Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today to speak to Bill C-37, as amended by the Senate.
It is often said that what is clearly understood can be clearly expressed. With this in mind, let me outline the Bloc Quebecois' position. We oppose Bill C-37. However, while the amendments put forward by our brave colleagues in the Senate are a step in the right direction, we think many more amendments would be required and much more work would have to be done on this bill before the Bloc Quebecois could consider supporting it.
On October 22, the Senate made eight amendments to the bill. We are opposed to the principle of raising federal judges' salaries by approximately 13%, which is unacceptable to us in the Bloc Quebecois, and that is why we oppose the bill.
On the other hand, we are in favour of establishing the Judicial Benefits and Compensation Commission. We are also in favour of the Senate amendments for the following reasons: a number of these amendments would bring the French and English versions of the bill more in line with one another, while one other amendment clarifies the mandate of the commission being established by the federal government.
This amendment explicitly sets out what we believe was the implicit mandate of the Judicial Benefits and Compensation Commission. In our view, these explicit criteria are positive and fair.
For the Bloc Quebecois, the most crucial of these amendments is the one deleting clause 1 of Bill C-37. Clause 1 defines the term “surviving spouse” and, for constitutional reasons, we are opposed to the inclusion of surviving spouses in Bill C-37.
In this respect, we support the explanation given to the committee by Professor Jamie Cameron of Osgoode Hall. According to Professor Cameron, while it is the responsibility of the federal government to set benefits for federally appointed judges, the provinces have a similar responsibility with respect to matrimonial property and the division of assets in an estate.
Pensions are included in matrimonial property under family and estate distribution law. This raises the question of whether the federal government has jurisdiction to legislate the division of estate assets by defining the expression “surviving spouse” and with all the rights accorded subsequently in the bill according to the definition of “surviving spouse”.
According to Ms. Cameron, and the Bloc Quebecois completely supports this position, the federal government is encroaching on provincial jurisdiction over matrimonial and estate property.
Accordingly, we support the amendments eliminating clause 1, which defines “surviving spouse” and the clauses pertaining to the rights of surviving spouses.
The purpose of the bill is to amend the Judges Act in order to increase judges' salaries and to change the criteria governing pension plan eligibility. The bill also establishes the Judicial Benefits and Compensation Commission.
Finally, the bill provides for more judges in appeal and unified family courts. The bill is the Liberal government's response to the 1995 triennial commission on judges' salaries and benefits, also known as the Scott commission.
In 1981, Parliament provided for the creation of independent commissions with a mandate to confirm that the pay and benefits of judges were sufficient in view of the importance of judicial independence and the unique role given judges by the Canadian Constitution.
On September 18, 1997, in a reference regarding the remuneration of provincial court justices in Prince Edward Island, which pertained to the independence and impartiality of these justices, the Supreme Court stressed the importance of these independent commissions, which establish a vital link between two government powers: the executive and the judicial. The court also pointed out the constitutional obligation to set magistrates' salaries.
The commission's recommendations are not binding on the government, but the court judgment requires a reasonable and public justification to be provided if the recommendations are rejected, before a court of law if necessary.
The 1995 Scott Commission I have already referred to recommended a progressive 8.3% increase, and the Liberal government accepted that recommendation in its bill by proposing 4.1% yearly for two years.
Moreover, in determining what was reasonable, the Scott Commission acknowledged that a complex and broad range of factors needed to be taken into consideration in determining the appropriate pay level, including the need of pay levels capable of attracting and retaining the most qualified candidates for the office of judge.
The report is based on the relationship between judges' salaries and those of lawyers in private practice, since this is the source of most candidates for the office of judge.
Section 25 of the Judges Act calls for annual adjustments to judges' salaries based on the increase in the industrial aggregate, up to a maximum of seven per cent.
Judges' salaries were frozen between December 1992 and March 31, 1997, under the Public Service Compensation Restraint Act.
Our objection to the Scott report is that it is based solely on federal economic activity indicators, and not on the economic sectors most heavily affected since the 1993 cuts. In our opinion, the most fundamental question is whether we should be putting books back into the schools and beds back into the hospitals, or raising the salaries of high court judges already earning $155,800. These are hardly starvation wages, after all.
To sum up the Bloc Quebecois' position on Bill C-37, we think that the Liberal government has already achieved its zero deficit, but we all know it did so on the backs of the provinces, unemployed workers and the most disadvantaged members of our society.
The Minister of Justice may well want to reward judges by increasing their salaries, but she would do better to persuade her colleague, the Minister of Finance, to compensate the provinces for the cuts to health, welfare and post-secondary education transfer payments.
The Bloc Quebecois puts other priorities ahead of raising judges' salaries. None of us is in any doubt that judges work hard, but they are far from the only ones doing so.
It is for these reasons that the Bloc Quebecois is opposed to the principle of increasing judges' salaries. We are in favour of creating an independent commission, but we cannot go along with this lapse in solidarity and vision in an economic context where the provinces have borne the brunt of the federal government's fight to eliminate the deficit.
Naturally, we have heard the government's arguments that the most competent lawyers must be attracted to the bench, and we fully agree. But judges too are members of society, and as such must take part in the collective effort. Even though the federal deficit has been eliminated, the $500 billion debt is still hanging over our heads.
Instead of increasing judges' salaries, the government could have given the money to the provinces to buy hospital beds and to help the most disadvantaged members of our society.
The supplementary estimates tabled last Wednesday also indicate that the Canadian unity group at Justice, one of whose responsibilities is the reference to the Supreme Court, is costing Canadian and Quebec taxpayers $700,000. Again, this money could have paid for many hospital beds and many meals on the tables of the most disadvantaged members of our society.
Today, therefore, I am calling on the Minister of Justice to withdraw her bill and to use the money instead to compensate the provinces for the unjust cuts they have suffered since this Liberal government took office.