Did you feel that? The Canadian political landscape just shifted in the last few days.
Actually, it shifted twice.
The first movement came on Friday, when the Canadian Bar Association announced plans to oppose C-51, the government’s proposed Anti-terrorism Act. It was the clearest signal yet lawyers oppose the bill. Not a lawyer. Not some lawyers. But the lawyers, as in all of them. The CBA, representing more than 36,000 lawyers across the country, is the closest thing the profession has to a public voice, and that voice spoke out against the bill in unambiguous terms.
It’s the clearest indication yet that what I referred to last week as a coalition of experts has indeed risen in opposition to the bill. The CBA fits neatly into the pattern. It is a non-partisan organization with nothing to gain by falling afoul of the government of the day. If it is opposing the law, it is reasonable to assume that its members have good reasons for doing so, grounded in their professional experience and understanding. It is, quite simply, because they don’t want to see such bad law enacted.
The second event came on Monday, when Conservative MP Michael Chong released a statement of support for C-51, but coupled it with a call for enhanced parliamentary oversight of Canada’s intelligence and security agencies.
As Milhouse would say, we’re through the looking glass here, people.
One rarely thinks of bravery in contemporary politics, but I’m tempted to say that this qualifies. Given the context—a polarized political culture, an election year, a bill the Prime Minister is personally invested in, and a government that normally gives little leeway to the rank and file—such a public break comes at a real risk. No matter how much groundwork Chong did behind the scenes prior to the announcement, for the moment at least he’s very much out on a limb on C-51.
It also comes with real, if slight, opportunity to actually change the law. Chong’s act of bravery may yet prove to be a vital opening for the Conservative government to escape from what is in fact an increasingly vulnerable position on C-51. Amid reports of declining public support and the steadily widening array of opponents, the bill now risks alienating more voters than it assures. Force it through without amendment, and hand opponents an unambiguous point to rally around with an election looming. They might as well print up and pass out the “Anybody but Harper” signs and ABC buttons themselves.
Moreover, it’s quite unlikely that Chong is alone among his caucus colleagues in his disquiet regarding the lack of oversight in the bill. If one Conservative MP has concerns, more likely than not others do, too. Personal liberty and consent of the governed remain bedrock values for many conservatives of both the big- and small-c variety, and C-51 threatens both. Indeed, conservative minded opponents of the law like Christy Clack, Conrad Black, and Brent Rathgeber have already questioned the law. Now that one within caucus has shown it is possible to call for changes, others may yet follow his lead.
Just as intriguing is the possibility that such a move might actually work out in the Conservatives’ favour, at least in the short term. One of the quieter lessons learned from the confrontation over C-23, last year’s Fair Elections Act, is that there is life after a climbdown for this government. Indeed, the Conservatives actually received a broadly favourable response across for a previously unexpected willingness to listen and to compromise. They can plausibly expect a similar reaction this time around.
Admittedly, the political context is different. We are likely in an election year; accordingly, any such move would be even more heavily scrutinized than usual. Further, the fact that Prime Minister is personally invested in this bill in a way he never was in C-23 may make less inclined to compromise as a result. Indeed, C-51 appears to be a core component of the government’s electoral strategy; thus any change on it would require a rebalancing of other strategies elsewhere.
Even so, I suspect that a number of Conservative caucus members are having conversations among themselves regarding the possibility of amendments. It is still at committee stage after all; introducing amendments would be a painless process procedurally speaking.
The bottom line is that Michael Chong, at some personal risk to his career as a Conservative MP, has given the Conservatives a way out what increasingly looks to be a trap of their own devising. Let us hope his fellow caucus members give the Prime Minister the encouragement he needs to advantage of this opportunity to make necessary changes to this law.
It’s still a slim hope perhaps, but it’s better than none. If you have thoughts on the matter, now would be the time to share them with your MP and senators.