Is Canada’s “Patriot Act” a Political Ploy?

Leo Panitch and Dimitri Lascaris discuss Canada’s Bill C-51 and other issues facing Canadians as elections loom on the horizon

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

So this is a panel that we hope to do at least once a week, and maybe more often, dealing with issues facing Canadians.

So, without further ado, joining us, first of all, from Toronto is Professor Leo Panitch. Leo is the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy at York University. He’s also the author of the a U.K. Deutscher book prize winner, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, which he coauthored with Sam Gindin.

And joining us from London, Ontario, is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a partner with the Canadian law firm Siskinds, where he heads the firm’s securities class actions group. And he’s also a member of the Real News board.

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

So we’re going to talk two or three different issues over the course of this panel. We going to start with bill C-51, which is a bill which is purported by the federal government to be needed in order to fight terrorism. Dimitri, what are the sort of broad strokes of what this bill is going to accomplish?

DIMITRI LASCARIS, SECURITIES CLASS ACTIONS LAWYER IN CANADA: Well, it effectively expands the offenses that–what would constitute criminal offenses and support of terrorism under the criminal laws of Canada. And persons–without getting into the minutia of it, persons who are engaged in legitimate forms of dissent, for example those who are protesting against the oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel, by people who are protesting against the embargo of Israel on Gaza, which has caused a tremendous humanitarian crisis in Gaza, could conceivably be swept up into the category of terrorism. And it expands the powers of the Canadian security–.

JAY: This is because they would be accused of supporting Hamas, which they call a terrorist organization.

LASCARIS: Well, that would be the allegation. But there would be no need to actually prove under this new law material support for Hamas–assuming that Hamas is a terrorist organization, which is another question altogether–there would be no need to prove that much if you were simply expressing, engaging in forms of dissent from, for example, Israeli policy towards Gaza. That could be interpreted under the vague language of the new law is constituting support for a terrorist organization. So it really has the effect, potentially, of creating an immense chill on legitimate forms of dissent in this country.

JAY: My understanding is that they’re arguing that CSIS doesn’t have enough power right now. They can analyze, for example, that someone is a potential threat, but they can’t easily, as easily as they would like, intervene, for example, in financial flows and disrupt their activity. What do they mean by all that?

LASCARIS: Well, just to go back to the first part of what you said, I think what we should be focused upon is whether the current laws are overly broad, which they are, rather than looking at expanding them.

What is really lost in the debate about Bill C-51 is what are the root causes of terrorism. And nobody is addressing that fundamental question in this country, not the Liberals, not the Conservatives, certainly, and not even the NDP. And if we want to deal with the problem effectively, that is the question we must ask, and we must ask that question in an honest and informative way. This law seeks to expand upon the powers of the surveillance state and the powers of the criminal enforcement authorities at a time when we aren’t even addressing the fundamental causes of terrorism. And I don’t really see on the political horizon any serious attempt to address that fundamental question.

JAY: Right. Leo, why does Harper bring this to the fore now? I mean, most of the critics have said there’s enough police powers to deal with real threats now. I mean, what’s your take?

LEO PANITCH, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Because he’s a political opportunist, a right-wing political opportunist. And in the context of the two incidents this year where mentally deranged young men, for various reasons, engaged in murder, which could easily be treated under the Criminal Code, he saw an opportunity (and then it was reinforced, of course, by the Charlie Hebdo thing in France) to scare Canadians and to, in an election year, win votes on the basis of scaring Canadians.

Most legal scholars I know are convinced that this legislation would not get past the federal courts and the Supreme Court, that it is that drastic in relation to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is our effective Constitution.

But that is not his concern. His concern is to drum up fear and to win votes. And that has been surprisingly effective, according to one poll at least in Quebec. And Quebec does tend to look to France as its reference country, not the United States. And in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and in the wake of the kind of response that the French security agencies and police have had since Charlie Hebdo, there is support for this. So that’s why he’s done it, I think. That’s not to say that he is also inclined in this direction. And certainly his political base is inclined in this direction in any case. But it’s crass political opportunism.

JAY: I mean, Dimitri, the polls, I think, are generally, not only in Quebec, showing a majority public support for this, are they not?

LASCARIS: Regrettably, that is true. And I think that that, the fault, lies to a significant degree both with the mainstream political parties and the media, the mainstream media in Canada. And, for example, Jason Kenney, the defense minister, in the last couple of days Tweeted some photographs which were from, I understand, an anti-Islamic hate site, which showed some women in traditional Muslim garb handcuffed. And he presented this, Kenney, in his Tweets, as being–as women who had been imprisoned or who were being tortured by ISIS, when in fact they were part of a religious procession that is part of the traditional Shia religious–. And what it depicts is women who were persecuted by the opponents of the Shia religion many centuries ago. And, in fact, he presented this as being ISIS persecuting women today.

And the media really didn’t told him to task about this, that this was really him playing upon the prejudices, anti-Islamic prejudices, which are increasingly predominant in Canadian society. And so what we have, unfortunately, is a very fertile ground for this kind of anti-Islamic and bigoted approach to the whole question of what is the cause of terrorism and fundamentally how are we going to deal with that.

JAY: Right. Leo, the polls right now that I see have the Liberal Party and the Conservatives almost in a dead heat. NDP, which I think only about two, two and a half years ago was actually ahead of them, has now dropped into third position about–what? I think in the 19 percent range, and the other two are somewhere in the 30, 33, 34 percent tied. How do you see this particular issue, Bill C-51? Is that actually going to wind up helping Harper in all of this? And what do you make of where we’re at with the electoral politics right now?

PANITCH: Well, we’ll have to see whether it helps Harper in the long run. It may not last, and he has other trials that he will immediately have to pursue next month or deal with next month because people he appointed–actually, media stars he appointed to the Senate are being hauled up in front of the courts in relation to having cooked their books in terms of kickbacks. And it looks like and it’ll come out constantly that Harper knew about this and that his staff was involved in trying to cover this up. So we don’t know whether this will last.

What is the case is that the liberals, with Trudeau’s son now their leader–it’s not only the Americans who seem to have an endless succession of family members taking over the leading political positions in country, the Clintons and the Bushes. We now have another Trudeau leading the Liberal Party. And he has soft-pedaled, until this week, his opposition to this Canadian version of the Patriot Act. Last night or the night before last, he made a not-bad speech in which he addressed the implications of the loss of freedom to Canadians of this Big Brother behavior.

The NDP has taken a very good position on this, I must say, as the social democratic party in Canada, and it’s come out swinging on it, which is quite good. And I do think the media is going to be emboldened a little in relation to this. There already been a number of op-ed pieces that have been important on it, even a couple of editorials in the national press, and there was an exposure of the Tories trying to use a terrorist saying that Canada would pay for taking part in the wars in the Middle East. One Conservative MP tried to use this for fundraising purposes by implying that there was going to be a terrorist attack on the West Edmonton Mall. And this was blown up. So we’ll have to see whether it lasts.

The larger question you were asking is why the NDP has fallen in the polls. So there is a bit of Trudeaumania going on in the country, perhaps not as strong as it was last year, but he’s young, he’s photogenic, he’s very wet behind the ears, and he often sounds like a high school debater. Nevertheless, there’s a degree of Trudeaumania going on.

And in any case, the NDP’s great success was only based on this breakthrough in Quebec after the separatists tanked at the federal level. And they’ve always had a social democratic side to them, the separatists in Quebec, and the NDP picked that up. But whether they could hold on to that was always somewhat dubious. Their leader, Mulcair, has got a lot of respect from the political opinion makers in the country, I think. If he doesn’t get a too-bad a ride. But one should also be aware, certainly people outside of Canada, that there isn’t that much to choose from between the NDP and the Liberals, although the NDP has recently tried to solidify their base by offering such progressive stuff.

JAY: Do you see much of a difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives?

PANITCH: Yeah, there’s some. I think it would make an enormous difference to have a Liberal government rather than a Conservative government in this country, given that this Conservative government is viciously right-wing. There’s really not all that much to choose from in terms of its difference with the right wing of the Republican Party. And indeed many of their politico–the Republican Party’s politicos are acting for the Conservative Party here, and will more and more in the run-up to the election. So, yes, I think it would make a difference in all kinds of ways.

JAY: Dimitri, there were people in last Ontario election–and, in fact, I think Leo was one of them–who said if voting for the NDP might ensure a Conservative victory, he would vote Liberal. And I think there are a lot of people on the left who kind of broke with the NDP at that time, because, as Leo was saying, there wasn’t that much difference between NDP and Liberals, so better to make sure the Liberals win rather than the Conservatives.

In this coming federal election, what do you think of that? If you thought you were in a place where the voting for the NDP might split the vote and elect a Conservative, what would be yourtake on voting for the Liberals?

LASCARIS: Well, I have to respectfully part company with Leo on this. I don’t really see a substantive, important difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. I mean, you go down the list of major issues confronting the country today, and they seem to be in a remarkably similar place. For example, the development of the tar sands and the exploitation of the tar sands, they both support the continued exploitation and expansion of the tar sands, even though we’re confronted by an existential threat in the form of climate change. On policy towards terrorism, both the Liberals and the Conservatives support this bill that we’ve been discussing, Bill C-51. Both of them seem to be more or less onside with the question of whether Canada should be engaged militarily in Iraq and Syria. I really don’t see a significant divide in substance between the Liberals and the Conservatives. I certainly see a significant divide in terms of style and tone. But at the end of the day, that’s not going to address the various problems that the country confronts and that the larger global community confronts.

JAY: Well, I think the difference, Dimitri, is that the Liberals don’t believe in anything. They are pragmatic politicians. That’s all. The people who are running Canada now, or some of them, at least, and certainly our prime minister, is a right-wing ideolog, and I think that that’s a significant difference. But otherwise I think what Dimitri is saying is more or less correct. But I do think, in terms of taking the initiative, setting the agenda in this very right-wing way, the liberals would much rather see themselves compared with the American Democrats, certainly of the Hillary Clinton variety, than with the right wing of the Republican Party, and that’s why, just speaking of this in terms of their orientations is politicians. But I think Dimitri’s right on a lot of the substantial questions, especially to do with the economy.

JAY: Okay. Let’s let’s talk about the economy quickly before we wind up. The Canadian dollar’s down at about $0.79. The price of oil’s still–what is it? Somewhere going back and forth from around the $50 to $60, but people are even talking about it, the slight recovery of the price of oil may not last very long. We can go back down into the forties.

Dimitri, start us quickly. What is this going to mean for the Canadian economy, and what does it mean for the electoral politics?

LASCARIS: Well, a $0.79 [Canadian] dollar is going to favor those industries that are reliant upon exports. And obviously, I mean, I’m not saying anything that is particularly complicated. It’s going to particularly prejudice those industries. But the result, the reason why we have a $0.79 dollar, basically, is because the commodities boom has come to a crashing halt, and in particular the price of oil has plummeted. And you also have noises coming out of the Federal Reserve in the United States, that they’re going to bring and end to their extraordinarily relaxed monetary policy and raise interest rates, which is making the U.S. dollar more attractive. And you have quantitative easing going on in Europe on a massive scale. So all of these factors are combining to drive down the Canadian dollar. But really what’s hurting the economy right now particularly is the drop in the price of oil. At the current price of oil, the tar sands industry, frankly, cannot even begin to [crosstalk]

JAY: I guess my question is, when you look at places like Russia or Venezuela or Nigeria or Iran, now not nearly as diversified economy as Canada, so maybe that’s sort of the answer to my question, Leo. But how serious a threat is this to the Canadian economy if these low oil prices continue, low commodity prices continue?

PANITCH: Well, it’s a threat to Alberta, and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan–not that much lesser. And even the oil rigs are closing down in Alberta. It’s not just the tar Sands. So this is serious. There’s no question.

But Canada is not, as you said, merely a resource economy. And it’s true that the brokers who buy and sell Canadian dollars, the 28-year-old brokers who buy and sell Canadian dollars don’t know anything more than the Canadian dollars connected to oil. And that has–it’s seen as a resource currency.

In terms of its effect on the economy, having a low dollar is not a bad thing, for the reasons Dimitri said. And you’ve already seen here in Ontario–which is the industrial base of the country, the very largest province by far. You know, it’s a population and economy that ranks with Sweden, one needs to remember. And this has the effect–one of the effects–of bringing back some jobs to the auto industry, which is not insubstantial. That’s very important. So it will have an effect, certainly, on Western Canada, and that may be a good thing in terms of people actually, in that case, not voting for Harper. It may be helpful.

JAY: And, I guess, Dimitri, the point you’re making is it’s going to force a slowdown in tar sands.

LASCARIS: Certainly, and some major projects have already been abandoned. There’s been a tremendous effort in this country to expand the pipeline network, not only the Keystone XL, which has got a lot of attention, but also Energy East and pipelines to the West and to the North. And the economics of those pipelines are now being drawn into question. So this is going to have a very dramatic impact and is having a very dramatic impact on the tar sands industry.

But I think Leo’s quite correct: there are other industries that are going to benefit from this, and the net effect at the end of the day, it’s unclear what it’s going to be, but it certainly is not consistent with the geopolitical objectives of the Conservative government, which have entirely focused on the growth of the tar sands industry.

JAY: Right. Okay, gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

PANITCH: Glad to be here, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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