Amended bill threatens public's right to know, information watchdog says

Reprinted with permission from Southam Newspapers

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Monday, November 26, 2001

Janice Tibbetts and Jim Bronskill

Southam Newspapers

OTTAWA - Canada's information watchdog broke a week of silence Monday by expressing deep concerns about the government's amended anti-terrorism bill as it heads for a final vote in the House of Commons.

The deputy information commissioner voiced his last-minute complaints as the Liberal government served notice it would cut off debate on a piece of legislation that one Liberal MP described as the government's most significant undertaking in years.

The massive bill is expected to clear the Commons in a final vote Wednesday, enraging opposition MPs who questioned how the government could limit debate on such key legislation.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan hopes her proposals, crafted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., will become law by the end of the year. Officials from the Office of the Information Commissioner are scheduled to meet with the Justice Department today about amendments introduced last week involving the government's power to suppress information from the public.

The changes were designed as a compromise after Information Commission John Reid and numerous other critics expressed fears about their sweeping nature.

There are now worries the revamped bill threatens the rights of Canadians even more than the original proposals.

"The amendments that were introduced are very concerning and problematic in terms of their failure to respond completely to the concerns that the commissioner raised," deputy commissioner Alan Leadbeater said Monday.

However, no other significant changes are expected to the bill, although it could receive a rough ride in the Senate.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien has ruled out a free Commons vote on the bill, denying Liberals the ability to formally oppose it in Wednesday's vote.

"We will be voting with heavy hearts and a great deal of skepticism that this is a trading of rights for security," said Liberal backbencher John McKay, a member of the Commons justice committee which held weeks of hearings on the legislation. "It is a significant intrusion into the rights of Canadians, it has an immense potential for abuse."

Liberal MP Stephen Owen, another committee member, said Monday the bill was the government's most significant initiative in years.

The opposition parties have collectively proposed about 100 doomed amendments to the bill. The Bloc Quebecois, perhaps the most vigorous opponent, registered dozens, including the widely supported call for a sunset clause that would see the entire bill automatically repealed after five years.

As it stands, the bill retires only the two most controversial police powers that allow authorities to make unprecedented preventive arrests on the suspicion that someone is about to carry out a terrorist act. Suspects also can be detained and forced to testify before a judge, even if they haven't been charged. New government authority to conceal information has also been widely maligned.

"How can the government justify such a power grab?" Tory Leader Joe Clark asked in question period, echoing the sentiment of numerous critics. Prime Minister Jean Chretien responded by accusing the opposition parties of "trying to scare the Canadian public."

There are concerns the rewording of the anti-terrorism bill, far from scaling back proposals that would give the government authority to suspend the Access to Information Act, actually enhance the new powers to seal files from public view.

Researcher Ken Rubin, a frequent user of the act, fears the phrasing could allow the government to clamp down on documents related to various civil, criminal and military proceedings across the country.

The NDP and the Bloc plan to vote against the anti-terrorism bill, while the Tories still haven't said what they'll do. Only the Canadian Alliance has said it will side with the Liberals.

Liberal Senator Joyce Fairbairn, chairwoman of a special Senate committee that has already done an initial review of the bill, said the upper chamber will hold more public hearings.

"We take this extremely seriously, and we'll do our job," she said Monday. The government has rejected several proposals from a Senate report calling for numerous safeguards against government and police power.

-----(Southam News)

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