Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has dispatched a former national police commissioner as the top representative of his country in Canada at a time when national security is top of mind for both countries’ governments.
Tony Negus, who started as Australia’s high commissioner on Feb. 2 replacing Louise Hand, told Embassy he thinks the Canadians are going in the right direction with C-51, the Harper government's new anti-terrorism bill being debated this week in a House of Commons committee.
“Nothing I’ve seen so far is inconsistent with what I think is required to deal with what is a very difficult and emerging threat," he said in a March 6 interview in the boardroom of his high commission.
He’s talked to Canadian officials informally about the much-talked-about bill, which expands government information sharing, creates a new offence for the promotion of terrorism, and proposes lowering the threshold to get a peace bond, restricting the freedom of people suspected of conspiring to commit terrorism. The bill also gives one of the government’s spy agencies, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, new potential powers to "disrupt" activities, including alleged terrorist schemes.
The government says the new legislation is needed to respond to security threats and keep Canadians safe, but critics say the proposed law could chill legitimate dissent, such as civil disobedience or any public demonstration deemed unlawful, and put more power into the hands of security officials without sufficient oversight. They also worry about the widespread sharing of citizens’ private information, already a sensitive issue after documents leaked by former United States National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed Canada is engaged in mass surveillance of telecommunications.
These arguments are familiar to Mr. Negus, who was the Australian Federal Police commissioner for a five-year term from 2009 until last fall. “Hopefully I can add some commentary to that, privately, to the government and to the RCMP, particularly, but to CSIS and others about my experience in this environment and how that actually works in practice,” he said.
While he served as the top cop, Australia’s conservative Liberal-National coalition government introduced tough anti-terrorism measures along the same lines as C-51. One known as the foreign fighters bill passed the Australian Senate in October including a new offence for advocating terrorism. It also included provisions effectively declaring no-go zones in overseas conflict areas.
“As the threat changes, the legislation has to change to be able to deal with that,” said Mr. Negus last week. Canada and Australia face similar problems with citizens going abroad to fight who can return battle-hardened, he said, which “poses an increasing risk to both our nations.”
Mr. Negus was appointed before the high-profile attacks that left three dead after a Sydney, Australia café hostage-taking in December and a soldier and reservist killed in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. and Ottawa respectively in October. With those attacks galvanizing the public in both countries, he said security is certainly a big part of his job here so far.
He’s met with Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson in addition to foreign heads of mission.
Mr. Negus considers Mr. Paulson a friend. He said he met him in Australia when Mr. Paulson was deputy commissioner. And while they overlapped as the top cops for their respective countries from 2011 to 2014, they have sat together on the same international boards and at senior-executive meetings.
Mr. Negus is a career police officer, having served the Australian Federal Police for 32 years. He worked his way up from riding motor bikes and directing traffic to serving as a detective for about 20 years and then in management.
As a top public official, he’s been through his share of crises and controversies. Toward the end of his policing days last July came “one of the most significant things I’ve ever been involved in:” the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in territory being fought over by Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.
His police force sent unarmed officers to Ukraine to help recover the bodies. Mr. Negus travelled with his prime minister to the Netherlands and the two spoke to reporters together in the wake of the crash. The experience meant he spent quite a bit of time with the prime minister and foreign minister.
Just before the downed plane, Australian news reports said he declined to serve another term as police commissioner. Mr. Negus said last week that he was headed for another job in the private sector.
“And when the prime minister found out that I had decided to complete my term and not seek another term, he and the foreign minister asked me if I might consider coming here and doing this, which was a very easy thing to say yes to.”
Canada, he considers, “is different enough to be interesting but familiar enough to be comfortable.”
Indeed, the two share a lot and are quite closely allied. They’re both former British colonies, with similar economic standing, rich in natural resources to trade to the world, and large landmasses heavily populated along small strips (along the coast in Australia, and, in Canada, straddling the border with the United States). Not only that, they’re both now run by conservative governments and prime ministers who are chummy with each other. And they share intelligence and immigration information through established anglosphere networks like the Five Eyes and Five Country Conference (alongside the US, Britain and New Zealand).
While Mr. Negus’s recent predecessors have all been career diplomats, he is seemingly an outsider—but not entirely. The Australian Federal Police has people in over 30 countries, and he spent a good deal of time negotiating international agreements, and working with other countries on cross-border issues like terrorism and cybercrime. The high commissioner, who speaks quickly and efficiently, has already hit the ground running. Just over a month into the job, he’s already hosted his country’s trade minister, visited Toronto twice and Vancouver. And days into the job, he was speaking before hundreds at his country’s national day celebration.
He may have to flex those communications skills while in Ottawa. Australia and Canada are among 12 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which is coming down to sticky issues, usually involving agriculture. Canada continues its supply-managed system for poultry and dairy, while Australia and New Zealand have scrapped theirs. There was talk that they weren’t keen on seeing Canada join the trade talks in 2012 because it’s still hanging on to the system.
Mr. Negus turned on the diplomatic language when asked about TPP, preferring not to comment on the ongoing negotiations (he’s not directly involved).
To Canada, he brings with him his wife Marina. His three grown children would visit occasionally, he said.
Lebanon’s ambassador leaves
Sami Haddad is back to being Lebanon’s chargé d’affaires after his country’s ambassador retired in February.
Micheline Abi-Samra headed for Lebanon on Feb. 7 after nearly two years as ambassador to Canada. After about 40 years in the foreign service, Ms. Abi-Samra reached the Middle Eastern country’s mandatory retirement age during her Canadian posting.
Before Canada, she had spent nine years as ambassador to Bulgaria.
Mr. Haddad is used to the top job, having served in that spot in 2012 and 2013 before Ms. Abi-Samra’s arrival. He’s had past postings in Germany and Qatar.
A big part of Mr. Haddad’s job in Canada is maintaining good relations and serving the Lebanese-Canadian community. The 2006 census pegged the community at 165,000, making it the largest ethnic Arab group in Canada, according to the Canadian government. Mr. Haddad says there are close to 300,000 Canadians of Lebanese descent.
He’s also keen to boost trade and investment ties with Canada. “The economic relations at the [current] time doesn’t reflect the big number of Lebanese living here and even the good relations in other aspects between the two countries,” he said in a March 6 interview in his office in the Glebe.
Besides trade and diaspora ties, the two countries are both engaged on the issue of Syrian refugees. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that Lebanon is hosting nearly 1.2 million displaced Syrians—in a country whose population is only around 4.5 million.
Mr. Haddad said another ambassador will come to Canada, but a date has not been determined.