation occurs when a parliamentarian is appointed to a Governor-in-Council position, or better yet, becomes a minister?
Put differently, why do we think parliamentarians are necessarily untrustworthy if they don’t also hold an executive office? What is it about holding an executive office that makes a parliamentarian more trustworthy than when they only hold a legislative one?
5) The current controversy over the National Microbiology Lab demonstrates that Parliament isn’t ready for a national security committee.
How are we making this connection? The opposition is using the powers it has to put the government in a tough spot. That’s usually what opposition parties do in a minority parliament.
We actually have no evidence that the partisan fervor over the documents would be replicated in a national security committee. In fact, we can easily make the opposite case. Right now, demanding the documents is attractive because it’s putting the government in an impossible position. If there were a parliamentary committee and processes to handle these documents, the government would be in a far less difficult position, which would lead the opposition parties to focus on something else.
Arguably, it is precisely because Parliament can demand the documents but that the legislature can’t safely handle them that the opposition is doing everything it can to make the government suffer here.
6) Why can’t we rely on ad hoc committees?
The ad hoc committee established to deal with the Afghan detainee documents was also executive-based. Presumably, the proposal to create another ad hoc committee would be the same. In that sense, an executive ad hoc committee faces the same challenge as NSICOP.
Above all, though, both ad hoc committees and NSICOP still don’t leave Parliament with a capacity to deal with classified information. That’s where we need to it to avoid future clashes between privilege and protecting secrets.
7) Parliamentarians won’t want access to classified information or to sit on a security cleared committee
This one is courtesy of Steve.
Here’s the problem, though. Parliamentarians have been sitting on NSICOP, with access to classified information.
So, this thing that won’t happen is already happening.
Why are parliamentarians already doing this? Because the law says that there will be this committee.
A law creating a legislative committee would do the same.
Parliamentarians would do what they supposedly won’t do but are already doing because they would have to.