Liberal MP Rob Oliphant held a press conference this morning to announce the tabling of his private member’s bill, Bill C-607, which would reshape the current veterans ombudsman’s job into being a more independent and effective watchdog. Up until this fall, Oliphant was the critic for veterans' affairs, and he has been working on this bill for a number of months.
“A number of concerns came to me when I was veterans' critic for the official Opposition,” Oliphant says. “Since that time, I’ve been replaced by the very able Kirsty Duncan, but she graciously allowed me to tie up the loose ends on this bill to make sure that we could take a piece of legislation – a serious piece of legislation for a serious problem.”
Oliphant says that retired colonel Pat Stogran “showed that the veterans' ombudsman could be an effective voice for veterans, but that we needed a legislative framework to give his office the authority, the independence and the ability to carry out the work they want to do. If passed, this bill would give the veterans' ombudsman independence from departmental and ministerial control, and would shift the reporting requirements from the minister to Parliament itself.”
Thanking veterans and Stogran for their suggestions, the bill changes the scope of the ombudsman’s ability to investigate problems, offer mediation and to comment on systemic issues. Because it proposes to use the same resources as the existing office, it is unlikely to require a royal recommendation, which would otherwise kill the bill.
“The government has made it a habit to silence its critics,” Oliphant says. “By removing control over the office of the ombudsman from the minister of veterans' affairs, I hope to give the ombudsman the freedom to do the job that veterans expect without any fear of reprisal. At the same time, the strengthened investigative powers and the ability to bring the officials from Veterans Affairs with the veteran who is attempting to find a solution to his or her problem will ensure fairness and justice for veterans.”
Oliphant hopes the government will welcome the bill, saying he’s done their work for them in this bill. “I’m a strong believer that good government never needs to be afraid of an effective and independent critic or ombudsman. In fact, they should welcome an ombudsman in the spirit of constructive criticism to help them do their job better.”
Stogran was also at the press conference. “This legislation does reflect the lessons learned by the Office of the Veterans' Ombudsman in the last three years,” Stogran says. “I also like to think about the soldiers and service personnel in Afghanistan that might be watching this. This is the kind of bill that elected officials shouldn’t feel challenged by. If anything, it will give them what they asked for when they set up the office with the Order in Council.”
The bill would ensure the ombudsman would be an Order in Council appointment for a five-year term, with the option for three-year renewal. It also gives the office the investigative powers to cut through the bureaucratic hurdles that Stogran encountered in his job.
Oliphant is in the process of consulting with Opposition critics before bringing it to the government, and it will be in the next group of 30 pieces of private member’s business. “I have other bills, however this one will take precedence for me among the bills that I’ve presented, because I think this is the most urgent of all my bills,” Oliphant says.
And what of the recent phenomenon of the government using the Senate to kill private member's bills that have passed the Commons?
“That’ll be an interesting challenge,” Oliphant says. “At some point, Canadians will rise up to say that an unelected Senate cannot be used to thwart the will of an elected parliament. It just cannot continue, but I will be assuming the worst when that comes, and I will start working with senators as soon as I’m able. I think the senators will get it. Senator Percy Downe has been an advocate for veterans, and was great assistance for me, and I’m sure he is for Kirsty as well in our role as veterans' critic, and he is able to raise issues regularly. And I think senators, regardless of parties, take a step back from a historical perspective and understand the importance of Canadian Forces and treating veterans with the respect they deserve when they’re home.”