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May 7, 2013

Arrests help sell anti-terror bill

The Conservatives were always going to easily pass their anti-terrorism bill.

They have a majority and the only question was when, not if.

This week, the “when” became vitally important.

After the arrest of two men in connection with a plot to attack a VIA Rail train, the Conservatives had the blunt weapon they needed to batter any inconvenient arguments that this bill is infringing on personal liberties and the civil rights of Canadians. Coincidence or not, fear intervened as parliamentarians debated an important bill and raw emotions reduced civil liberties arguments to Commons white noise in a debate with a preordained outcome.

Opposition New Democrats argued all day Tuesday that the arrest of the two men, Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, proved that police have the existing tools to keep Canadians safe without returning to pre-emptive detentions and jailing of those who refuse to testify.

They invoked the name of Maher Arar. They accused the government of limiting civil rights while cutting funding for our spy agency, hacking away at the Canadian Border Security Agency, lopping $195.2 million over three years from the RCMP.

“This is an attack on our fundamental rights in Canada. What free and democratic society can tolerate such a reduction of rights?” asked New Democrat MP Philip Toone.

But when it came time to question Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during a time when Canadians might be watching — and in the clip that would likely make newscasts — NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pulled back, offering only congratulations to the police and the “brave” Toronto imam who tipped police.

A party that has visions of forming a government, can’t be seen to be soft on terrorism.

Mulcair merely gave Harper the opportunity to rise in the Commons and tell Canadians: “Our government is committed to working ... with our police and security agencies to ensure we do everything we can to keep Canada safe.”

We had been told that al-Qaida had come to Markham after all, and in the face of fear, concerns over civil rights are usually trampled.

We have seen it time and again south of the border, when terrorist attacks or terrorist threats leave the civil libertarians wandering in the woods, their voices smacked down by the more muscular calls for law and order and tough justice.

Governments have long used fear to their advantage.

The former George W. Bush government in the U.S. used to change the colour of its “terror threat” if it was marching into headwinds on other matters.

In this case, by abruptly changing gears last Friday and deciding to move on its long-neglected anti-terrorist legislation, Conservatives immediately faced charges of using the Boston Marathon bombings for political expediency.

Then Tuesday, it used the RCMP arrests as a fundraising tool, asking for a minimum $5 donation “so we can keep the pressure on Justin Trudeau.”

That appeal came because of an ill-advised tweet from an aide to Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette who equated Harper’s anti-terrorism policies with U.S. Republican policies that would only mean more terrorists in this country.

“Trudeau’s Liberals think Conservative policies are the real ‘root cause’ of terrorism,” wrote Jenni Byrne, the 2011 Conservative campaign manager.

The media, she charged, ignored the Liberal story and was more interested in writing about Earth Day.

The high-profile terror arrests play to the Conservatives’ strength, allowing them to preach their tough law-and-order agenda and their no-mercy-for-terrorists talking points. And maybe add a few bucks to their coffers.

Security expert Wesley Wark believes there was a degree of opportunism in the Conservative move to bring the anti-terror debate to the Commons Monday, “but not a desperate opportunism; they added a degree of triumph to a victory already at hand.”

But no one Tuesday wanted to try to connect the other dots. It had become too perilous with two terror suspects in custody.

The government has denied its Friday about turn on the anti-terror legislation had anything to do with imminent terror suspects Monday.

The strange timing of announcing the move of the CSIS chief, Richard Fadden, to defence and the appointment of former Reform MP Deborah Grey to the security intelligence review committee in the midst of the debate and the terror arrests? Just coincidence, we are told.

This is not a government that needed a gift of perfect timing. But since it got it, it was going to make sure it used it to its advantage.

Tim Harper is a news services columnist who writes on national affairs.

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