Mr. Speaker, I am a little disappointed to be rising in the House today. I would have been much happier rising if this were Bill C-41, from the last Parliament, and to be speaking to and supporting that very important piece of legislation. However, what the government has done with Bill C-15 is turn it into what I would have to call a prequel, which is what is there before one gets to a final bill. This should be what we had before we got to something like Bill C-41, in the last Parliament, when all of the parties participated, had a debate, and agreed to bring the bill forward in a way the parties would all have been able to support. However, that is really not what the government is interested in.
There are many important reforms in the bill, and the NDP supports the long overdue update of the military justice system.
Members of the Canadian Forces are held to an extremely high standard of discipline. They, in turn, deserve a judicial system that is held to a comparable standard. While this is not an issue at the forefront of most people's minds, a lot of Canadians would be shocked to learn that the people who bravely serve our country can get a criminal record from a system that lacks the due process usually required in civilian criminal courts. The way the system of justice in the military is set up right now, a soldier can receive a criminal record for very minor offences, such as insubordination, quarrels, disturbances, absence without leave and even drunkenness. These matters could be extremely important to military discipline, and we would probably all agree on that, but they are not worthy of a criminal record.
A criminal record can make life after the military very difficult. Getting a job, renting an apartment and travelling abroad are all made far more difficult when someone has a criminal record. Our brave men and women have enough challenges re-entering civil society without a criminal record on their backs.
The NDP will fight to bring more fairness to the Canadian military justice system for the men and women in uniform who have put their lives on the line in the service of Canada.
The issues addressed in the bill are not new and date back, as we have heard many times today, at least to the independent review of the National Defence Act, released in 2003, by the Rt. Hon. Antonio Lamer, former chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The issues contained in Bill C-15 have indeed appeared in earlier forms. There was Bill C-7, which died on the order paper due to prorogation in 2007. We all remember that wonderful time. Then there was Bill C-45, which died on the order paper after the current government was found in contempt of Parliament.
In July 2008, Bill C-60 came into force, simplifying the structure of the courts marshal and establishing a method for choosing a type of court marshal more closely aligned with the civilian system.
In 2009, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs considered Bill C-60 and provided nine recommendations for amendments to the National Defence Act.
In 2010, Bill C-41 was introduced to respond to the 2003 report and to the Senate committee's report. It outlined provisions related to military justice, such as sentencing reform, military judges in committees, summary trials, court marshal panels, the provost marshal and limited provisions related to the grievance and military police complaints process. In essence, Bill C-15 is similar to the version of Bill C-41 that came out of committee in the previous Parliament, minus all of those amendments.
The amendments carried over include courts marshal composition and military judges' security of tenure. However, other important amendments passed at committee stage at the end of the last parliamentary session were not included in Bill C-15. These include the following NDP amendments: the authority of the Chief of the Defence Staff in the grievance process, responding directly to Justice Lamer's recommendation; changes to the composition of the grievance committee to include 60% civilian membership; and a provision ensuring that a person convicted of an offence during summary trial is not unfairly subjected to a criminal record.
If one member of the government would get up at this point, I would ask what in those amendments was so scary and offensive that the government would pull them out of the bill before reintroducing it. However, I doubt that I will have that chance.
I am opposing Bill C-15, as it contains shortcomings that need to be re-addressed because the amendments I mentioned were pulled from the previous version of the bill. Far too often the government takes bills that were fixed and then breaks them again before bringing them to Parliament. It is a trend that we are seeing again and again. In the next two and a half years before the next election, I wonder how many other things Conservatives are going to break anew before bringing them before Parliament.
The amendments in Bill C-15 do not adequately the unfairness of summary trials and the conviction of service offences from those trials in the Canadian Forces, which result in a criminal record. Summary trials are held without the accused being able to consult counsel; there are no appeals or transcripts of the trial; and the judge is the accused person's commanding officer. I wonder how many of us in civilian life would ever want to be tried by our boss.
These trials are unduly harsh for certain members of the Canadian Forces who are convicted of very minor service offences. Bill C-15 does make an exception for a select number of offences if they carry a minor punishment defined in the act, or a fine of less than $500, so they will no longer result in a criminal record. This is one of the positive aspects of the bill, but it does not go far enough.
At committee during the last Parliament, NDP amendments to Bill C-41 were carried to expand the list of offences that could be considered minor and not worthy of a criminal record from 5 such offences to 27. If the offences in question received a minor punishment, one the NDP amendments also extended the list of punishments that might be imposed by a tribunal without an offender incurring a criminal record, such as a severe reprimand, a reprimand or a fine equal to one month's basic pay, or another minor punishment. This was a major step for summary trials. However, this amendment was not retained in Bill C-15. We want to see it included.
Another matter that needs to be amended relates to the external military grievances review committee. At present the grievance committee does not provide a means for external review. Currently it is staffed entirely by retired Canadian Forces officers, some only recently retired. If the Canadian Forces grievance board is to be perceived as an external and independent oversight civilian body, as it is designed to be, then the appointments process needs to be amended to reflect that reality. Thus, some members of the board should be drawn from civil society.
The NDP would like to see a provision that at least 60% of the grievance committee members never have been officers or non-commissioned members of the Canadian Forces. This amendment to Bill C-41 was passed in March 2011, but again it was not retained in Bill C-15. There seems to be no good amendment that the Conservatives do not want to see gone. It is important that this amendment also be put back in the bill.
Another major flaw in the military grievance system is that the Chief of the Defence Staff presently lacks the authority to resolve any and all financial aspects arising from a grievance, contrary to a recommendation in the Lamer report. Despite the fact that the Minister of National Defence at the time agreed to this recommendation, there have been no concrete steps taken over the past eight years to implement this recommendation. The NDP proposed an amendment to this effect to Bill C-41 at committee. Although the amendment passed in March 2011, once again this amendment is nowhere to be found in Bill C-15. It should be included.
Another aspect of the bill that needs to be addressed is the need to strengthen the Military Police Complaints Commission. Bill C-15 amends it to establish a timeline in which the Canadian Forces provost marshal will be required to resolve and conduct complaints as well as protect complainants from being penalized for submitting a complaint in good faith. Although a step forward, the NDP believes that more needs to be done to empower the commission. Care has not been taken to provide the Military Police Complaints Commission with the required legislative provisions that would empower it to act as an oversight body.
I will be happy to answer some questions. I hear disappointment from the other side of the room, but I will be more than happy to include you in the conversation.