Canada Votes 2015

Welcome to campaign 2015: surveillance-state edition

New Democrats finally break out of Liberal shadow with principled opposition to C-51, Canada’s spy bill
Photo: Jeremy Board

Canadians will head to the polls to elect a new federal government in the fall, if not sooner, and for the first time this election year, a campaign is threatening to break out thanks to overreaching surveillance legislation.

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Privacy is ‘essential to human dignity,’ says civil liberties group concerned about Bill C-51

VIDEO: Mulcair invokes War Measures Act in Montreal speech opposing Bill C-51

Harper’s new ‘anti-terror’ laws threaten basic freedoms

The Conservative government, in power these last nine years, is pushing up against a best before date that few Canadian prime ministers have been able to extend.

With plummeting oil prices battering the resource-export basis of the Canadian economy so vaunted by the Conservatives, Harper found his traction slipping with the electorate towards the end of last year. He pivoted from the economy to national security, finding the perfect impetus in a pair of lone-wolf attacks on Canadian soil last fall. As Harper bet heavily on a fearful electorate opting for the security of continuity, he ratcheted the fear meter to ten, reciting Orwellian chestnuts like the following:

Now is not the time for the NDP agenda of attacking the police and the security agencies. We have serious problems in this country. Now is the time to take on the terrorists and that is what we're doing.

And why wouldn’t he? Polls as late as February showed 82 per cent of Canadians approved of the security legislation introduced as BIll C-51, although few even knew the contents of the bill. Some pundits, notably pollster Frank Graves, warned that fear bubbles following terror attacks burst, but they were voices in the wilderness.

The more people learn about C-51, the less they support it

Yesterday Forum Research released a poll commissioned by Vice News that shows the predicted slump in support for C-51 has instead become an avalanche.

In one month, support for the surveillance legislation has dropped from 82 per cent (in an Angus-Reid poll), to 45. Evidently the criticism, from street protests to unprecedented denunciations by former prime ministers, has taken its toll.

As with any poll we should take these results with a grain of salt until they are reproduced, but Forum’s research seems to confirm the growth of a trend that has already been observed.

A poll conducted in late February and early March by Graves’ firm, EKOS, found 40 per cent of respondents opposed giving police and intelligence agencies new powers, with only 29 per cent in support. Graves wrote at the time:

The supposed public consensus around Bill C-51 is an illusion. On the more accessible question of whether police and security services should have more powers, our tracking shows a dead split. This is definitely up as a consequence of recent events — but the rise is almost exclusively to be found in the groups noted above and among Conservative supporters. No one else is much onside and there are serious questions about the shelf-life of this support.

Kill the bill

The latest poll from Forum is revealing on a number of fronts. According to it, 69 per cent of Canadians are aware of Bill C-51, 52 per cent oppose the lack of parliamentary oversight included in the bill and 61 per cent oppose allowing security services to infiltrate and track environmentalists, First Nations and pipeline protesters.

Forum asked respondents what they thought should be done with the bill now. A plurality of 38 per cent wanted to kill the bill, 34 per cent would support the bill with amendments to add more oversight and 19 per cent supported the bill as written.

Even 12 per cent of self-identified Conservatives told pollsters they oppose the bill, and the 19 per cent support for the bill as introduced is at least 10 points shy of the roughly 30 per cent of the electorate considered the Conservative base. Perhaps worse yet for Harper — only 56 per cent believe there is a need for new security legislation at all, down from 70 per cent last November.

The government is no doubt vulnerable, creaking under the weight of age and scandal, but who stands to replace them? The NDP and Liberals have underwhelmed thus far, peddling pablum and most often ducking the tough questions rather than taking a principled position that might offend the sensibilities of the establishment.

‘The type of prime ministerial misstep opposition leaders dream of...’

Throughout the fall, critics assailed NDP leader Thomas Mulcair for failing to differentiate himself from the Liberals. They pointed out that given an indistinguishable set of policies, it was folly to believe Canadians would vote for a gruff and unsmiling trial lawyer over the charismatic young leader of a party for which far more of them are used to voting. On issue after issue, from Gaza to the Energy East pipeline proposal, Mulcair appeared intent on moving in lockstep with the Liberals. In unsurprising reaction, and despite celebrated performances by the leader and his front benches in the House of Commons, the NDP have languished in third place with little more than 20 per cent support.

Then came C-51, and with it the type of prime ministerial misstep opposition leaders dream of.

First to bat was Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party. Third place the Liberals may be in terms of seats in the House, but his red team hasn’t seen third place in a poll yet this year. Mr. Prime Minister in waiting, what is your response to C-51?

"This bill can be improved. But on the whole it does include measures that help keep Canadians safe," said Trudeau, announcing that while his party would propose amendments they would nevertheless support the bill if none were accepted, and campaign on them instead.

Asked if this were a tactic to avoid a showdown with the Conservatives on security, Trudeau initially said such calculations don’t do justice to the concerns of Canadians, before admitting last week that he doesn’t “want to get into a political fight over this.”

Mulcair fired back in Montreal Saturday. “If you have principles, if you have convictions, you must also have the courage of those same convictions. It is not enough to say you are against but then vote for the bill, as the Liberals are doing. We will vote no, because we are opposed to the bill.”

Polls and pundits seem to agree: the NDP leader has finally differentiated himself from the Liberals, and is reaping the predicted rewards of that differentiation.

Principled opposition, with an asterisk

It should be noted that the NDP were not entirely as brave on this issue as may be perceived. They first announced their opposition to only procedural aspects of the bill’s passage, evidently afraid of the same polls as Trudeau, before evolving their criticism to address the substance of the bill.

In the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom attributes this stiffening of Mulcair’s spine to pressure from the party base and party elders such as Ed Broadbent and Roy Romanow, who authored a public essay urging MPs to defeat C-51. Regardless of how he came to his current opposition, it is troubling that Mulcair has refused to commit to scrapping the law if elected this fall and seems perfectly happy to leave a bill he describes as “a threat to our rights and liberties” on the books under an NDP government.

Nevertheless, his current position is music to the ears of C-51 opponents and NDP supporters alike, and hopefully is an indication of a bolder NDP to come. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the national conversation is inarguably stronger when the NDP articulates progressive positions proudly, rather than ducking controversial issues, a practice the Liberals have already developed into an art form.

It remains to be seen if support for the surveillance bill has dropped as drastically as Forum found, and what effect that will have on the political horse race.

One imagines Mulcair will be emboldened in his opposition, and hopefully will expand that position to include a commitment to repeal the bill if elected. Trudeau is flailing about in the mushy middle here, on an issue most Canadians hold strong opinions on, and if he doesn’t find some solid ground soon it will hurt him.

As for Harper, the question becomes whether this debacle has risen to the level of the few cases where his majority government has backed down from proposed legislation. He’s loathe to do it, but if polls continue in this direction he may be left with little choice.

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