There are big political risks for the NDP in challenging Harper's anti-terror bill

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Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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We have not yet had a serious debate on the Conservatives' proposed anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51.

But each well-publicized ISIL/ISIS atrocity only makes it more difficult for that debate, when it comes, to be clear-headed and rational. 

A lot of Canadians this writer speaks with are sufficiently horrified by the ostentatiously brutal behaviour of the "Islamic State" that they are willing to agree, almost sight unseen, to just about anything Prime Minister Stephen Harper could propose that might make them safer.

It is very difficult to argue with such people.

Their view has little to do with either knowledge of what Bill C-51 actually says or logic. 

Theirs is entirely an emotional reaction, and their main emotion is fear.

Even many who say they loathe Harper and would never even consider voting for him are ready to give him more than the benefit of the doubt on Bill C-51.

These newfound Harper supporters say, "CSIS [the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service] and the RCMP will not come after me and people like me." "The spies and the police," they argue, "will only use those powers to deter genuine bad guys."

At such times one has to resist the impulse to quote German Pastor Martin Niemöller. It was Niemöller who said, famously: "First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew..."

In Quebec Harper thinks he has found a sweet spot

Harper's anti-terror bill is, it seems, especially popular in Quebec -- or at least that's what more than one pollster tells us.

In a way, it stands to reason. 

Both of the violent incidents last fall that the Harper government dubiously characterizes as "terrorist" had connections to Quebec, and one took place there -- in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. 

Plus, for quite some time, many "old stock" Quebecers have been feeling a measure of discomfort with the Muslims in their midst; ergo, the popularity -- at least for a time -- of the former Parti Québecois government's Charter of (so-called) Quebec Values.

Unease with Muslims and fear of terrorism appear to have created a more welcoming environment in Quebec for Harper and his policies than he has had for many years. 

We'll see if it lasts, if it is more than an evanescent phenomenon.

For now, Harper is doing his best to appeal to those many Quebecers who are "not leftists" and who share his small-c conservative values, values that prominently include being tough on dangerous "jihadists."

Harper made that point quite bluntly in an interview with two Quebec City radio co-hosts. The Prime Minister told Éric Normandeau and Nathalie Duhaime that even if "Radio-Canada journalists hate conservative values" Quebeckers, in general, share them. 

This seeming turn in Quebec public opinion could pose a challenge for the Official Opposition NDP and its leader, Montreal area MP Thomas Mulcair.

Bill C-51 conflates terrorism with civil disobedience

The House of Commons starts debate on Bill C-51 this week, and the NDP has been bracing itself to ask some fairly tough and probing questions about it.

Bill C-51 is, as many who have studied it have noted, a highly problematic piece of legislation.

It gives significant new, broad and vaguely defined powers to the police and to CSIS, which could easily be used against environmental, First Nations and other activists.

The Bill makes little if any distinction between non-violent civil disobedience in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the acts of the brutal agents of darkness who take grisly pleasure in beheading innocent captives.

Supporters of the legislation -- who include some well-informed and knowledgeable people such as Bob Rae, a one time member of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) -- say Bill C-51 does not, as The Globe and Mail has asserted, transform CSIS into a "secret police" agency and will not result in the persecution of diverse forms of legitimate dissent.

Even those supporters argue, however, that the government should accompany its new anti-terrorism measures with a far more robust system of oversight, especially one that includes elected members of Parliament. 

On the oversight question, the skeptics (who, for now, include NDP leader, Mulcair), the provisional supporters (among them Justin Trudeau and his Liberals), and even some of Bill C-51's ardent supporters (among them former Conservative Minister Stockwell Day) all agree.

As Rae argues, it's crazy for Harper to resist the idea of Parliamentary oversight.

Experience shows, Rae says, that when given access to the 'frightening' inside information upon which police and CSIS would base their decisions to undertake actions, MPs will be easily convinced of the necessity for those actions. 

Day agrees, and suggests that Harper would be wise to compromise with the Opposition on this one.

A nasty political fight with very big stakes

Harper does not seem to be looking for compromise, however. He wants a wedge issue, one that will help him win seats in places that are usually tough for the Conservatives, places such as Quebec.

And, for his part, Mulcair has telegraphed that while the oversight matter may be a big issue, it is not his and his party's only concern.

The Official Opposition Leader made a cogent and reasonable case for his skeptical position in an interview with CBC Radio's Michael Enright.

He expressed concern about security forces using their new powers to -- just to cite one example -- go after Canadians who might want to non-violently "stand in the way" of pipelines.

And the NDP leader even went so far as to point out that our society's collective obsessive fear and loathing of so-called "jihadi" terrorists has more to do with the degree of publicity those jihadists get than the uniquely horrible nature of their violence.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mulcair pointed out, has been the scene of far more extensive and brutal violence than the Middle East, but has largely remained far off our and our media's radar. Thus we are not frightened of Congolese terrorism. We do not even object when our mining companies continue to profitably operate in that fearfully violent, conflict-wracked country.  

But all of that is in the domain of rational argument, and Harper is not playing that game. 

The Prime Minister's game is an appeal to irrational and inchoate fear. And, for now, he appears to be winning.

After all, even some of those who say they utterly despise Harper appear, at this point, to be convinced by his appeal to fear and fear alone.

The Liberals don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

They have agreed to support Bill C-51 before there has been even one minute of debate on it in the House -- let alone consideration, with expert witness testimony, by a House committee.

The thankless task of doing legislative due diligence and fulfilling the constitutional role of a parliamentary opposition falls to the NDP.

A number of experts and journalists are encouraging the NDP to "screw their courage to the sticking place" and give Bill C-51 a thorough going-over, without fear of anxious and terrified public opinion.

Taking up that challenge will win the Official Opposition respect among members of that distinct minority group.

But how will it impress the voters, especially in the NDP's current stronghold of Quebec?


Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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