I haven’t written a whole lot on the Afghan detainee document battle between Parliament and the Conservative government. I’ve felt my blogging colleagues have covered the issue well. My own feelings, in short, are that Parliament has the right to demand documents, and it must fight for that right. Also, it can’t cede that right to a government-appointed judge. It’s a dangerous precedent that would dilute its constitutional prerogative, and besides, is also an obvious stall by the government to avoid the issue until after the next election.
I’ve been thinking, though, that the issues raised by this affair highlight the need, beyond the specifics of this case, for real, lasting structural change in the relationship between our legislative and executive branches of government, and how they deal with issues of national security. We need structure and procedures in place, so when issues like the Afghan torture documents come up, it’s handled in a structured way and not in an ad-hoc manner as we’re seeing now, where partisan considerations are seen, correctly or not, as colouring the positions of each side.
The opposition believes the government is using national security as a smokescreen to avoid political embarrassment. The government believes the opposition is willing to toss aside national security for a political fishing expedition. Neither side is willing to back down.
That’s why, looking beyond this case, we’ve got to, in so much as it’s possible, get the politics out of it.
Let’s go back to basics, and examine what the relationship between the executive (the Harper government and cabinet) and the legislative (House of Commons and Senate) is intended to be. The government governs, within the laws and budget passed by the legislature. The government acts within those laws and budget, and the legislature examines and monitors those government actions. Checks and balances, it’s called. We’ll leave the judiciary out of it for now.
It’s more defined in the U.S. system, where the executive (the president) is elected directly and separately from the legislative branch (Congress). It gets more muddled in our parliamentary system, with the executive being drawn from members of the majority (or just the largest) represented party in the House of Commons, nominally by the Governor-General. But the same principle of checks and balances holds true: the role of the legislative branch is to examine and scrutinize the actions of the executive, and national security cannot trump its responsibility to do so.
And this is an occasion where we can actually take a lesson from our American cousins. Hey, really, it does happen sometimes. They have what’s called the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It includes Senators from both parties. It usually meets confidentially, and the White House and the intelligence agencies (the executive) is required, by law, to brief the committee (the legislative) on intelligence activities so government actions can be scrutinized and examined. Nothing held back for national security excuses: the committee hears it all. Obviously national security must be respected, and secrets must be kept secret. And the law proscribes penalties for the disclosure of confidential information. But the executive must brief and be questioned by the legislative, which can take further action if it determines it to be necessary.
We need something similar for Canada. We need a House of Commons Select Committee on Intelligence. Members from each party, sworn into the Privy Council to allow them to be briefed on confidential information by the government, and be bound by law and the penalties proscribed thereby to respect that confidentiality. The committee would meet confidentially, and be fully briefed by the government on national security matters, nothing held back, with the ability to question and probe and call witnesses like other parliamentary committees to investigate government activities in its area of responsibility.
We usually won’t get to know or hear what the committee knows or hears. But we can be confident knowing all of the parties are at the table, being briefed, so we can be confident our views are being represented, putting faith in the good judgement of our representatives. So if our guys have been briefed and tell is its all good, we can believe them more readily than we can believe the other guys. And secrets stay secret.
And if the committee feels that wrongdoing has occurred, that security is being used as a smokescreen, then mechanisms can be put in place to deal with that; be it the power or a procedure to seek the declassification of documents and expose them to the light of day, or a procedure for investigation, sanction, and/or court proceedings when warranted.
The details and specifics would need to be ironed out, but I think the core idea and principle is what we need to commit to: a mechanism to allow Parliament to truly exercise its oversight duties over the executive while respecting the appropriate bounds of national security. There may be other more ad hoc ways to do it, but I think a committee as outlined would a meaningful way of getting there, and a lasting structural change that would go some ways to removing partisanship from the equation.
I hope the Liberals, and all the parties, will consider going down this road in the near future, so we don’t have to suffer more dramas like the detainee document case.