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November 1, 2001

McLellan is listening. Really, she is

Don Martin
Calgary Herald
National Post

OTTAWA - Futility is written all over the face of Opposition critics these days when they rise to target the Justice Minister's anti-terrorism legislation in the House of Commons. They know the record of Alberta's Anne McLellan -- and it's about to start skipping.

To questions about the 170-page bill that will undoubtedly become her judicial legacy, Ms. McLellan has a response ritual.

After taking a quick glance at her briefing binder, the Edmonton MP stands, links her hands together and sweeps the Opposition bench with a nose-wrinkled wince analogous to the look a pet owner would give their skunk-sprayed pooch when it walks into the living room.

Having been criticized for coming across as condescending toward the lower political life forms across the centre aisle, Ms. McLellan is trying her best to appear helpful and interested in what her opponents have to say, with limited success.

Sometimes she actually thanks the member for his or her question ... and then puts the record on skip. "Let me clarify ... as I have said before and I will say again very clearly ... if, in fact, it is possible to improve this legislation ... we on this side of the House are more than willing to engage in that discussion." And the most common refrain of all, repeated up to six times per 45-minute question period, "I very much look forward to the advice and the recommendations provided by the committees on this very important matter."

While she has not always liked what she's heard, Ms. McLellan has been utterly faithful to the notion that she'll take the feedback seriously from committees putting her terrorist-fighting legislation under a clause-by-clause microscope.

MPs of all parties, senators, media and even Cabinet colleagues have been given, in a McLellan vocal pitch some equate to the sound of blackboards being scratched with metal scissors, unwavering assurances this is more than Liberal majority rule being imposed on the hapless minority parties.

So insistent and so consistent has her message been, it's starting to sound believable -- and I hope there's nothing in the Ottawa water to induce thinking along those strange lines.

Next Friday, Ms. McLellan is expected to appear before the Liberal-controlled justice committee and reveal changes to her bill. And in those changes will lie the proof of her sincerity and credibility.

Early praise for her legislation is attracting some sticky caveats she must seek to remove. The trickiest challenge is to deal with widespread demands for a sunset clause or some alternate way of limiting the lifespan for the most controversial and invasive measures, specifically preventive arrest and investigative hearings.

Ms. McLellan's been a moving target on this front, "musing" on its merits one day, retreating the next and now appearing lukewarm to partial sunsets on some aspects of the bill, subject to the fluctuating views of her boss, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

While she clearly prefers keeping it as written now -- a parliamentary review in three years -- some concession to the concern is clearly required. A simple review in such a lopsided Parliament would not qualify as a serious reconsideration.

Three years from now, the government will have three arguments to keep the bill alive and intact. If no terrorist acts have been committed, it will credit the bill as a legislative vaccine. If terrorism has hit Canadian soil, the bill will be reviewed as a vital weapon to continue the fight. If all else fails, the Prime Minister will insist there's a continuing clear and present danger, conveniently placing the evidence under "national security" secrecy. Placing the burden of justifiable proof for the law to be redrafted and passed again by Parliament in what will likely be an election year will make the rubber stamp more difficult to apply. So Ms. McLellan must deal with the sunset problem in a substantial way or find a long shadow cast on her credibility.

The second provision attracting much fretting is the need for an independent review of suppressed information to ensure it's off-limits for national security reasons, not political expediency. Ms. McLellan has hinted she's open to the idea, which appears to signal repairs are coming in the amendments.

But the worst thing Anne McLellan can do is declare her bill flawless or in need of only cosmetic tinkering. That would point to the bill's future review as a phony parliamentary consultation and prove her pledge to listen was all talk.

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