Sunday, March 08, 2015

On component parts

It seems there's plenty of room for interpretation as to where the Cons' terror legislation falls on the spectrum from purely political red meat to help their poll position, to a political liability being pushed through for other reasons.

But most of the Cons' major bills tend to include both. And I'd think it's worth analyzing how the smaller pieces of C-51 can be broken down between the two in assessing exactly what the Cons are trying to accomplish.

In so doing, let's keep in mind that if the Cons' only goal was to be seen introducing legislation of some sort dealing with security issues, any or all of the pieces of C-51 could have been omitted. And let's also note that the Cons' choice of points to emphasize or downplay may also offer some important clues.

Part 1 of C-51 authorizes effectively unlimited sharing of information with any federal government agency involved in national security. From a political standpoint, it's likely neutral at best: while it's possible to build talking points around the value of sharing information, this is the part of the bill which most obviously intrudes on the privacy of every single Canadian, while offering no direct benefit to security.

Which means we should be taking a close look at the substantive effect. On that front, Part 1 enshrines in law the principle that security (as defined by the executive at any particular moment) trumps privacy for all purposes, while providing no apparent public recourse against the newly-created surveillance state. And as we'll see, that genuine preference for an all-knowing, unaccountable security apparatus seems to be the main connecting theme in C-51.

Part 2 sets up a new set of rules surrounding a no-fly list. It hasn't been subject to as much criticism as other parts from a policy perspective, likely due to the fact that it represents a relatively small change from the status quo: while the new bill may theoretically result in more people being facing restrictions, the absence of advance warning and accountability is nothing new, and there's no indication that the existing standards have been noticed by the public either way. So this part may be seen more as policy housekeeping than as a political wedge.

Part 3 includes C-51's amendments to the Criminal Code. But it may be subject to somewhat different analysis than most of the Cons' moves on that front.

We're familiar with what are likely seen as purely political changes to criminal law. And indeed, the Cons are now pushing another in a line of efforts to be seen as "tough" regardless of whether it can be justified from a policy perspective. 

So it might be tempting to examine the new offences under C-51 and figure that they too represent a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. And from the standpoint of actual prosecutions, that theory would hold water: particularly given the constitutional frailty of an offence expressly aimed at communication, I'd be surprised to see many people actually charged with the new offence.

But that doesn't mean the part wouldn't have some massive real-world effects. There's already been plenty of talk about the chill which could result from people fearing that protest or even neutral political commentary could result in charges, as well as the potential for material to be removed from the Internet.

Moreover, in creating an offence based on communication with a relatively low intent threshold, the Cons will make it easy for police and security forces to secure authorization to investigate people based on nothing more than their political activity. And even if that doesn't lead to charges under the new law, it could promote the principle that an individual's association with opposition to the government is grounds for constant investigation.

So I'd see Part 3 as being both a seemingly easy political win, and a sleeper policy change. On its face it fits into the Cons' general narrative of locking people up - but more significantly, it may introduce a decidedly authoritarian slant on both sides of the relationship between the state and dissenters.

Part 4 provides for the broad new powers handed to CSIS. And I can't imagine that the Cons thought the concept of creating a new security service and erasing lines which were quite deliberately drawn to protect Canadians' civil rights would pass without controversy, representing a massive political risk if any opposition materialized.

As a result, I'd consider this to be the part of C-51 which they're most determined to push through for policy reasons.

In the short term, it would provide the ability for CSIS to interfere in politics under the guise of national security. And even in the longer term (when governments of other stripes would enjoy the same potential advantage if they shared the Cons' level of paranoia and self-entitlement), it would represent a basic change in the allocation of Canada's public resources toward secretive security services - with compensating cuts presumably made to areas like regulation and social supports where the Cons are always looking for excuses to draw back.

Finally, Part 5 too fits into the theme of enhancing state control over security proceedings with a concurrent lack of recourse for individuals. In effect, the sole purpose of this part is to stack the deck in favour of the government in security certificate proceedings - both by allowing it to hide the source of information (including that obtained by torture), and by granting the Minister remarkable powers to ignore a trial judge's ruling against it pending appeal without having to satisfy an appeals court that there's even a serious question to be considered.

Based on the above analysis, there actually isn't much in C-51 which figures to be popular on its own: Part 3 is the only piece which fits the Cons' typical political strategy, and none of the bill's details figure to resonate anywhere near as much as the general theme of addressing terrorism.

With that in mind, then, it's well worth noting that instead of limiting themselves to drafting red meat for the base or legislation which fit their talking points, the Cons have chosen to include plenty of controversial provisions with massive real-world implications. And that fact is all the more reason for those of us who oppose the strict-father-state worldview to fight the bill, rather than backing down based on political calculations.

[Edit: fixed typo, wording.]

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