Mr. Speaker, my friend did not know I was coming. I am sure he would have withheld those comments had he known.
I will be splitting my time with the member for Windsor West.
It is great to talk about Bill C-15 today. My colleagues and I support the bill at third reading.
Members may recall that I spoke in opposition to the bill at second reading. I applaud the great efforts of my colleagues on the defence committee, as have others in the House today, who put forward 22 amendments and five subamendments and made a great effort to change the bill. As has been pointed out today, none of this was successful, but the bill was amended at committee: the Conservatives saw fit to amend their own mistakes, which is always helpful.
That is not to say that we support this legislation wholeheartedly; it is somewhat reluctantly that we do so.
I want to comment on this issue for a moment, because it has been the subject of much debate.
It is a bit tricky, of course, to support a government bill at third reading. We heard the Minister of National Defence waxing philosophical earlier today about not letting perfection get in the way of progress; on the other hand, we heard the Liberal defence critic express his confusion and uncertainty about how and why the NDP could support this legislation. The challenge is more difficult than either of those extremes would suggest.
This is not so much a philosophical matter; it is really a very practical one. Justice systems, as informed as they are by theory and philosophy, have very real, profound and practical implications for those who are subjected to them, and this is obviously the case before us. For reasons that we all seem to agree with, this is about balancing the need for quick and expeditious military justice against the need to keep discipline in the forces, while yet providing fairness for forces members.
Today we are considering a unique military justice system and its need for discipline, but we also need to take into consideration the issue of time. That has to weigh heavily on our considerations about whether to support the bill or not.
For all the talk about their support for the military, the Liberals did nothing with their majority government to amend the act, in spite of having before them the report of a justice who made 88 recommendations. The Conservatives have been in government now for seven long years and have similarly opted to do nothing up to this point.
It is because this legislation has such a long history that we need to consider what we can agree to and what we must agree to in order to make progress and move this legislation forward.
I will not recite the full history. I have no time for that today, but I will give a short summary to illustrate the point.
The bill had its genesis in a 2003 report on the Canadian military justice system by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Right Hon. Antonio Lamer. That report contained 88 recommendations for change and was suggestive of some significant deficiencies in Canada's military justice system.
The bill is also a legislative response to a 2009 report by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs dealing with these very same matters.
In December 2011 yet another military justice report was presented to the government, this time by a former chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court, the Hon. Patrick LeSage. I would note that the Conservative government sat on that report for a year or so before finally tabling it in June 2012.
To date, only 28 of the recommendations from that original Lamer report of 2003 have actually been implemented, some in the form of legislation, some as regulations, and some as changes in practice.
We have even lost some ground, it needs to be noted. In the previous Parliament, Bill C-41 died on the order paper. That bill included important updates to the National Defence Act that are interestingly absent from the bill we are considering today. The change got moved back upfield, and that is disappointing.
However, I think the length of time that the current government and the previous Liberal government have taken to bring some sense of fairness to the members of our armed forces with respect to the justice system means that we need to consider very seriously what we need to do now, because we do not know when we will get our next opportunity to make change. It is important that we make tangible change to this system so that it is a military justice system worthy of this country and worthy of the commitment that members of the Canadian Armed Forces make to this country.
As frustrating as all of that is, we focus on the progress that is being made. We see some progress, although I would shy away from calling it significant. It comes in the form of greater flexibility, for example, for the sentencing process to more closely parallel the civil criminal justice system. It would provide for additional sentencing options, including absolute discharges, et cetera; it would modify the composition of a court martial panel; it would modify the limitation period applicable to summary trials and would allow an accused person to waive limitation periods; and it would clarify the responsibilities of the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal.
It would also make amendments to the delegation of the powers of the Chief of the Defence Staff as the final authority in the grievance process.
Above all, as tangible as these changes are, one stands out as critically important and most certainly worthy of support. It is an issue that we in the NDP have pushed for many years, including in the previous Parliament, and we actually had made some progress with it in Bill C-41. It is this issue more than any other that tips the balance in favour of supporting this bill, and it has to do with the number of offences that could result in a criminal record.
The NDP, through the long history of the bill, has consistently pushed for a reduction in the number of these offences. With this amendment from Bill C-15 emerging out of committee, it would be the case that about 95% of cases would not attract a criminal record. In addition, those who have been previously convicted of these offences would have their records expunged.
This is an important issue because many of the offences that we have been focusing on do not generally have a civilian equivalent. They are, for example, offences described in section 85 of the act that involve threatening or insulting language or contemptuous behaviour toward a superior officer. Section 86 involves failing to stop someone from deserting, and section 97 deals with drunkenness.
We have long considered it unjust, as have many other experts who have weighed in on this matter, that convictions for those kinds of offences through this kind of summary trial process could result in criminal records that could follow members of the Canadian Armed Forces into their civilian lives.
It is important to note that the summary trial is used to try about 95% of disciplinary cases in the forces. It is this process that is used to effect a balance between the competing interests of discipline and returning a soldier to service. As such, fairness and justice are compromised.
For example, a commanding officer or a designated superior officer could act as the judge, and there would be no legal counsel, no appeal, not even a transcript of the file. We consider it unfair for criminal records to flow from that and follow a soldier into civilian life, so we are pleased to see that amendment and we will be supporting the bill.