The defence of Canada starts in the red chamber

Great. Another appalling report on our national security, this one by a Senate committee. I've put it on top of last month's horrifying account from the auditor general. They should make a good pillow for MPs. Actually they should be keeping MPs awake. Chapter 3 of the auditor general's March 2004 report is laced with warnings about "deficiencies in the way intelligence is managed across the government ... gaps and inconsistencies in the watch lists used to screen visa applicants, refugee claimants and travellers ... There is no overall quality control in this vital function ...'' and "an alert to a potential threat was sent using the government's top-secret messaging system but was addressed incorrectly. After waiting a month for a response, the sending agency followed up and found that the message had not been received.'' When the auditor's office tried to figure out why CSIS and the Department of Immigration had such different terrorist watch lists, "Immigration's records were in such disarray that we were unable to complete a full reconciliation ...'' It's also classic that the government deactivates stolen passports but "the information system used on the primary inspection line cannot distinguish between active and deactivated passports.''

In short, when it comes to national security, our government isn't even misguided. It's just silly. After 9/11 an interdepartmental committee suggested the heads of various agencies meet to discuss it, and a four-page discussion paper was prepared, "the only government-wide post-mortem analysis conducted. The heads of the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Finance Canada were not present at the dinner meeting held to discuss the paper. No record of the discussion was kept and no follow-up or action plan resulted.'' But they did have dinner. They are good at that.

Hold on, some people may say. It's not about national security. Our government is silly, period. Keeping a $1-billion gun registry that can't register guns: How silly is that? At HRDC, another $1 billion goes whoosh and the minister doesn't resign. Absurd. In Adscam, $100 million went away and neither the former public works minister nor the public service admit to running the department. All true, but I still think being silly on national security is worse because if you get it wrong nothing else matters. Yet it didn't get their attention last fall when an independent report said our armed forces will essentially vanish within five years. If Osama bin Laden set Parliament on fire perhaps a message would be sent via the ultra-secure communications system to the wrong address and, a month later, someone would saunter down to see how the flames were doing.

Unfair? Well, how about this Senate report? Possibly you haven't read it. Possibly you have a job and a life. OK, then, has your MP read it? I may seem naive, but I thought we elected MPs to look out for this kind of thing. Much as I appreciate the auditor general trying to stop bad people from blowing us up, I thought an accountant's job was to make sure all the money was spent the way the budget said it should be. Which is a big enough job in our government to keep a lot of clever people busy full-time.

I also thought senators were supposed to be sleepy hacks. Instead, last week MPs snoozed while a $50-billion appropriation bill roared past them in half an hour. It didn't break the slumber of government MPs eager for more independence and influence. It didn't disturb the sleep of opposition members focused on prudent use of taxpayers' money. It took Senator Lowell Murray to stand up and say excuse me but isn't $50 billion a lot of money to pass in such a weird and casual way? And now the standing Senate committee on national security and defence has produced a lengthy report cataloguing how unready we are for emergencies and suggesting we should maybe do something before it's too late. Those wacky senators.

I suggest it's time to lift our gaze from the burning trees of policy and ask whether the whole forest of our democracy is on fire. Vital functions of our government are being performed by auxiliary parts of it because the main body, the House of Commons, is barely functioning. And we elect it. Which surely raises questions about us. Something has gone badly wrong with those who are meant to wield power in our democracy (MPs) and with those who have snuck off with much of it (judges). Only peripheral, essentially powerless figures like senators and the auditor general are still behaving responsibly.

My guess is that too many voters have lost interest in anything beyond voting themselves the contents of the public treasury. If you want to prove me wrong, you could start by going and waking up the MPs sleeping with their heads resting on these scary reports.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson