OTTAWA Two converging events pose the same challenge: Does the House of Commons have the political maturity to behave responsibly in a time of peril?
The sad answer is no.
Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's second report on the Arar affair proposes the creation of one powerful new agency and the expansion of another with broad mandates and real powers to watch over the national security apparatus. It also proposes a co-ordinating committee to oversee these new overseers.
But the opposition, being the opposition, wants to go further. MPs yesterday demanded a parliamentary committee with powers to oversee the overseers overseeing the overseers.
In principle, this is a good idea: Parliament has the ultimate responsibility for investigating the actions of government agencies. In practice, it could lead to disaster.
To do its job, the committee would have to routinely examine classified documents and meet in camera. The MPs on the committee would have to possess absolute discretion and unimpeachable integrity, qualities that, unhappily, are hard to find on the Hill.
What if the RCMP or CSIS were investigating an organization that had contributed to a political party. Would MPs from other political parties be able to keep that information to themselves? What if the MPs came under pressure from their own party leadership to divulge sensitive but politically useful information? Could they resist? What if MPs became aware that security services were racing to prevent an imminent terrorist attack. Could they stay quiet? If the MPs could be trusted not to leak, could their staff be equally trusted?
Watching the conduct of MPs in the House and on other parliamentary committees, watching the cheap partisan shots and deliberate distortions that are Parliament's daily fare, watching the abysmal immaturity that characterizes our House, compared with American and most European legislatures, the thought of giving a committee of Canadian MPs routine access to life-and-death secrets is frightening.
And one of those MPs would be a member of the Bloc Québécois — which, after all, exists for the sole purpose of wrecking the country.
Speaking of the Bloc, Leader Gilles Duceppe has warned that he is willing to bring down the Conservative government unless it withdraws from its military commitments in Afghanistan. The motion may be bluster; it may be designed to embarrass Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion into either siding with the government on Afghanistan or forcing an election.
As a responsible Leader of the Official Opposition, Mr. Dion could and should immediately declare his support for the government. First, the longer the Bloc is allowed to make mischief with this motion, the more the House of Commons appears to be losing confidence in our forces in Afghanistan, which is a disgraceful message to send.
Second, for the Liberals even to consider supporting the motion suggests to our allies that Canada is not prepared to live up to its international undertakings, which is equally disgraceful.
Third, it could turn the Afghanistan mission into a modern version of the conscription crisis, isolating Quebec from the rest of Canada, which is exactly what the Bloc wants to achieve.
For the sake of troop morale, Canada's international reputation and national unity, the Liberal Party should reaffirm its commitment to the Afghanistan mission.
But Mr. Dion must manage rebels in his own caucus who want to pull out of Afghanistan, and is tempted to exploit pacifist leanings both inside and outside Quebec. So he's sitting on the fence.
Sitting on the fence is what politicians do when expediency trumps principle and weak leadership trumps strength of purpose. It is the sign of a Parliament whose leaders would rather chase after votes than serve their country's interests.
And these MPs actually want access to information that, if leaked, could compromise national security and put lives at risk?
Just what have they done to make us think they deserve it?