Thursday, 06 October 2016 19:19

Consulting Citizens on Anti-Terrorism Policy

Commentary by Phil Gurski  

Should governments seek public approval on counter terrorism policy?

By now, I am sure that you are aware of the fact that a referendum carried out by the Colombian government on a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas was narrowly defeated.  The difference between those in favour and those opposed was razor-thin, something like 50.2-49.8%  In other words, the vote could have gone either way.  My reading is that the low turnout was due in part due to bad weather and perhaps some complacency since everyone had predicted a comfortable margin of victory for the yes side (again showing that you can’t always rely on polls).

In a previous blog I argued in favour of a peace accord but also recognized that there were many valid reasons why some Colombians had a hard time accepting an agreement under which terrorists would walk away relatively scot-free after decades of human rights violations.  In the end, those opposed won the day, and while both the government and the rebels have said that they will honour an existing ceasefire, the lack of a way forward does not bode well as many want the conditions for amnesty toughened.

Fundamental question

But, I think there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked: should the government have gone with a referendum in the first place?  Should Colombians have had a say in the matter?  More broadly, should governments consult their electorates on counter-terrorism policy?

My late father-in-law once told me something very profound.  He had made the acquaintance of the Speaker of (Canadian) Parliament who was an MP from my father-in-law's home riding. The speaker and my father-in-law were once talking about how often governments should ask the opinion of voters on a variety of issues. 

My father-in-law replied, very wisely I thought, that governments do exactly that – every four years.  This consultation is called an election.  Parties put out their platforms and voters cast their ballots, in part, on whether they like what they hear.  We then trust, perhaps naively, in those politicians to do what they said they would. 

In other words, they don’t have to ask us for our views on every little matter.  My father-in-law believed it to be a huge waste of money for our officials to spend on asking us what we think: he felt that they were being paid to make decisions.  He may have been a foreman at Stelco (a steel company in Hamilton) but he had a lot of wisdom to impart.

Nothing gained

What does any of this have to do with terrorism? A lot, actually. Governments seem to think that they need to run counter-terrorism policies by their citizenry before implementing them. This may be admirable, but it is neither efficient nor helpful.  With all due respect to my fellow Canadians, they are not experts in terrorism, nor should they be.  After all, were the government to plan a new strategy to fight cancer, would it ask its citizens to comment on the technical merit of the science involved?

There are opportunities for input aside from elections every four years.  Experts can be brought in to voice their opinions and this is exactly what is done both in parliamentary or Senate hearings and within departments.  Canadians with something to say have ample time to do so.

The fact is that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are competent and know how to tackle the terrorism problem. They are constrained in what they do by both laws and policies and there are mechanisms (maybe there should be more parliamentary oversight) to register complaints.

I am not sure what is gained by seeking public approval for counter-terrorism strategy, a position adopted by the Trudeau government with its green paper on national security.  Nor am I certain why the Colombian government opted for a referendum on the peace process with the FARC.

I am not trying to be elitist.  It’s just that we elect governments to do a job and if we don’t like the job they do we kick the bums out of office.  That is how democracy works.  Perhaps, we should leave counter-terrorism strategies to the professionals: those who disagree with how it is being done can always try to sign up and effect change from within.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

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