Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to rise and speak to Bill C-93 and also to share my time with our excellent shadow minister for health, the member for Sarnia—Lambton, who I know has done a lot of work on issues related to marijuana and will have thoughtful comments on them, I am sure. My comments will, hopefully, be somewhat thoughtful as well.
I would like to talk about some of the questions we have with respect to this bill. As I mentioned during my previous question, Conservatives will support this bill to go to committee, and we will see what direction the committee study and amendments go, and what kind of clarifications are offered by the government in the context of that discussion.
I will just note at the outset that the content of this bill is to make some changes with respect to the pardon process to facilitate the expedited application for pardons for those who have a conviction for simple possession of marijuana. The changes would involve the expedited opportunity to apply, as well as the waiving of the pardon fee.
Some of the context for this discussion, as well, is that we had a bill proposed by the member for Victoria, a member of the NDP, that proposes expungement of these offences. Expungement would be to automatically and immediately remove the conviction, effectively to say that it did not happen, whereas the government process would be more complex and more arduous and would require the adjudication of individual applications for pardon. It would not eliminate the cost of the pardon process; it would simply move the cost from the individual who is receiving the pardon, to the taxpayer.
Although I have some concerns about the direction of expungement as well, it is interesting that the government has chosen this process. If one believes in the process, the best that could be said about it is that it gets to the same place that the expungement process does, but the expungement process does not involve the significant cost to the taxpayer.
In the process of waiving the fee for the pardon, the $631 fee, the government has considered its costs for this. Internal cost figures suggest that the bill would run at $315 million. People on the government side have tried to argue that the figure is lower, because they anticipate that only 10,000 people will make applications. As I noted earlier, 250,000 Canadians are eligible to apply under the system, having a simple possession offence, and yet the government believes only 10,000 would apply.
It is hard for me to understand why the government has such low estimates for Canadians who would take advantage of an opportunity to get a free expedited pardon and all the benefits that are associated with getting that pardon. It makes me wonder, almost, if the government's plan is to advertise this bill as a great legislative act but then try to keep it as quiet as possible that this opportunity is available.
To the extent that people might not make application, it might only be because they do not have the information or because they struggle to access the process, perhaps as a result of being disadvantaged in some way.
I would observe that it is passing strange that the government trumpets this as a solution for potentially marginalized people who are held back as the result of a past criminal conviction, and yet tells us it is only going to be a very small percentage of the overall total that it will see as making this application.
One might also consider the appropriateness in general of offering a free pardon process. The reason people need to access the pardon system is that they broke the law. The fact that it is not against the law to smoke marijuana or to possess marijuana today does not change the fact that if somebody carries a criminal conviction, it is because they broke something that was, at the time, the law.
Regardless of one's views on whether marijuana should be legalized, I think we should, in general, seek to encourage compliance with the law. People who faced a marijuana conviction were not the victim of some great injustice. They did choose to break the law. Again, the fact that this Parliament has chosen to legalize marijuana does not change the fact that the law was broken.
The counter-argument might be to point out that the pardon fee, although in some sense just and fair to those who have broken the law, does present a particular barrier to people who are struggling financially. We would want to encourage a situation in which people who maybe have committed criminal behaviour in the past but want to turn their life around, who want to be able to access legal employment, have the ability to access pardons and are not held back because of their situation, are not held back from moving forward in a way that is legal and desirable for them and for society.
We recognize the need to help people who are struggling financially and also the inherent justice of people paying for their pardons in most cases. One could say it is possible to have one's cake and eat it too, by having a pardon system that gives allowances for people who are not able to afford that.
I personally think it is reasonable for people who have the resources and are able to pay the pardon fee to be asked to do so. It is quite possible and reasonable to say that those who can afford to pay for a pardon, and it is a response to a criminal behaviour that they did, should have to pay for that pardon. Then those who are not able to pay should be given those allowances.
It is reasonable for the government to consider that and to study the impacts of that, to explore that across the board, because it is not just a question of those who have cannabis-related convictions. It is also about anybody who has a criminal offence hanging over their head and is seeking a pardon and has turned their life around but cannot complete that process because they are struggling financially. Regardless of their past conviction, we would want to ensure that they have the opportunity to do that. In other words, this issue of whether people are able to access the pardon system if they struggle financially is not just an issue uniquely related to the particulars around cannabis. It is a discussion that we can be having across the board.
This bill, in offering free pardons for one category of offence—not means tested—without considering the broader issues around pardons and their impact on low-income people and how those impacts are different from those on other people, in that respect, does slice the pie in the wrong direction.
Let us try to support those who say, reasonably, that they want to find regular employment, they have turned their life around and they are ready to go through the pardon process but cannot afford the pardon fee. Let us help those people while recognizing that there are plenty of people who have past cannabis-related convictions who are of reasonable means and for whom the cost of $631, though not nothing, is quite reasonable. Hypothetically, if there were a prime minister who had a family fortune and happened to be convicted of marijuana possession, it would be reasonable for that person to pay for a pardon. That speaks to the fairness issues and the broader discussions around the pardon system.
I would welcome a debate here about broader questions around reforming how we approach pardons, but that is not what we have in Bill C-93.
I spoke earlier about the costs. In general, we are concerned about the costs that the government's agenda is imposing. The government seems to really be off so often when it estimates what the costs of things are going to be. The Liberals said we would have a balanced budget by this year, and yet we are still running very large deficits. Any time we see more spending bills with estimates that seem very suspicious, it raises some further questions for us from the perspective of our obligations to taxpayers.
The parliamentary secretary made a strange comment. He said that, under an expungement regime, it would be harder for people to access the United States than under a pardon regime. I do not at all follow the logic of his arguments, because if the Americans have a record, it is up to them what kind of questions they want to ask and what kind of documents they want to seek at the border. It would be perfectly possible to provide people who have received expungement with documents supporting the fact that they have had expungement of their convictions.
On that basis, we support the bill going to committee but we have many continuing questions.