Some advice for the prime minister upon the creation of his new National Security Council

It's about time we caught up with our allies with this. Let's make sure we do it right.

This article by Vincent Rigby and Thomas Juneau was originally published in The Line

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a new cabinet on July 26, reassigning a whopping 23 ministers and giving political watchers across the country much to dissect. But the prime minister also made another change shortly after the shuffle that attracted far less attention, which related to government machinery. In a separate press release, the government hinted at upcoming changes to cabinet committees, including the creation of a “National Security Council, a new forum for Ministers to deliberate on and address issues of pressing concern to Canada’s domestic and international security.” While many Canadians might view this as nothing more than mundane governance housekeeping, it could prove over time to be more important than the shuffling of individual chess pieces around the cabinet table.  

For many who follow national security in Canada, this new council is a welcome announcement. Commentators have been arguing for some time that Canada desperately needed such a body. Over the last 18 months, the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) as well as the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) have been leading the charge. GSPIA and CIGI issued separate reports examining the state of national security in Canada and made several parallel recommendations, including the creation of a National Security Cabinet Committee. Other academics have made similar suggestions

They all view such a body as filling a major gap in Canada’s national security architecture. The prime minister and key ministers are often briefed on national security but in a siloed fashion, while the full cabinet is too unwieldy a body to deal with the arcane and complex details of such issues on a regular basis. Cabinet committees address domestic and international security, but they do not include the prime minister and deal with a wide range of other issues that too often divert their attention. The Incident Response Group (IRG) is purely reactive and only meets to discuss specific crises, often well after they have erupted. The IRG also has no strategic mandate and is often a vehicle for issuing self-congratulatory press releases, as much as anything else. 

Something more is needed in a world where the definition of national security has expanded exponentially in recent years. Canada faces a vast array of complicated and interconnected threats at home and overseas, whether in the form of hostile state actors such as China and Russia, non-state actors such as domestic extremists, or broader transnational trends such as climate change and pandemics. The botched government response to the Freedom Convoy and Chinese foreign interference has only driven home the point that such a body has been sorely missing. A dedicated committee bringing together key ministers is essential to focus the government’s attention on national security on a sustained basis. It will allow ministers to receive regular, collective intelligence briefings and discuss strategic and operational issues. Our Five Eyes partners have similar bodies: in the United States, it is a legislated National Security Council, while in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, it is a cabinet committee. Canada finally has an opportunity to catch up with its key allies. 

The government is therefore to be applauded for embarking on this initiative, however long in the making. But the announcement was as significant for what it did not say as for what it did. Who will make up the membership? What will it discuss? When will it meet? How will it be supported? Canada has established similar bodies in the past but they have been little more than shooting stars, disappearing in the night sky thanks to poorly managed agendas, ministers growing bored over time, or a combination of both. Some critics are already suggesting that this time will be no different. In their view, this is merely a cosmetic, “tick the box” exercise in response to the foreign interference controversy. Indeed, a case can be made that the current government’s record on national security, despite some initial successes such as Bill C-59, offers limited hope that this will be seen through.

This initiative cannot suffer the same fate as its predecessors. It is too important an opportunity to miss. With this in mind, we offer the following advice to the prime minister on how to proceed with the establishment of a National Security Council.

Above all, the new council must be chaired by the prime minister. National security is too complicated a symphony with far too many musicians playing different instruments not to have the conductor present. We have seen too many examples of poor coordination around national security recently. The prime minister needs to be in the room setting the agenda and leading the conversation on all threats to the country’s national security, whether based in Canada or internationally. Similar bodies among Five Eyes partners are chaired by heads of state or government. Core membership of a National Security Council should include the deputy prime minister, as well as the ministers of Finance, National Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development, International Trade, Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, Public Safety, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship and Justice. However, membership should be based on the principle of “variable geometry” — if, for example, a pandemic-related issue is on the agenda, the minister of Health should be invited. In addition, the council’s deliberations would be more productive if it also includes senior public service officials at the table, including the National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the prime minister and other key deputy ministers, heads of relevant agencies (notably CSIS, CSE, and the RCMP) and the Chief of the Defence Staff. 

Second, the council needs to meet regularly, perhaps every two weeks. Consistent meetings will allow the prime minister and ministers to build up their collective knowledge and expertise, stay abreast of issues, practise working as a team, set and maintain strategic direction, and identify potential crises before they arise. One of the fundamental flaws of the IRG is that it only meets when a crisis breaks out, so that ministers are playing catch up from the beginning and do not have the collective “muscle memory” to make quick decisions. To that end, ministers should also conduct regular table-top exercises as part of the council. 

While the council should deal with urgent issues (replacing the IRG; retaining it would be redundant and cumbersome), it needs to also focus on longer-term matters and strategic decision making. This has been sorely missing in Canada’s approach to national security in recent years. Over-the-horizon, “for information” briefings by officials will be important in building collective knowledge, but they should also inform decision making, whether in the short- or long-term. The prime minister has stated that the council will indeed be responsible for “setting strategic direction.” This is good news. A positive first step would be to craft a new national security strategy, the first in nearly 20 years. 

Next, the council’s work will need strong bureaucratic support as part of a “supply and demand” system that permits the right issues and information to come before members in a comprehensive and timely fashion. This will mean establishing a robust secretariat, presumably at the Privy Council Office (PCO) under the NSIA. The roles and responsibilities of that position should be reviewed to ensure it has the tools to support the new council and the various other NSIA functions at the analytical, operational and strategic level. Intelligence briefings should be at the core of the council's agenda, as these will be critical in informing decision-making. The council will provide the perfect venue to address the perennial challenges of coordination and distribution of intelligence, which the Freedom Convoy and foreign interference controversies exposed as serious weaknesses. 

This might be the right time to ask whether Canada needs a position similar to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, who could coordinate Canada’s intelligence community and fuse both domestic and international security intelligence for the council. The community does not currently have this capability. This position could be located within PCO but separate from the National Security and Intelligence Advisor, the latter of whom could then focus on policy and operations. At the very least, now is the time to seriously think through whether the current governance structure at the bureaucratic level is optimal. 

While the new council will be a cabinet committee, transparency should be a key component of its mandate. Canada has a deep tradition of sharing as little information as possible with the public on national security issues. To continue this trend with the work of this committee would be a missed opportunity to raise awareness among Canadians and improve the level of debate nationally. 

Finally, as the prime minister ponders the above issues, he should remember that he can draw lessons from well-established models among our Five Eyes partners, especially those in fellow parliamentary democracies. They have been in existence for some time and could offer valuable information on what does and does not work.

The establishment of a National Security Council will require patience and resolve. Building an effective new body — with a functional bureaucratic support structure — will take time. The temptation might be to throw it overboard at the slightest sign of trouble, but this would be a mistake; in the best of cases, it will be a process of trial and error. It will also not be a cure-all; Canada has much catching-up to do after decades of neglecting national security. But if managed properly, the council might be an important step in improving security culture and literacy in government. If that helps the government take a more sustained and serious interest in threats to our national interest, it can only be for the good. 

Vincent Rigby is a former National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister and a visiting professor at the Max Bell School of a Public Policy at McGill. Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

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